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“Britons never will be slaves”: the rise of nationalism and ‘modern slavery’

Right wing voices are using the spectre of ‘enslaved’ Britons to prop up their xenophobic and nationalistic appeals.

Majorca. Andrés Nieto Porras/Flickr. CC (by-sa)

This summer the British government publicly expressed concerns that holidaymakers heading to Majorca might end up trapped in ‘modern slavery’. In response to this perceived threat, the UK Border Force launched a week-long awareness raising operation on labour exploitation which The Sun described, in its typical style, as “MAGA Slave Hell”.

The most interesting feature of this case is the specific focus on Britons as potential victims. It is a marked departure from the established convention of focusing upon ‘outsiders’ as both the victims and the perpetrators, such as foreign nationals working in nail bars and other foreign nationals forcing them to do so.  Take, for example, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority’s (GLAA) 'Strategy for Protecting Vulnerable and Exploited Workers 2018-2021'. Or the 'Spot the signs' guide by the GLAA, which uses leading statements such as “unfamiliar with the local language” or “be distrustful of authorities” as identifying features of slavery .

The implied racism of a codified suspicion towards those with low local language ability hints at how ‘modern slavery’ has been caught up in growing ideas of nationalism. It’s no innocent test, as it may first appear, since it reflects a broader suspicion found in society toward any migrant or ‘outsider’ struggling with English. As does the implicit assumption that foreigners who are “distrustful of authorities” are up to no good. The recent BBC documentary 'The Prosecutors' reiterates this idea, stating in the programme that “intelligence suggests that modern-day slaves will try to get away from authorities”. It is an observation that entirely ignores the explicitly hostile environment created by the Home Office in response to growing fears around migration. Migrants and even people who ‘look like’ migrants are now routinely stopped, questioned, pressured, detained, and humiliated by this official government policy and the informal xenophobia of nativism and racism underlying it.

Suggesting that modern-day slaves will try to get away from authorities is an observation that entirely ignores the explicitly hostile environment created by the Home Office in response to growing fears around migration.

On the other hand, British holidaymakers travelling to Majorca are judged according to a very different rulebook. Their situations are diagnosed under the influence of one of the most powerful images in the western imagination, namely the innocent young girl dragged off to distant lands to satisfy the sexual appetites of foreign men. The sense of vulnerability is amplified by the UK immigration minister’s more sensationalistic flourishes, as when she said that highlighting the issue will ensure that those tempted by “an extended stay in the sunshine, do not find their summer turning into a nightmare”. The exploitation that Brits abroad face reportedly includes long hours, low wages and squalid living conditions. The report also stated that female workers will likely be exposed to sexual harassment and abuse.

This has proved ripe pickings for outlets like the Daily Mail, which has tapped into growing concerns about ‘protecting our own’ with assertions like “slavery victims in the UK are now more likely to come from Britain than any other nationality”. Headlines such as “MAGA ‘SLAVE HELL’” from The Sun and “Magaluf Brit workers tell of ‘modern day slavery’ conditions” from the Daily Star further ramp up the hype and illustrate the exceptionality of British victims.

The established narrative of modern slavery has traditionally concentrated on the issue as a problem for, and created by, ‘outsiders’. Thanks to the rise of right wing nativism, this has started to shift. Modern slavery is increasingly becoming understood as a threat to ‘insiders’ as well, individuals who are seen as more deserving and whose plight is more disturbing than those within the original narrative. The constructed image of the ultimate victim – the ‘British slave’ – has found purchase in the xenophobic nativism and racism currently rising in Britain. This is a troubling shift, as the already ever-expanding umbrella of ‘modern slavery’ is now being tied to larger agendas regarding protecting ‘our own’ . The ideological shift to focusing upon “British slaves” echoes the well-known phrase from James Thomson’s Rule Britannia, in that “Britons never will be slaves”.

About the author

Elizabeth A. Faulkner holds a Contemporary Slavery Lectureship at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull. Her interests, broadly conceived, are in international child law, human rights, and gender and the law, and she specialises in human trafficking, migration, slavery, exploitation and sexual violence.


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