Immigration and the politics of resentment

Shamser Sinha
10 November 2008

Shamser Sinha (London South Bank University): The traditional response from the centre and centre-left to immigration since Roy Jenkins was Home Minister through to New Labour is (1) to accept that migration can be a good thing but that (2) we need to limit it so that, race relations or more contemporaneously social cohesion, can be maintained. Both Sunder Katwala and Paul Kingsnorth agree with this despite their differences on language use. Today, this politics is prominent with Phil Woolas, Minister for Immigration, recently warning that 'It's been too easy to get into this country in the past and its going to get harder', whilst Trevor Phillips adds that immigration has fuelled 'resentments that are real and should not be dismissed - resentments felt by white, black and Asian'. However, the truth is that, if you're not an EU citizen, it's extremely hard to get into this country and that Phillips's 'real' resentments are caused more by a politics that turns human against human than by the realities of net immigration to the UK.

Immigration control is tightening. Since Labour came to power in 1997, and in a time of economic growth and the property boom, the government has instituted seven legislative acts on immigration and nationality. It has even turned doctors and nurses into immigration officials policing the legality of migrants, some of them children, in Accident and Emergency departments and GP surgeries - and not infrequently, denying them treatment. Stricter than even under the Thatcher regime, this immigration framework developed despite no tangible economic crisis existing.

Yet immigrants are supposedly a threat. If this proposition is the norm in times of economic prosperity than its political power increases in times of recession. . As Sunder observes the tightening immigration controls provide evidence that  Enoch Powell did not stop anti-immigration talk or action at all. We talk about race a lot. We're not too politically correct to talk about it. We're obsessed by it. The idea that we need an 'honest' and 'democratic' debate provides cover for what Paul notes is the ugly language used by certain New Labour politicians. An ugly language based on the premise that immigration must be limited to stop the BNP. It doesn't always have to be said in ugly ways though as Anthony Giddens' snappy phrase  - ''tough on immigration, but tough on the causes of hostility to immigrants' - shows. But where Paul and myself part ways is that for me, the proposition of tighter immigration control is ugly itself- no matter the language.- and based on a politics of resentment.

Phillips argues that in some parts of the country, 'the colour of disadvantage isn't black or brown. It is white'.  For once, he's not wrong. He's right. But the question that this wicked formulation misses is why should we resent those with money or good jobs be they Chinese, black, brown or whatever anymore than we should resent white British people who've worked hard and done well? For Phillips it's commensense. But it's resentment. One reflection of this politics is the poisonous idea propounded by Giddens that, 'People feel stronger obligations to others when they are like themeselves'. So, we naturally feel that those like 'us' should have the money and security that is their birthright. Presumably, its also natural then if we resent 'others' not like 'us' when they have money, houses and jobs that we don't.

Hence Margaret Hodge's argument in May last year that UK citizens should have superior welfare rights to migrants. Including post war settlers from the Commonwealth and their descendents, this variation on White Rights has also been taken up the BNP in their attempts to gain electoral support from White British and non White British people by attacking new migrants and refugees.  Resentment, on one level, is not based on skin colour but the fact of being an immigrant

Paul says our immigration rate is unsustainable. This is one basis for the politics of resentment that argues that 'natives' - whether old or new-  should have rights that migrants don't. However, despite net immigration, the weight of migration is borne by the poorest countries least equipped to cope with it. The United Nations Refugee Agency's Statistical Yearbook for 2002 says that between 1992-2001, 86% of the world's refugees came from developing countries, whilst such countries provide asylum to 72% of the globe's refugees. Our politics of resentment creates arbitrary borders damning humanity's most vulnerable to what Agamben terms 'bare life'. If there are economic costs to bear for growing immigration- frankly we should - we have the money and technology - and if its difficult - its still the right thing to do. And if we want to curb immigration its not to border controls that we should look.

Underdevelopment provides reasons to migrate, to find a better life abroad. However, while financiers, bankers, and those lauded by Phillips as 'clever' can move themselves, their factories and their money across borders capitalising on opportunities for profit, those fleeing or seeking a better life cannot. 

Underdevelopment is deeply intertwined with G8 and Chinese capitalism and its associated militarism (whether by proxy or not) from Iraq to Sierra Leone. As we exploit abroad, we destabilise and compel people to leave. The politics of resentment and Woolas's fervour to cut immigration turn neighbour against neighbour obscuring the barbaric effects of an often protectionist economic capitalism.  As we hate the immigrant family next door we ignore our role in creating the unfavourable circumstances leading them to come here. Don't blame immigration. It is underdevelopment and its associated domestic politics of resentment that damage social cohesion.  If we want to reduce resentment it is to underdevelopment that we must look for change.  

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