‘Giving in’ to ‘anti-immigration politics’?

Maya Goodfellow, Hostile Environment: how immigrants became scapegoats, Verso, London, 2019, pp260.

Early in this lively and clearly written polemic, Maya Goodfellow takes apart what she considers the bad faith of politicians and journalists who continually state that ‘we need to talk about immigration more, and more honestly’.

She believes that this is a coded way of affirming people who want to ‘complain about immigration in whatever way they like, with an advance assurance that – regardless of what they say – they won’t be accused of prejudice or racism. Far from being a debate closed down, litres of ink, reams of TV footage and hours of debate have been dedicated to discussing all the reasons people want to reduce immigration’.

Against this, Goodfellow aims ‘to take a look under the surface of, and challenge, the arguments made about immigration in politics and the media’. Her central claim is that what she calls ‘anti-immigration politics, not immigration itself, is one of this country’s most serious problems’.

Her book includes closely observed accounts of the hurt and injustices resulting from current immigration policy and practice. Goodfellow details the personal experiences of asylum seekers and refugees caught in an unfair and inhumane system which is stacked against them. And there are succinct summaries of key moments in the history of Britain’s racist immigration laws and procedures. From the 1905 Aliens Act to the legislation consciously crafted to reduce the number of Kenyan Asians coming to Britain in 1968, Goodfellow shows that creating a ‘hostile environment’ has been no new or recent departure.

She argues that governments and most mainstream political leaders have recurrently failed to tackle racism, and that they have indulged the myths and falsehoods about migrants peddled by those who oppose immigration on racist grounds. This failure extends across the political spectrum, from Churchill to Thatcher, and to Labour figures across the decades. Goodfellow quite properly highlights that there was ‘unhappiness’ on the part of some Labour politicians about ‘coloured’ immigration from immediately after the Second World War: the period until Wilson’s government is too often described as if it was only the Conservative Party and the Mosleyites who incubated and promoted anti-immigrant views.

Assessing Labour’s 1964 general election campaign, in which the party reversed its earlier opposition to the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, Goodfellow’s judgement is that ‘Labour had given in; they agreed it was necessary to stop certain immigrants from coming into the country’. The change of position articulated at the time by the newly-elected Birmingham MP Roy Hattersley, amongst others was, she insists, a political choice: ‘Labour didn’t necessarily have to shift to the right on immigration’.

This echoes Kathleen Paul’s well-researched analysis, where she critiques the view that Labour had to shift its ground in order to respond to popular opinion. In fact, accounts in which ‘a hostile public pushed an otherwise liberal administration toward ever greater immigration control’ amounted to a self-serving ‘picture presented by policy makers themselves’. (Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era, Cornell University Press, Ithica NY, 1997).

Goodfellow extends this critique to more recent Labour leaders: ‘when Tony Blair talked about immigration and asylum, he littered his speeches with toxic qualifiers’; Gordon Brown’s ‘disinclination to confront myths, and indeed the eagerness to reinforce them, cultivated anti-immigration politics in the UK and would ultimately help produce the Brexit vote’. Nick Griffin’s BNP was able, she states, to capitalise on a speech in which Brown ‘embraced’ a ‘fascistic phrase’. Ed Miliband ‘pander[ed] to anti-immigration sentiment’.

Goodfellow makes differing suggestions about the nature of the relationships between far-right politics and ‘the mainstream’. Sometimes, Hostile Environment positions mainstream politicians as bearing the main responsibility for generating antipathy to migrants, and the racism which shapes this, which is then expressed in a kind of ‘surplus’, ugly, explicit form by nativist movements and parties. At other times, it is the extra-parliamentary right who originate the racism, which is then absorbed and re-articulated within the mainstream. Thatcher, for example, is presented (in her 1979 pre-election World in Action television interview) as ‘making more respectable [the National Front’s] racist, anti-immigrant politics’. Some Labour figures, including Miliband, are seen as ‘capitulating to pressure from the political right inside and outside’ their party. Overall, Goodfellow’s view is that ‘it’s the perception of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees as undesirable “others” and the UK as better off without them that gives immigration figures, which have no meaning in and of themselves, their significance. This meaning has been created and sustained by parties and people across the political spectrum’.

What alternative approach which should be taken? Goodfellow asserts that ‘myths must be debunked [and] migrants’ humanity re-centred’. The ‘old canard that migrants drive down wages’ must be rejected. ‘Governments can plan for an increased demand in services and immigration should be seen as any other form of population change … Population increases aren’t in and of themselves a threat to the UK’. The ‘misleading allegation that the number of migrants coming to the UK isn’t sustainable’ must be refuted. ‘There can be no caveats when rejecting anti-immigration rhetoric. Migrants aren’t causing low pay or poor services, and there aren’t too many migrants in this country’.

Whilst setting out such arguments, Goodfellow makes some brief but telling points against several other writers and commentators, including David Goodhart and Matthew Goodwin. She also offers a sharp and clear critique of one of today’s dangerous folk-categories, ‘the white working class’, a term which she says ‘has no analytical value’.

The overall character of Hostile Environment is polemic from a principled but somewhat abstract position – a position from which important distinctions between the nature, intention and effect of different iterations and forms of policy on immigration sometimes become blurred.

Take the example of Roy Jenkins, widely seen as one of the most progressive and liberal Home Secretaries across his two periods in the role. Goodfellow criticises Jenkins for his 1976 admission that ‘there is a clear limit to the amount of immigration which this country can absorb and … it is in the interests of the racial minorities themselves to maintain a strict control over immigration’. Instead of interpreting this as an attempt to neutralise opposition to the forms and levels of immigration which the Labour government was handling, and to the Race Relations Act which Jenkins was strengthening, Goodfellow calls such a position ‘toxic’, and says it illustrates ‘some of the most pernicious ideas about immigration’. Jenkins’ acknowledgement of ‘the doubts and fears about future migration which are felt by many of the majority community’ is not allowed as an attempt to connect to people who he seeks to win over to at least a ‘tolerant’ if not positive view of migration and of immigrants. It is instead judged as an entirely reactionary concession to racism, which opens the way for ‘other politicians [to wrap] themselves in “genuine feeling” and “legitimate concerns” to tacitly vindicate their own xenophobic politics’.

There are many valid criticisms to be made of Jenkins, who was for example keen to be seen to introduce and promote race relations legislation, but who delegated work he found ‘distasteful’ around immigration control to others, including James Callaghan. But surely it is possible to explore these criticisms from a position of at least grudging sympathy with those in power who do have to engage with public opinion, win support from voters, and achieve balances in relation to conflicting pressures. Not to do so tends towards conflating Jenkins and Powell, and Miliband and Farage. Do the equivocations and careful judgements of social democrats and liberals when they are proposing and implementing particular ways of managing immigration really mean that they are effectively the same as the heroes of yesterday’s Monday Club and politicians who have built the nativist momentum for Brexit?

More general questions are raised by the book: are Goodfellow’s arguments based on a belief that any and all immigration policies will automatically and necessarily be racist and reactionary? And how can these issues best be discussed and worked through in the political and social landscape shaped by 12 December 2019?

Review by Mike Makin-Waite, published 14 December 2019