Saturday, 19 November 2016

Who's Angry Now?

A conversation I had with members of my family in the late 1980s has become vivid in my mind over recent weeks. We were living through the height of Thatcherism, when the right had a seemingly unshakeable grasp on politics and culture, a period when the gains of progressive politics were under attack. My relatives wanted to ride this wave of reaction and see the death penalty restored. They were confident Margaret Thatcher would make this happen for them.

I took a deep breath and argued with them coolly and reasonably. But what I told them was that even under such a government, our political leaders would not dare to bring back the death penalty, because they knew it would unleash a level of fury amongst the population that would rock the foundations of society – people would rise up in opposition, and that opposition would know no bounds.

My basic message was: if you think you’re angry, bring back the death penalty and I’ll show you what anger looks like.

They were taken aback, because they really did think all the anger was on their side, and that the ‘woolly liberals’ they opposed had no emotion invested in any of their politics. They seemed to have no idea of the depth of passion their opponents might have in their commitment to certain fundamental values.

One of the characterisations of the Brexit campaign is that while the Remain side used reason and evidence to make their case, the Leave campaign appealed to people’s emotions, specifically to a level of resentment and anger about immigration and the remoteness of government. All the anger, so the story goes, was on the Leave side.

In fact there were appeals to reason and emotion on both sides, but undoubtedly many supporters of Brexit were irrationally angry with people who were not like them. The polling evidence shows that the majority of Brexiters also disliked feminism, multiculturalism and environmentalism. The dominant narrative seeking to explain the Referendum result has been that large sections of the electorate felt that they were ‘left behind’, and I think this is true, but not in the sense meant by that explanation.

These people had been left behind, but not only by economic factors to do with globalisation, but also by political progress. Their reactionary world view – framed by misogyny, homophobia and racism – was not being listened to anymore. It had been squeezed out of politics, as even the Conservative Party under David Cameron sought to divest itself of its ‘nasty’ elements, and out of popular media and culture as well. The dramatic rise in hate crime post June 23rd provides evidence for this reading of the ‘left behind’ narrative, as many people felt liberated to openly express their prejudice against those they saw as ‘strangers’ in their midst.

To characterise this form of anger as only a symptom of economic marginalisation is to suggest that if such people had prospered under the neoliberal order these attitudes would have disappeared. But recent events have shown us what was always beneath the surface. The racism, sexism and homophobia we are seeing have not been caused by the Referendum – they were already there, waiting for a cause to unite behind, and Cameron, unwittingly, supplied them with one. While some sections of the liberal media and political class may be surprised by their re-appearance, for other sections of the community these prejudices never went away – they were not that far below the surface and those communities have had to deal with them close up for decades.

Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential Election and the rise of the alt-Right tells the same story, not of the economically left-behind but of those who felt excluded from power, influence and significance during eight years of a black Democrat President. This is a politics of resentment, in Nietzsche’s sense of a grudge-filled hatred, and the misogyny, homophobia and racism during the Trump campaign and since his victory tell us what to expect in the coming months and years – not an attack on globalisation, but an attack on whatever gains progressive politics has made over the past few decades.

We now realise how fragile those gains were, how the politics of hate many naively thought had been defeated had never gone away, and how powerful those who champion that politics now believe themselves to be – and how far they may be prepared to go. We also realise the weakness of explaining reactionary prejudice in terms of economic deprivation, as a good slice of the American population who are doing very well threw themselves behind Trump with enthusiasm, and there is little doubt that the wealthy political elite behind Trump actively share those prejudices rather than simply exploit them.

So how do we fight back? We must not lose our commitment to rational argument and evidence as it is this that marks us out, but we have seen that they are of limited use against reactionary resentment. There are two others things we must do.

The first is simply to learn once and for all that victories in progressive politics are always fragile, that tolerance has never been a dominating characteristic of British political and social life, and that these gains always need to be actively defended. What we have here is not a radical fracture with the past, but the continuation of a long struggle that stretches back through our collective history.

Throughout that history there has always been only a very thin layer of Enlightenment which a small part of the population bought into. When it comes to political progress, the truth is that a large section of the British people were left untouched by the liberal consensus around gender equality, gay rights and multiculturalism which emerged over the decades.

But the second thing we must do is remember that the gains progressive politics made over the decades, or further back in the United Kingdom’s history, were never achieved through rational argument and evidence alone. Those victories were won by angry people. Those of us who campaigned against racism, sexism, imperialism, for gay rights, rarely did so through trying to reason with our opponents – we marched, we shouted, we picketed, we demonstrated and sometimes we rioted.

That is why that conversation all those years ago has come back to me. Although I kept my cool, I remember the deep, incandescent rage I felt inside that enabled me to draw a clear line which my opponents crossed at their peril. I feel that same rage now.

And so those of us who believe in equality and justice for all people wherever they are in the world and whatever their history have to rediscover our anger and our passion, to push back against the politics of resentment. We must remember that we and our predecessors only won our battles against reactionary politics through passion, commitment and a burning anger at injustice. It’s time to bite back.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Heart of Darkness: Europe’s Response to Migrant Tragedy in the Mediterranean

In her column in the Sun newspaper on April 17th  Katie Hopkins described migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean as cockroaches and suggested using gunboats to tow the boats back and burning them (presumably once the migrants had disembarked), and indeed, in an interview on LBC the next day she suggested burning all the boats in North Africa.

She has been subjected to much ridicule for these comments, but, apart from the comparison with cockroaches, it is hard to see much of a gap between her hate-filled comments and the response of the European Union with its ten-point plan to the crisis that is unfolding (
That plan includes a “systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers.” The statement refers to the success of the EU’s Atalanta Operation, which “should inspire us to similar operations against smugglers in the Mediterranean.” (

The Atalanta Operation was aimed to counter piracy off the coast of Somalia (, and included arrests of pirates and destruction of boats. The ‘Migrants at Sea’ blog points out, however, that operations against piracy have a clear foundation in international law, but similar operations against people smuggling have no such foundation and so may not get the UN mandate they would require (

Other proposed measures include expanding the area of Frontex’s Triton operation, presumably so boats will be intercepted closer to the African coast rather than in European waters, and to work with countries around Libya, including deploying immigration liaison officers. The effort seems to be to strengthen the ‘border’ between Europe and North Africa and prevent migrants from taking to the sea at all, or if they do, intercepting them as soon as possible and towing them back.

There is the offer of 5,000 resettlement places for migrants who qualify for protection, but that is alongside proposals to fingerprint all migrants and for Frontex to establish a rapid return programme for those deemed to be ‘illegal’.

The 5,000 figure has to be set against the call from the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau, for the wealthy world to agree to take one million refugees from Syria over the next five years (Guardian, April 23). Rather than make it harder for desperate people to escape conditions in North Africa and the Middle East, especially Syria, Europe should make it easier and establish and support safe routes. That way “you reduce the number of deaths, you reduce the smuggling business model, and you reduce the cost of asylum.”

This alternative model, however, is unlikely to play to the ears of European governments, especially in the United Kingdom during a general election, where the Katie Hopkins view is not obviously unpopular with the general population. It has been pointed out that comparing the people attempting to reach Europe to cockroaches is reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s characterization of Jewish people and others deemed ‘undesirable’ as vermin. Zoe Williams in the Guardian says Hopkins’ column “recalls the darkest events in history”, and she reminds us of the genocide in Rwanda where the Tutsis were similarly described as cockroaches (

But whatever we think of Katie Hopkins and the Sun newspaper that published her ‘thoughts’, the fact that the European Union’s response is almost identical to her policy proposals should make us wonder whether the political atmosphere around migration and refugees in Europe as a whole means that the continent has in fact journeyed to the heart of darkness.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

How to create 'British' values

The process of creating a national identity consisting of 'British' values has two creative elements which result in a work of fiction. 

The first is the construction of a set of values that all members of the 'nation' are taken to share such that they have a crucial sameness, setting aside the fact they do not all share these values. 

The second is the claim that national ‘others’ cannot share those values because they are different, again setting aside the fact that these values are widespread beyond the national border. 

Just as members of the nation create a fictional account of themselves, they create a fictional account of others – it is, importantly, a process of exclusion of the other who does not share 'our' values despite the fact that they do share them and that many members of our 'nation' do not.

And we can also see that the members do not only create a fictional account of the past, they also create a fictional account of the present. 

The fabrication is of the presence or absence of others in the national history and the national here-and-now.

Friday, 10 May 2013

University lecturers as border guards

This is the programme of a workshop being run by a private sector organisation to train university staff in how to police the UK's border. I am posting it up not in order to recruit for it, but just to show the extent to which border regulation is being farmed out to other sectors, including the Higher Education sector, and also to note the extent to which the private sector are exploiting this. Be warned -- this is depressing:

As I am sure you are aware, your institution has a responsibility to prevent illegal working, provide evidence of an employee’s Right to Work and comply fully with UKBA regulations. The failure to do so can lead to punitive fines and a removal of your licence to hire migrant workers. It is also vital that academic institutions vigorously check their overseas students documents and academic records. Sponsoring students who hold fake passports, visas and educational certificates opens your organisation to wealth of potential problems that could result following any UKBA audit.

BFI’s Document Verification Workshop for Universities, Schools & Colleges will provide Admissions and HR teams with practical, hands-on training in recognising fraudulent documents; enabling attendees to get to grips with the legal responsibilities surrounding document verification for applicants: staff & students, spotting fake qualifications and ID documents, giving each delegate the chance to handle and compare fake and real examples.

Highlights include:

Legal overview of institution’s responsibilities;
* UKBA regulation
* Discrimination
* Data protection

Combating education fraud;
* What countries and agencies to watch out for
* Real life examples of fake degrees and diplomas

Masterclass in identity checks;
* Passports
* Photo ID and driving licenses
* Birth certificates
* Supporting documents
* Stamps
* Visas


0930 Coffee & Registration

0950 Chairman’s welcome & introduction to the day

* What are the consequences of getting document verification wrong?
* Understanding your obligations to prevent illegal working in the UK under the Immigration, Asylum & Nationality Act 2006.
* Right to work – what documents do you need to see and retain?
* What are the responsibilities of the employer regarding ongoing checks?
* Working within the law: avoiding contravention of discrimination legislation
* Issues around recording and storing data that you must be aware of

1100   Coffee Break

This hands-on session will allow you to bring your policy questions directly to an education fraud expert and handle example fake documents ensuring that your staff members are fully equipped to recognise fraud.
* Demonstrating compliance: are your staff members able to recognise fraudulent documents?
* Avoiding pitfalls in your admissions policy
* Dealing with particular countries & agencies
* Spotting fake degrees: what red flags should you be looking out for?
* Practical examples of fraudulent documents
* English language requirements
* Which agencies can help you?

1245   Lunch

* Identity; attributed, biographical, biometric and chosen
* Do you know what to look for?
* Common scams to be aware of
* What to do when you spot an irregularity
* Passports
* Photo ID and driving licenses
* Birth certificates
* Supporting documents
* Stamps
* Visas
* Cross-referencing with other data
* How to proceed if you discover inconsistencies
* Addressing concerns directly with candidates – possible pitfalls
* Establishing and integrating secure documents and identity verification processes
* How easy is it to miss a forged document?
* What are the areas we should look at for verification?
* Live examples of fraudulent documentation
* Comparisons of real and fake documents
* Counterfeits and forgeries

Friday, 3 May 2013

UKIP and the seductive power of Heimat

UKIP and the seductive power of ‘Heimat’

The surge of UKIP in this week’s local elections, and the influence they may have on where political power lies in the future, has shaken the political establishment. But why are people attracted to the party? What message is being sent out by the voters who support it?

Clearly it is an anti-immigrant vote. It is tempting to dismiss them as Moe Szyslaks: “Immigants! I knew it was them! Even when it was the bears, I knew it was them” (The Simpsons: Much ado about Apu).

But there is something else happening, perhaps, that is reflected in UKIP’s popularity, a mythological element, and UKIP reflect the power of myth. That is not only the power of popular myths about immigration and its effects, but also deeper mythologies, about what lies outside the boundaries of the nation and what lies at its centre.

The mythology of the ‘outside’ focuses on the immigrant is some kind of mythic threat, like a vampire.

That myth can take various forms. For example, we have to protect ourselves from those who want to over-consume liberal resources and drain the liberal state of its ability to supply liberal goods -- the immigrant as a resource-sucking vampire, over here to claim benefits, misuse the NHS, take our jobs and so on.

Or we have to protect our sense of community and identity from those who are so different that they can’t be assimilated, and so would undermine the community solidarity that we need for welfare institutions and democracy. Indeed, they may even have the power to counter-assimilate members and change their identity, with their strange customs and traditions.

Or at the extreme we need to protect ourselves from those who will bring with them disorder and chaos -- the immigrant infects the liberal state with disorder, eventually destroying it, the immigrant as a vampiric disease-carrier. They will bring crime and violence with them, in the shape of gangsters and suicide bombers.

But note that this mythic view of what lies outside the border rests on a mythic view of what lies within it, that which needs protection. So what is it that needs to be protected from the migrant?

On the face of it, our welfare services, traditions and communities need protection, but I think there is something deeper here that UKIP appeal to, and the idea of ‘Heimat’ that we find in much European thought helps us understand this.

The idea of Heimat is found in the German-speaking world. ‘Heimat’ is an extraordinarily complex idea and I can’t hope to do it justice here, but it captures the feeling of being at home, or, more accurately, is a reaction to the experience of not feeling at home.

In other words, ‘Heimat’ is a reactive idea, a reaction against the fluidity and change experienced under conditions of modernity, which result in alienation and a feeling of lost-ness. Heimat is an idea of a place where one really belongs, and so is an imaginary home set up against our experience of alienation. It is essentially backward looking and nostalgic, and so it does not exist in the present. But equally it does not exist in the past.

Although it is a place, and exists in the past in one sense, it is not a place that has ever existed. It is an imaginary place when things were, we are told, more innocent and simple and stable: it is motion-less and change-less.

Elizabeth Boa and Rachel Palfreyman tell us: “Key oppositions in the discourse of Heimat set country against city, province against metropolis, tradition against modernity, nature against artificiality, organic culture against civilization, fixed, familiar, rooted identity against cosmopolitanism and hybridity, alien otherness, or the faceless mass” (Elizabeth Boa and Rachel Palfreyman Heimat: a German dream – regional loyalties and national identity in German culture 1890-1990 (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 2).

This place of Heimat is not open to rational criticism. When people say things were better in the past, pointing out to them that this past has never actually existed – it is an imaginary reaction to the present -- brings about no change in their nostalgia. And although as an idea ‘Heimat’ has played a role in both right and left politics in Germany, one key element of it is mistrust of the outsider, whose presence is at least one cause of the loss of ‘Heimat’.

Boa and Palfreyman again: “Heimat must always be ultimately bounded and defined through visible or hidden exclusion of the radically different and alien” (p.27). And: “Who must be excluded and who can be integrated are as crucial to a community as who is from the start included: a place is as much defined by its others as by the self” (p. 28).

And Peter Blickle says: “… the idealization of a home ground in Heimat has led again and again to borders of exclusion” (Heimat: a critical theory of the German idea of homeland (Camden House, Rochester, NY, 2002), pp. 157-158).

And so the mistrust of motion and those who move is deeply embedded in the idea of ‘Heimat’. This mistrust certainly extends throughout European thought. Tim Cresswell explains: “…the whole apparatus of state bureaucracy in most countries has long depended on the notion that people should live, work, pay taxes and vote in a fixed location, so that to be of no fixed abode is already to be a suspicious character, and mobility itself comes to be seen as a form of geographical deviance.”

Mobility as deviance comes from “the positive valuation of roots in a place-bound, property-owning society…”, where “mobility…appears to be a kind of superdeviance … [which] disturbs the whole notion that the world can be segregated into clearly defined places … [and] becomes a basic form of disorder and chaos – constantly defined as transgression and trespass.” (Tim Cresswell Inplace/Out of place (University of Minnesota Press 1996) pp. 85-87).

This mistrust of motion certainly informed the anti-semitism of the German fascist movement. Hitler said “…it is impossible that those who are at home everywhere [by which he means the Jews] can know what Heimat is, because they do not have one.” And we need to remember that this mistrust of motion and the mobile extends throughout European thought. We have to keep reminding ourselves that the anti-semitism that led to the Holocaust was European-wide, not confined the Germany.

Although the idea of Heimat is explicit in the German-speaking world and has no simple equivalent in the English-speaking world, I have no doubt that it is present in the way we think.

Patrick Wright’s description of ‘Englishness’ in his article, “Last orders for the English aborigine”, certainly fits the model. This Englishness “…finds its essence in that sense of being opposed to the prevailing trends of the present. It’s a perspective that allows even the most well-placed man of the world to imagine himself a member of an endangered aboriginal minority: a freedom fighter striking out against ‘alien’ values and the infernal workings of a usurping state” (Patrick Wright, “Last orders for the English aborigine”, in Sally Davison & Jonathan Rutherford (eds), Race, Identity and Belonging: A Soundings Collection, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2008), p. 63)

At its heart is an idea of England “…in which the very thought of difference or change is instantly identified with degeneration, corruption and death” (p.69).

What we learn from the idea of Heimat is that this is accompanied by a nostalgia for a lost England which was a purer, more innocent place. The danger is, of course, that people will struggle to restore this mythic purity, this mythic innocence, by cleansing the nation of that which has corrupted it.

All the evidence shows that the mythic idea of ‘Heimat’ is here, like a so-far-undetected black hole, exerting enormous cultural power that can distort ethical and rational principles. It is anti-theoretical, anti-intellectual. The facts will not get in the way.

This presents those of us who wish to confront anti-immigration politics with a very difficult challenge. I have been in rooms of people who I consider to be intelligent and well-informed, but who have been transformed into an irrational rage when it comes to discussions of immigration, and who displayed a stubborn refusal to even consider any empirical evidence on the question, and who replied to my arguments with mythologies.

I have no answer to this challenge here, except to alert those of us who do wish to pursue evidence-based arguments to the seductive power of ‘Heimat’. But Patrick Wright’s description of “an endangered aboriginal minority: a freedom fighter striking out against ‘alien’ values and the infernal workings of a usurping state” perfectly captures what is at the heart of UKIP and their appeal.

The complexity of that appeal lies in the fact that, although the migrant is the object of the hostility, it is because they symbolize change, modernization, globalization, all things that disrupt tradition and the sense of ‘home’ people carry with them, an imaginary ‘home’ which never existed, and yet which must be defended from change.