This essay, on the debate over undocumented Channel migrants , was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Kamala Harris, birtherism and identity.) It was published on 16 August 2020, under the headline ‘Inventing a “migrant invasion” is part of a toxic rhetorical ploy’.
It’s a title of which Captain Mainwaring would have been proud: ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander‘. The man responsible for saving Britain from the threat of a migrant invasion. If you invent an invasion, you clearly need also to invent a fantasy job title to repel it.
There is nothing new in undocumented migrants crossing the Channel. Last year, about 2,000 people did so, without it causing national panic. This year, the figures have jumped to about 4,000 so far, in large part because the pandemic has meant fewer lorries travelling to and from France.
Many claim that their objection is not to the migrants themselves but to the ‘unfairness’ of their ‘queue-jumping’. There is, though, barely a queue to jump. As Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister and author of Welcome to Britain: Fixing Our Broken Immigration System, put it: ‘There is currently no lawful way to reach the UK on refugee or humanitarian grounds.’ It is, he suggested, ‘logical to argue “no to refugee!” but not “join the queue, refugees!”’.
Others argue that undocumented migrants are a challenge to British sovereignty. If a few thousand people without proper papers pose an unbearable assault on national sovereignty, it suggests that the problem lies in our understanding of sovereignty, not with the migrants. In any case, even with this year’s rise, the numbers crossing the Channel are tiny compared with the total number of undocumented migrants in Britain, which is probably between 600,000 and 1.2 million. Few have smuggled themselves in, but the status of many has changed thanks to the byzantine character of British immigration law.
A recent National Audit Office report observed that the Home Office has no idea what the real figure is (the guesstimates are from independent organisations), nor shows any inclination to find out. The government, in other words, is not particularly bothered by the issue of unauthorised migrants, nor sees it as a serious threat to sovereignty. It just wants to be seen to be doing something about it.
The difficulty in thinking through issues about immigration is that it has become symbolic of wider social concerns. On the one side, ‘uncontrolled’ immigration has become emblematic of a world in turmoil, over which we have little control. The images of people crammed into flimsy boats crossing the Channel inevitably feed into a deeper set of anxieties. On the other side, those supportive of migrants often dismiss such anxieties or fears as racist, bigoted or ignorant, a view that has been turbocharged since the Brexit vote.
A YouGov poll shows Britain divided over attitudes to cross-Channel migrants, 49% having no or little sympathy and 44% having a ‘great deal’ or a ‘fair amount’. Among Leavers, fewer than a quarter had sympathy, compared with two-thirds of Remainers. Immigration, like many other issues, has been folded into the culture war.
Last week, the home secretary, Priti Patel, reportedly told Tory MPs that she would refashion asylum rules in a way that would make ‘the left… have a meltdown’. When policy is driven as much by the tribal demands of the culture war as by the needs of migrants or of Britons, then it is itself in meltdown.
Patel also claimed that the asylum system is broken because it allows ‘leftie Labour-supporting lawyers… [to send] us legal letters every day to try to stop us removing people from this country’. People such as Paulette Wilson, one of the Windrush generation, whose deportation was stayed only by the last-minute intervention of lawyers. After Wilson’s death last month, Patel paid tribute to her as someone who had ‘dedicated her last years to highlight the terrible injustices faced by the #Windrush generation’. In fact, had Patel had her way, the pesky lawyers would not have been able to prevent Wilson spending her last years exiled in Jamaica.
Rightwing politicians and commentators often denounce ‘identity politics’ as divisive while pursuing divisive, tribal policies themselves. Too many on the left, though, fail to recognise that pursuing the culture war is divisive, undermining the kinds of social coalitions necessary to bring about social change.
Writing in the context of racism and police brutality in the US, the historians Adam Rothman and Barbara J Fields observed the need ‘to convince white Americans that what is good for black people is also good for them’. Much the same is true in the migration debate in Britain. So long as we pit the interests of ‘queue-jumping’ migrants against those of the ‘racist’ working class, we will be able to defend the interests of neither.