The hidden class politics of the UK’s immigration debate

Liberals preach cultural tolerance to the working classes while inflicting death-by-policy on migrants

Placards wait ahead of an anti-racism march in London, in which speakers expressed anger at the Illegal Migration Bill.

Government ministers warned of an influx of migrants overwhelming public services. Newspaper headlines declared war on imagined armies of welfare cheats invading Britain through easily penetrated borders. Plans to build accommodation centres for asylum seekers were abandoned in the face of local hostility. The year was 2001, but the level of publicly expressed animosity towards migrants and asylum seekers was much like that of 2023.

Along with other activists, I travelled around Britain that summer as part of what we called a Civil Rights Caravan, aiming to counter the country’s latest anti-immigrant turn. On the Sighthill housing estate in Glasgow, tensions were especially high. A fifth of its 6,000 residents were asylum seekers, relocated there by a government ‘dispersal’ programme that sought to move them away from more expensive locations in London. With regular acts of racist violence perpetrated against them, asylum seekers were fearful of venturing out of their homes. Then, on a hot night in August, a local man, Scott Burrell, set upon Firsat Dag, a Kurdish refugee from Turkey living on the estate. Dag was chased and stabbed to death.

But local activists also recounted another story that, to them, held important lessons on how positive change can be brought about. They spoke about one of the young white men living on Sightill who was among those who regularly harassed the asylum seeker residents. Living in poverty and struggling to find work, he was irate that people from Africa, Asia and the Middle East could turn up, get housed, and be provided for – no matter how paltry that provision actually was. He was powerless to change the way the system worked but, at least on Sighthill, he and his friends held another kind of power – the ability to inflict violence on darker-skinned newcomers.

One day, he was walking across the estate and came across an asylum seeker sitting on a bench. In the activists’ account, he launched into his usual tirade of abuse: “You’re a scrounger! Go and get a job!” Fists formed, ready to punctuate these injunctions with punches. The asylum seeker seemed to have his hands in his pockets. But then he lifted his arms to reveal that both of his hands had been chopped off. “This is why I can’t work,” he said. “This is what the police in Turkey did to me.”

Suddenly a connection sparked between abuser and abused. Police violence was familiar to every white person on the estate, not an aspect of a strange foreign culture needing to be understood through some multicultural awareness initiative. The shared experiences of police brutality made possible a bond. This was the moment that a perpetrator of racist violence began to change. The young white man soon became an advocate for the rights of asylum seekers. According to local activists, this was the pivotal moment when harassment on the estate began to decline.

As with any story that is passed on orally, its accuracy is hard to verify. Its significance, though, is that it offers a different way of thinking about how to confront reactionary opinions on immigration. Unlike in the usual liberal defence, there was no celebration of the cultural differences immigration brings or highlighting the economic contributions of migrants. Instead, a transformation occurred through locals and migrants identifying on the basis of a shared grievance. They recognised in each other a common experience of having been discarded by society, forced to eke out the barest of lives on government handouts and seen as degenerate and dangerous by the agents of state violence. Even if the people I spoke to did not explicitly put it in those terms, what connected them was a sense of class struggle.

Well-meaning liberals typically assume that the barrier to more progressive immigration policies is the nationalist values of the working class. They share with conservatives the view that political contestation on immigration is a culture war between pro-immigration liberal elites and anti-immigration working-class nationalists – seen as two political tribeswith fixed and antagonistic values. While there is some basis for this division in polling, as an analysis of what shapes the politics of immigration this interpretation is doubly wrong. It not only caricatures working-class nationalism but misses how the wealthy uphold the cruelties of the immigration system.

Liberals who accept the culture war interpretation see themselves as virtuous opponents of lower-class prejudice, preaching the value of cultural diversity and the economic benefits of migration. But their celebration of other cultures is presented in terms of widening consumer choices: what a wonderful range of foods is now available in our shops and restaurants! This is of little value to those struggling to get by.

The argument that migration brings economic benefits is equally liable to miss the point. Liberals talk about positive correlations between increased immigration and overall growth in the economy. And they point out that new workers entering the country from elsewhere rarely compete for the same jobs as the existing population, so there is no reason to expect immigration to bring declines in wages. But growth in the economy as a whole does not carry through to improving standards of living for poor people, unless organised labour has political clout.

When pro-immigration liberals ignore these issues, their celebration of diversity can easily come across as the enforced values of an economic system in which working-class people have lost out. Neoliberal globalisation has gone hand in hand with a decline in the power of organised labour. From a class point of view, the real question is how patterns of migration link to the collective bargaining power of workers.

There is no denying that sometimes employers use migrant workers to try to weaken that power. Equally, there are other situations in which migrant workers revitalise a native labour movement by importing new modes of organisation and fresh political thinking. Yet pro-immigration campaigners rarely engage on this more pertinent level.

And for all their vaunted cosmopolitanism, neoliberal elites do not want a borderless world. The most important neoliberal intellectuals of the twentieth century believed in using border controls to prevent the entry into Europe of people seen as having different cultures. Friedrich Hayek, the economist who set out neoliberalism’s free-market principles, for example, might have been expected to support the free movement of people from one nation to another. But actually, he put these principles aside when it came to immigration, arguing that European governments should stop people coming who do not share with the West a “common system of basic moral beliefs”.

In this century, wealthy self-styled liberals living in the English shires have regularly mobilised to keep asylum seekers out of their communities. In the early 2000s, for example, there was a wave of mass protests against plans for asylum seeker accommodation centres in Kent, Sussex, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Dorset and Lincolnshire. A local campaign against plans to build an accommodation centre near Pershore, Worcestershire, reportedly won support from fashion designer Stella McCartney, who had a £1.3m farmhouse in the village, and ‘Songs of Praise’ presenter Toyah Wilcox. The Home Office cancelled its plans after hundreds demonstrated at the proposed site.

The neoliberal think tanks and the wealthy who gather at Davos are also at best divided on the extent to which immigration is desirable. The billionaire Koch brothers, for example – the world’s largest funders of neoliberal activism – have lavishly funded both pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant think tanks in the US. The belief, held by many on the left, that neoliberals “are completely for open borders” is mistaken.

Borders are profitable to capitalists for two reasons. They block the overwhelming majority of super-exploited workers in the Global South from moving north to obtain higher wages, and they create migrant workforces in the North that are highly policed and easily deportable – the better to exploit them. ‘Pro-immigration’ neoliberal think tanks are as committed to the infrastructures of border enforcement as those that oppose immigration – all of them are responsible for the seas of misery that borders produce.

No wonder that neoliberal politicians so often declare their pride in a Britain that is ‘open, diverse and welcoming’ (if only!) but then, in the next breath, claim that, reluctantly, nationalist sentiments must be honoured in policy-making as ‘genuine concerns’. How convenient that working-class nationalists provide an alibi for policies that our neoliberal leaders would choose to pursue anyway.

There is no culture war over immigration in the normally understood sense. Rather, there is a strange and hidden class war being fought out on the terrains of race and culture. At stake is the very definition of the working class: whether or not it can extend to a political refugee from Turkey – or anyone else from the Global South.

To win that class war requires understanding that working-class anti-immigrant sentiment is lodged in a misdirected sense of class interest, and it needs to be dislodged on those terms, rather than through appeals to cosmopolitanism or empty promises of economic betterment. And it means grasping that, in this war, the flags waved can be misleading: the neoliberals who preach cultural tolerance to the less wealthy are those most responsible for the death-by-policy we inflict on migrants and asylum seekers.

This article was originally published on openDemocracy.

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