‘It’s bad; it’s grim.’
Migrant Voice chair Jason Bergen didn’t mince his words in describing the current outlook for migrants and refugees in the UK, and nor did anyone else at the third annual Migrant Voice conference which took place in London last month from May 10-11th. The unprecedented gains of UKIP (the UK Independence Party) in the May 3rd local elections have cast a pall over the pro-migration lobby, and incendiary UKIP leader Nigel Farage came up in nearly every speech and workshop. Debate was particularly pitched on the subject of racism, with some heated disagreement about the extent to which anti-immigrant sentiment expresses racial prejudice. But everyone seemed to agree, resoundingly, on one thing: it’s the economy, stupid.
All six presenters on the opening panel called immigration political smoke-and-mirrors, marshaled to absorb social anxiety about economic recession, high unemployment, declining incomes and vanishing pensions. Immigration is trotted out to capture the imagination of a white working class whose votes are up in the air, said Sarah Mulley of the Institute for Public Policy Research. David Goodhart, director of Demos, described it as ‘an act of attempted empathy’ on the part of a political elite trying to connect with ordinary voters. In one way or another, almost everyone argued that immigration was dirty politicking, a play for votes and a calculated distraction from the real causes of economic insecurity.
But immigration is not just that; it also consolidates a particular way of life as a condition for national belonging. Anxiety about immigration draws lines between insiders and outsiders, between those who are considered ‘worthy’ of belonging and those who aren’t. The findings of the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey are telling in this respect: Britons are on the whole supportive of professional migrants, but are strongly opposed to unskilled migration. Public opposition to migration has increased dramatically since 1995, but the biggest leap has been in anxiety about its cultural impact: whereas 33% of respondents saw immigration as having a negative cultural impact in 2002, in 2011 that number had jumped to 48%. By comparison, concern about the economic impact of immigration rose only nine percentage points over the same period.
More so than ever, this anxiety cleaves along lines of class and education. The proportion of people without any educational qualifications who think that immigration has a negative cultural impact has risen 20% since 2002, compared to just seven percent for people who have a degree. Working class Britons perceive not only a threat to their jobs, but also to what it means to belong to the British nation – to the very idea of ‘Britishness.’
In her analysis of the panel’s comments, Bridget Anderson, deputy director of the Oxford-based think tank COMPAS, pointed out that only in anti-immigration rhetoric is the usual conservative distinction between ‘skivers’ and ‘strivers’ collapsed, and the white working class population treated as homogeneous. This distinction is not collapsed so much as it is displaced, however: anti-immigrant sentiment condemns poor, unskilled migrants as ‘skivers’ who sponge off the state, and reserves the privilege of national belonging for ‘striver’ migrants – skilled professionals, and those who have been settled in the UK for a long time. In this way, the white working class turns the rhetoric that they are ordinarily the object of onto vulnerable migrants, thus claiming a measure of social privilege that is otherwise denied them.
What is rarely discussed is how gender figures in this picture. The characteristics that are seen to qualify people for admission to Britain are characteristics of privilege: skill, educational attainment, self-reliance, success. Indeed, anti-immigrant sentiment, wherever it is found, represents a rejection of ‘feminized’ populations – of people who are at a social disadvantage and less able to take care of themselves. Concepts of ‘the nation’ project timeless strength, might, and prowess; and the more distant these ideals from the lived realities of the national population, the more support nationalist parties mobilize. Golden Dawn in Greece, the National Front in France, the Tea Party in the United States, and the BNP and UKIP in the UK – all of these groups are concerned about the threat that immigrants pose to a national illusion that is distinctly masculine.
Nationalism depends on the fabrication of a shared history that knits together an imagined community; as such it is cobbled together through political fantasy, rather than historical fact. This fantasy flows from the desire to defend a fertile, productive motherland, and plays particularly to men for whom masculinity is socially and culturally resonant. It is no accident that anti-immigration rhetoric tends to be accompanied by an emphasis on the traditional nuclear family, restrictive gender roles, and conservative social values, and that the face of nationalist parties is almost always male.
UKIP’s anti-immigrant stance is not really about immigration at all; it is about shoring up a white British masculinity that harks to a golden era of pastoral scenes, industrial might, and racial and cultural homogeneity. (The fact that this era never really existed is a defining characteristic of nationalist narratives.) Nigel Farage’s bombastic rhetoric is in every way a rejection of the aspects of society ministered by, and dependent on, women. He scoffs at mandated paternity leave, public sector spending, and minimum employment standards, all essential requirements of gender equality. His anti-EU harangues exploit the classic dichotomy of feminine emotionality and masculine rationality, promising to rein in the ‘out-of-control’ shopping spree of an overly pliant Britain with level-headed ‘common sense.’ Farage’s is a politics of ‘fend for yourself’, and promotes a Britain that is white, well-off, and champions traditional masculinity.
Unsurprisingly, this appeals to men more than it does to women. A poll taken just before the May 3rd elections found that 21% of men supported UKIP compared to just 12% of women. This is particularly significant in light of the fact that UKIP is the only party for which gender matters; support for Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives is more gender-neutral. UKIP, and anti-immigrant groups more generally, harness not only men’s anxiety about job loss, but also their anxiety about losing their position of privilege in society. It is logical, therefore, that UKIP would appeal especially to white working class men, whose social privilege is already limited and therefore most easily taken away.
As much as the outlook for groups that seek to amplify the voice of migrants in current policy debates is ‘grim’, the present political moment is also an opportunity to contest what national belonging means, and the values it is constructed upon. Instead of responding defensively to a vision of ‘Britishness’ that works to shore up the privilege of a few, we should offer an alternative: one based on traditionally feminine qualities of care, cooperation, and compassion. We should reject the notion that nationalism has to be about keeping others down, and instead promote a version that is predicated on inclusivity, mutual aid, and concern for the most vulnerable members of society. In the end, this isn’t just about the economy: it’s also about opposing a xenophobic, sexist, and anachronistic understanding of what it means to be British.