On migration, racism, and identity


Some thoughts on the expanded EU, the effects of mass migration on settled and migrant workers, the anti-racist racism of New Labour, the crisis of identity in England, and the attitude socialists should take to devolution for the English (hint: positive). By no means definitive – I’ve left out a lot, come to think of it.

The establishment of the free movement of labour in EU states was to benefit the ruling classes rather than bequeath any freedom to workers. Though individual workers have gained from being able to travel to richer countries and earn comparatively more money, but as an international class, workers have been weakened by this development. Certainly, the economic situation in the ex-socialist countries has not been improved by young and skilled workers leaving in droves.

Meeting a gap in cheap and skilled labour by effectively importing workers from Eastern Europe has allowed sustained economic growth in the UK, along a massive increase in indebtedness. Cheap labour and cheap credit cannot last.

Sudden demographic changes can lead working people to believe that migrant workers are their enemy, and the bourgeoisie is keen to promote this rationale. I am not suggesting that this was planned, rather that, for the capitalists, it is an added bonus that mass migration disorients settled workers.

Working conditions for migrant workers are often worse than those of settled workers: cases of bonded labour have been exposed. Despite the subjective differences, the objective fact is that workers of all nationalities must struggle together against their common enemy if they are to improve their living conditions.

Bordering on racist?
Is it possible to have non-racist immigration controls? The most radical slogan is “no borders”, frequently deployed at anti-G8 demonstrations. But I feel this is a misguided call as it is not understood correctly by the wider population. To working class people who are not racists but are concerned about the effects of migration, the call for open borders might be interpreted as more of the same; I have spoken to many people who opposed the mass migration of Eastern European workers for non-racist reasons.

Calling these people racist or insinuating a racial subtext doesn’t help matters: my worry is that racism will become a positive label, a badge worn with pride. Instead of people starting off a rant with “I’m not a racist, but…” they will be upfront about it. Assuming critics of immigration policies are racist is as mistaken as assuming critics of the US government are anti-American or critics of Israel are Judeophobic or against the Israeli people.

Anyone would think from the frequent comments of New Labour types that the so-called “white working class” is inherently racist and has its roots in the UK. The truth is that working class white people have immigrant ancestors too. It is more accurate to talk about a settled population, which fits more comfortably into the discourse of the civic nation.

The fact is, of course, that immigration and asylum laws are racist – they are directed predominately towards working class people of colour – they are both classist and racist. The case in point being Boris Berezovsky a billionaire formerly of Russia, who with ease gained asylum in the UK after falling out with his clique around President Putin.

The problem is, I think, that immigration controls are not viewed in terms of class. The kinds of migrants that the capitalist class would like to limit are those it does not need: if a points-system is introduced to the UK it will prioritise skilled and professional workers, blocking those workers who are unskilled or whose skills are not currently required.

Class and colour
The only time the working class is mentioned by name these days is as part of a discussion on community cohesion. Most recently, there have been suggestions from New Labour MPs that there should be a points system in social housing allocation to assuage the concerns of the “white working class”.

What struck me, beyond the obvious unpleasant tinge to this debate, was that they had wrongly assumed that immigrants cannot buy houses. But there is no point in taking the aim of the proposals seriously, though the content must be challenged.

Any attempt to end needs-based provision of public services, by limiting migrants’ access to social housing, for example, must be met with resistance for it is an attack on the working class as a whole.

Since the coronation of Gordon Brown, the housing crisis has become a political issue. The increases in interest rates and consequent upward rates of repossession have prompted the political class to make noises about solving the problem. Supply-side measures would help ease things, but the housing bubble will hurt, whether it bursts or just deflates…

Race-baiting and no debating
It is interesting to contrast the floundering David Cameron with the flailing Michael Howard in the 2005 general election. The Tories’ ads in the campaign employed “dog whistle” tactics: “It’s not racist to talk about immigration” accompanied their main slogan, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” This was a direct appeal to people holding xenophobic or racist views.

I can’t imagine this happening again at the next general election, but it is worth noting that there has not been an open and honest debate on mass immigration. This is not because of the PC police ready to label racist anyone who expresses a negative view about an increased inward movement of people – but because the last thing the ruling class wants is an open and honest political debate about anything.

There has been plenty of overtly racist coverage of immigration in the British press, and awareness of the divide and rule tactics of the capitalist class is subdued by means of racialising the debate. One earnest BNP supporter I spoke to said “Yes, I know the problem is capitalism” before explaining that he was not a racist, he merely objected to multiple cultures existing within his country. When pressed, he could not clearly say whether he was English or British, something I find significant.

Identity crisis
Perhaps my acquaintance is telling the truth and he sincerely believes that voting for the fascists is a way of protesting. But lending support to reactionary British nationalism and overt racism will achieve nothing. He rightly countered that a protest vote for a left-wing party wouldn’t mean much either, and by doing so he conceded that his protest was passive rather than active.

The difference between a protest vote for the far right and the far left is great, as I explained to him. The reactionary politics of the BNP play into the hands of the ruling class, who seek to divide workers and undermine class unity. There is culpability on the part of those who vote BNP, of course. But my own discussions with people who have or would vote for a fascist party lead me to believe that the construction of an inclusive English national identity is of great importance.

In the coming years the Union of England and Scotland may come undone. The civic nationalism of the SNP may succeed in creating an independent Scotland, leaving the English with an identity crisis as Britain falls apart. The British national identity has been fostered by the ruling class over the last two centuries and exists in opposition to the sense of Englishness, Scottishness, etc. felt by working class people.

The Union flag, the monarchy, and the Empire are the hallmarks of British nationalism, and the discourse of “greatness” seeps into the political representation of English civic nationalism, as expressed in the English Democrats Party. This is perhaps because the issue of English identity has been neglected by socialists, though this might be a marginal factor in the choice of language used by the EDP!

Socialists of England unite?
Groups who tailed Labour never challenged the British nationalism of the party, and to this day the suggestion that there could be or should be a progressive patriotism (made most notably by the singer Billy Bragg) is met with disdain. The seemingly inclusive sense of Britishness pushed upon immigrants from the external colonies of the Empire was tolerated, perhaps because of this association with Labour. Most definitely, hostility to the inclusive nationalisms of the internal colonies of Wales and Scotland was motivated more by loyalty to Labour than the policies of Plaid or the SNP.

The “party question” has always been a fault-line on the left –I will take it as given that most socialists are outside and against the Labour party, whether in the Socialist Party or the Socialist Workers Party, but I will leave the organisational issue to one side. For a time there was a single socialist party in Scotland which could have provided inspiration for a similar organisation in England, but now we must come to terms with the slow death of the Union and consider our approach to England.

Briefly, I will say that the problem socialists in England have with the issue of national identity rests with the confusion between England and Britain – a deliberate mix-up on the part of the ruling class, I might add. England is not a political entity – there is no English parliament to match the devolution in the other nations of the UK. Whether socialists speak or remain silent on the matter, the debate about devolution for England will proceed. It is not enough to say that Scottish or Welsh independence won’t happen or will only result in EU domination, and the silence on the English question is indefensible.

If we wish to see an inclusive and progressive English national identity, we must open our mouths. Constitutional affairs must be given parity with “economic” struggles and the left in England must adapt to the reality and process of devolution and make the case for a socialist England.