By John Newsinger
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Hostile Environment

This article is over 4 years, 8 months old
Issue 451

This is an important book, remorselessly chronicling how “the UK’s immigration politics” have “devastated” the lives of hundreds of thousands of people over the years. Maya Goodfellow starts off with the then home secretary Theresa May’s proudly proclaimed “hostile environment” policy, which ministers boasted was intended to be “cruel”. And, for once, they were true to their word. The “Windrush scandal” was “an almost inevitable consequence of the impossible system” that May put in place.

And all this was cheered on by the right wing press. In 2016, for example, the Daily Mail carried on average more than three articles a day on migrants, all overwhelmingly negative.

What she goes on to establish is that there is nothing new in any of this. As far back as 1905, the Aliens Act had been introduced to keep out Jewish immigrants fleeing antisemitic oppression in Tsarist Russia. And as she reminds us, in January 1955, Winston Churchill no less had urged the Tories to adopt the slogan “Keep England White” as an election winner. A racist through and through, Churchill had already warned that immigration meant that Britain was in danger of becoming what he called “a magpie society”.

Goodfellow explores a number of particular episodes including the Tory election victory in Smethwick in 1964 after a viciously and openly racist campaign on to Enoch Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” provocation and its impact. His cynical attempt to use anti-immigrant prejudice in order to ride to the leadership of the Tory Party might have failed, but its damaging consequences were much more long lasting.

The main body of the book examines developments since 1997. The arrival of Roma asylum seekers in Dover early that year saw just about every newspaper, including the Guardian, using “dehumanising language” to describe the “crisis”. One local paper actually described the Roma as “human sewage” and the New Labour response to all this was to crackdown on asylum applications.

The 2005 general election saw the Tories make immigration their number one issue, running a campaign that, as Goodfellow puts it, was “stitched together by xenophobia”. How did New Labour respond? Margaret Hodge, a government minister at the time, adopted a stance that “carried echoes of the BNP”, prompting the GMB union to call for her resignation.

As Goodfellow points out, the BNP actually “came out to back her”! And, of course, then prime minister Gordon Brown was to notoriously promise “British jobs for British workers”, another sentiment wholeheartedly endorsed by the BNP.

Goodfellows’ indictment of New Labour from Tony Blair to Ed Miliband is absolutely devastating. They not only retreated in the face of racism and prejudice, but refused to seriously fight against it or to remedy the economic and social conditions that provided it with a breeding ground. And New Labour was followed by the Conservative-Lib Dem austerity government with its “hostile environment”.

There is so much more in this book that this review has not even touched upon: its chronicling of resistance and the fightback for example. It is an important contribution to the struggle.

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