There have been a slew of programmes on lately about racial and religious tensions in places like Luton and Bradford fuelled by extremist groups like the English Defence League. So I thought a video by Reza Aslan, an Islamic scholar and one of my favourite public intellectuals, would be appropriate right now.
The hazard of living in a fast-paced urban environment is that sometimes you become a casualty of your surroundings. In this case, I was struck down with gastroenteritis for most of the week. Amidst my fevered napping on the couch, I was able to watch the first televised party leaders’ debates. It’s strange to witness all the conversations, reports and articles that have appeared in its wake only because presidential debates have always existed in my lifetime. I couldn’t imagine the McCain-Obama debate being the first of its kind. It was also interesting (along with humorous and aggravating) to witness three parties instead of two, being represented, especially knowing that there are three or four other known parties lurking in the fringes. Watching the moderator constantly cut off candidates in mid-sentence with a thunderous ”Gordon Brown!”, or a ”Nick Clegg! David Cameron!” made me feel as though I was watching strange version of University Challenge where all the candidates were trying to squeeze in as many answers as they could to show the audience that they were best.
I was in London for the 2005 elections, but it didn’t take centre-stage back then, not like now. You can feel the frustration and anger at the choices that people are left with, another Brown-led government with the disastrous policies and views leftover from the Blair years, or Cameron, who could bring in a reign of Thatcher-lite. Then there is Clegg, he of the perpetually ignored LibDems (the house favourite). During the debates, the party leaders were all as relaxed as could be expected; the PMQs have long since taken away any camera shyness that might have existed. With shades of the Kennedy-Nixon debate (which has been showing constantly in a documentary on the BBC), it has been agreed upon that Clegg won the visual aspect of the debate, while those that heard it thought that Brown or Cameron won. I’ve had a fondness for the LibDems since seeing the confusingly named Sir Menzies (that’s Mingus to you) Campbell on the PMQs, so it was good to see Clegg bring up or refute issues that the other candidates ignored/repeated in order to toe the party line, such as the horrible ID Cards, Trident, immigration policies, or the atrocious new Digital Economy Act. It’s also been good watching all the subsequent news reports and person on the street interviews because they give me a much better understanding of how people think about the election. Note: In case you didn’t know, the British don’t care about personal stories that illustrate broader points. That’s an American thing.
The actual electoral process is nothing short of insane to me. National politics are made small through the election. Citizens vote for Prime Minister by voting for their party locally instead of the individual, so instead of voting for Brown specifically, they vote for the Labour MP. It would be like me voting for Obama by choosing my Senator. It’s a huge disconnect for me because my national votes are usually miles away from my local votes when possible. But it’s also kind of logical in a way because it forces the voter and the parties to consolidate their views in a way. So much to process! The problems (and privileges) that come with being an international citizen!
The reality is that the majority of immigrants into the UK are white and from Europe, the Americas and Oceania, who in 2001 made up 53% of the foreign-born population. Following at a very distant second are those from India and Pakistan. Though these figures have changed somewhat in the last few years, the demographics basically remain the same. Along with this, many immigrants tend to only stay for short periods of time, creating a constantly shifting population of people. What these statistics show is a foreign population of skilled (whether in labour or “highly-skilled” fields) workers from Westernised nations who tend to migrate towards large urban centres and the south-east of England. What is perceived about immigration, however, could not be further from the truth.
Immigrants are portrayed as the fearful harbingers of Britain’s decay by the media and many political parties, especially as the recession drags on. As many Britons lose their jobs and struggle to find new ones, they blame immigrants for coming over and “stealing” their work. Along with this, they blame immigrants for overpopulating the island while bemoaning the changes of multiculturalism and “political correctness gone mad” taking place in their communities. In their minds immigrants follow these patterns: they are poor, dangerous and minorities, if not black and brown than Eastern European. They are relatively unskilled, follow dangerous religions and are a powderkeg of dangerous ideas and actions which threaten the rights of native citizens.
This paranoia screams out at me from broadsheets, news reports and television programmes on a regular basis. Instead of confronting the government about the stifling class system and programmes in place which allow so many British citizens to become victims of their environment, instead of creating grassroots programmes which allow for safer communities and a network of support for those in need, many British people have chosen to follow those in charge and blame those who are different from them, a cyclical accusation which always occurs in times of national duress and uncertainty. This, of course, is a dangerous way to react to change, and such ideas, coupled with all too familiar forms of racism and xenophobia are continuing to have devastating effects on British citizens unable to completely assimilate to the majority of society, whether due to race, religion or culture. When people cry out about overcrowding (which simply isn’t happening outside the major cities in the ways that fearmongers would like us to imagine), what they are really railing against is the incremental increase of people who don’t look like and, in some cases, have no urge to be like them. What these perceptions really show most of all is the failure of Britain to come to terms with its own intersections of identities and histories in the new century.
Gordon Brown has released his hard-line stance on immigration this week. He has set a series of limitations on what non- European immigrants can do if they are lucky enough to obtain a visa, including closing about 250,000 skilled sector jobs (catering, engineering and caring) to non-British workers. He has created what can be considered a two pronged attack on immigrants and asylum-seekers/refugees, limiting not only their ability to enter the UK through a labyrinthine bureaucratic system that has had devastating effects on incoming students, but also making it difficult to remain and survive in the country once they actually arrive. I will not state that I am very knowledgeable about the situation surrounding refugees, so I will mostly discuss what I have personal experience, that of the international student-cum- skilled worker.
Due to changes in the visa system implemented after I finished my postgraduate programme, many international students are having to defer or, worse yet, give up their dreams of studying in the UK completely after they have been accepted in their courses. Since international students contribute about £4 billion to British universities, many universities have bemoaned the projected loss of money that would directly contribute to maintaining departments, libraries and British and EU students. Along with this, international students will be barred from working part time in temporary jobs, which will make life extremely difficult for many students who are already surviving on loans and financial aid. This restriction will also make obtaining a work visa after graduation even more arduous if not impossible for most students, which is clearly the Prime Minister’s point. For those who then manage to obtain work visas and stay in the country, the road to citizenship has become more fraught with dead-ends and pitfalls.
Says Brown, “the right to stay permanently will no longer follow automatically after living here for a certain number of years … Instead, we have said that after living here for five years, migrants will have to apply to become probationary citizens – and at that point they will have to pass a points-based test.” The idea of “probationary citizenship” has been criticised before because it restricts the ability of immigrants to participate in civic activities such as anti-war protests and forces prospective citizens to prove their worth through parting with hundreds of pounds through the years of their stay. Another issue is that it forces a strict idea of what Britishness is through the forced learning of countless statistics and facts (many of which British subjects themselves would not know), ignoring the more personalised and varied experiences of Britishness that immigrants could obtain (which may also draw from foreign cultures already present.)
Brown has been criticised for his efforts to make a stand, many have said that his declarations are too little, too late as fears of the immigrant invasion coupled with a devastating recession have caused people to leave the Labour party in droves to more right-wing extremist parties. In his attempts to appease fearful citizens, as made clear in his quietly chilling “British jobs for British workers” quote (in which he echoed the same right wing extremists that he so fears), he is causing serious damage to the future of British identity while also ignoring the past effects of British and European colonialism that has contributed to much of the non-European immigration occurring today. The spectre of immigration also once again reveals British fears of class, race and nationality as well as their privilege.