A new leader of the Labour Party has been elected today. As expected, it is Sir Keir Starmer. I didn’t vote for him, nor for any of the leadership candidates. All the candidates showed appallingly poor political judgment on an issue I happen to know something about, but mainly I couldn’t get interested in the contest at all.
After December’s election defeat, it seemed clear to me that the Labour Party had managed to stifle its own last, best hope of becoming a place where the kind of political action and understanding we need could be developed.
Starmer’s victory is being served up to us as a return to ‘sensible’ politics, with ‘grown-ups’ in charge. But it is precisely this tradition which has fed and watered the idea of the all-important leader for so many decades. Not wishing to be left out of the current trend for being shown to have been right all along, this is what I wrote in 2015, when Corbyn gained enough nominations to stand in the leadership election:
“British political culture is obsessed with leadership. Leaders are required to be visionary, charismatic, good looking, inspiring, firm but fair, correct in all things and (most crucially of all) victorious. If they miss the bar on any of these aspects, they must resign.
The fact that the Labour Party’s response to losing the election was to immediately start a process of electing a new leader is just the latest manifestation of this obsession.
Jeremy Corbyn is not leadership material. He is not charismatic, firm but fair, correct in all things or victorious. I will leave the question of his looks to people more qualified than I to comment. He is an inspiring speaker, who articulates a vision, shared by many people, of a world that is more just, more peaceful and more sustainable than the one we are living in now.
He is the kind of MP most people would love to have – the kind we are also blessed with here in Brighton Pavilion – a hard working, principled advocate and representative. A kind of anti-leader.”
I was frankly astonished to read this ridiculous piece by Ian Dunt this morning, bemoaning the Corbyn movement as an example of unthinking hero-worship. But as I said, this whole thing feels like a sideshow.
Back in the real (end of the) world, people are busy bringing each other food, organising street by street, providing equipment for health workers, and sharing whatever they have with those who have nothing.
None of these people waited to be told what to do by Keir Starmer, Boris Johnson or any other ‘leader’. When it comes right down to it, we all know that the people around us are what keeps us alive, not the people who think they are above us.
The health of all of us depends on the health of each of us
We have been violently reminded that we are part of an ecosystem. We should not forget it.
This perceptive piece by Jane Clare Jones draws out some of the linked lessons of the current moment: value care, accept vulnerability and abandon attempts to erect borders between us.
As she points out:
In our isolation, what becomes suddenly and starkly visible is all the life-sustaining labour that usually goes unnoticed and undervalued, much of which involves material exchange and transportation. Food distribution. Stacking shelves. Water and gas supply. Delivering post. Sewerage and rubbish collection. All the material ins and outs across the thresholds of our homes and the borders of our bodies – the mucous membranes that mark, now more than ever, our vulnerability, but keep us all alive. It’s been said, and will be said again, that we must learn our lessons here. The invisible work we hold in such low esteem is, literally, vital, and we should value it as such. The virus could enter us from animals only because we’re also animals. And like all animals, we’re materially dependent – on water, air, nutrients and the Earth.
We can’t leave people sleeping rough, or jammed together in hostels, in the middle of a pandemic. Why did we ever think we could?
We can’t expect people to follow public health advice if that leaves them without the necessities of life. So everyone must be guaranteed a basic income.
We can’t pretend that Europe’s wealth protects us from diseases, when faced with a disease spread around the world by the very same global travel and commerce that made Europe rich. Whoever grows the food you eat, whoever picks it, whoever cooks your takeaway, cleans your hospital ward or delivers your parcel is intimately connected to you. Nationality is meaningless. Making different rules for people with or without residence rights is not only cruel, it’s positively dangerous.
It won’t all be over by Christmas
Right now, we are all comforting ourselves with talk of ‘when this is over’ and ‘when things go back to normal’.
But I think we are all also haunted by the knowledge that this is not something that can be fixed quickly. Nobody knows exactly how we are going to get through this, or if that is even possible.
We do know that ‘normal’ is not something we can go back to, even if we wanted to. ‘Normal’, don’t forget, was living in a house that’s already on fire.
We now see what an emergency response looks like. We need something on at least this scale for the climate emergency.
Under pressure from below, benefit rates have increased, self-employed people have been offered some kind of safety net, and workers have had their incomes underwritten by the government.
Our local council – with extensive input from the voluntary sector and local community groups – has established a network of food hubs and a central contact point for people who need help. Public buildings are being used to pack up food parcels and repurposed as hospitals. Homeless people are being accommodated in hotels.
As the ad hoc community response becomes institutionalised, the danger of borders being recreated is very present. Support must be available to everyone, with no questions asked about immigration status or local connection.
In the meantime, those of us who are lucky enough to still have money coming in will need to continue to share with those who remain locked out.
People who call themselves leaders should take note – this crisis is making it very clear to everyone what is essential and what is not.
I have been puzzled by the sudden rise in deportations and Home Office attacks on black people who have been in UK for decades, such as the case of Albert Thompson, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, or the many similar cases now coming to light.
These people are not the stated target of the “hostile environment for illegal immigrants”, so why are they being picked on?
It’s not to appease a racist public – as far as I can see from reading online discussion of these cases, most people are convinced that they are a mistake. There is not widespread support for this action, or understanding that it is a direct consequence of current government policy which has turned landlords, hospital administrators, employers and bank managers into border guards.
I don’t believe the aim is to remove significant numbers of black people from the UK. Most of the people affected are parents and grandparents of British citizens. If the government were trying to stop them from becoming an integrated part of UK communities, they would surely have done it a long time ago.
It’s also unlikely to be pure sadism and cruelty, though I can see why it would appear that way to the families affected.
The Home Office isn’t yet staffed by robots, as far as I know – people are making these decisions. Even if the ‘hostile environment’ regulations seem to dictate the actions that are being taken, there could have been a management decision not to persecute this group of people who are clearly not, by any stretch of the imagination, “illegal immigrants”. (I am leaving aside for now the issue of the equally unjust impact of these new laws on people who are considered “illegal”, but that doesn’t mean that I think any of this is OK.)
So I was puzzled. But I recently came across a clue when I read about the government’s attempts to rebrand the ‘hostile environment’ as a ‘compliant environment’.
My theory now is that this is an example of an age-old trick of the ruling class – extend your power by testing out a previously unacceptable imposition on a disposable population, then rely on it being a fait accompli to persuade everyone it was always inevitable.
Liberty’s 2015 briefing for MPs on the issue of immigration detention explains how this kind of mission creep works:
Immigration detention has become such a policy mainstay, it is easy to forget what a constitutional novelty it was when powers to administratively detain were first set out in the Immigration Act 1971. In a move unprecedented in peacetime Britain, the Act reversed the principle of habeas corpus, removing the onus from the state to justify the deprivation of liberty, and introducing administrative detention for those subject to deportation. In the intervening decades, the use of detention has evolved from a mechanism designed to enforce removal or examination, to a free-standing immigration power routinely exercised for administrative convenience.
The hostile environment itself is a quintessential example – across all the areas where it acts to make life difficult for migrants, the core idea is that individuals must be prepared to justify themselves to authority on demand.
If you want to rent somewhere to live, receive hospital treatment or maintain a bank account, you must now prove that you have a legal right to reside in the UK. This means it is up to the individual to have their papers in order and present them to all kinds of people in order to do all kinds of ordinary things.
When I read online discussion about the cases of Caribbean elders now facing deportation, detention or denial of healthcare, there are a few people who present this as a reasonable expectation. Why have they not sorted out their documents, if they have been here all this time?
If they been here for so long why have they not applied for citizenship!!
— Tony (@VetteheadTony) April 1, 2018
Get real… You’re talking about people who in 40+years haven’t managed to get any documentation….
One person you give is trying to use a birth cert with a different name on it to get a passport – and they wonder why it was rejected! FFS….
— Martin Dooley (@martindooley) April 1, 2018
The idea of individuals being accountable to the state has already been thoroughly tested on another disposable population – unemployed people and people who are too sick or disabled to work. And just as the hostile environment is now being extended to people who are British for all practical purposes, Universal Credit extends the sanctions and testing regime to people who have so far been exempt from the label of scrounger.
People on low wages and self-employed people are among those hit most hard by the bizarre workings of Universal Credit. Not so long ago, these were the people championed by Theresa May’s party as strivers and entrepreneurs. Now, they have joined the ranks of those who are expected to show compliance to the demands of the all-powerful work coach.
By stealth, the whole way we look at things becomes inverted. Just as with the bedroom tax back in 2013, the most powerful and long-lasting effect of these vicious policies is not the impact on those directly affected, but the way they retrain all of us to think about public services.
So once we have become used to the idea that even people who arrived in the UK as children, as British citizens by virtue of the colonisation of their native countries by the British, must prove themselves if they wish to be treated with anything resembling respect, what next? Who is next in the firing line?
An excellent recent thread on Twitter by Docs not Cops points out that we are already a fair way down the road towards declaring some people ‘undeserving’ of free NHS care. And of course, the hostile environment also provides fertile ground – and the practical infrastructure – for the introduction of widespread charging in the NHS. This result has been a long time in the making – Nye Bevan issued a very precise warning about it as long ago as 1952.
But these ideas are not inevitable. It is possible to change the direction of travel. The revelations about Facebook’s data breaches have opened up the issue of privacy in a way that I didn’t really expect to see again. These questions of accountability are the key battleground for the future of our public services. Are we residents with rights that derive from our humanity, or subjects who must prove our conditional entitlement? How do we redesign our public services to recognise our interdependence, our need for mutual support and care, and the contribution everyone makes to our complex society?
In the 1960s, many people arrived in the UK from its former colonies in the Caribbean. They were encouraged and welcomed by the British government, as workers in the growing public sector. [Edit: I have learned from a very informative and referenced Twitter thread published by Akala on 1st April 2018 that this is a myth, and that all postwar British governments implemented racist and exclusionary policies towards black people who migrated to the UK.]
Albert Thompson’s mother was one of these people. While she worked in the NHS, her son was left behind in Jamaica. I can only imagine how hard that must have been for both of them. Lucky me.
My parents arrived in the UK in 1970. Like Mr. Thompson’s mother, they were entitled to enter and stay in the UK as Commonwealth citizens. They brought their child with them.
In 1971, the UK government passed an Immigration Act which removed the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens to live in the UK. Nevertheless, the act stated clearly that people who were already settled in the UK, like my parents, would not lose their rights and were to be treated as having been given indefinite leave to remain in the UK. If Mr. Thompson’s mother had already been in the UK for five years by the time the Act came into force in 1973, she would have been given the right of abode in the UK.
In 1974, Albert Thompson came to the UK to be reunited with his mother. I cannot find the relevant regulations at that time, but I expect he either had a work permit or was given leave to enter on grounds of family reunification. He was 18 or 19. He settled in the UK, found work, married and raised his children here.
Also in 1974, my parents took their two children to Australia to visit relatives. The 1971 Immigration Act had granted them indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and this was duly stamped in their passports when they returned. This tiny stamp was the only proof of their (and my) right to live here. If they had not travelled abroad, I believe they would not have been able to easily demonstrate their status. Of course, they were never asked to.
In 1981, both major parties supported the British Nationality Act, which further redefined the status of citizens of Britain’s former colonies. Among other things, it:
- removed the automatic right of children born in the UK to be considered British citizens, if their parents were not British. If my sister had been born after 1983, she would not have had automatic British citizenship, despite having been born in the UK and lived here her whole life. The same applies to Albert Thompson’s children.
- removed the right of Commonwealth citizens to acquire British citizenship by a simple process of registration. After 31st December 1987, they would have to go through the more expensive and demanding process of naturalisation.
- made it impossible for Commonwealth citizens who did not already have the right of abode to obtain it.
My family joined the protests against this Bill, understanding it to be racist in both intent and effect. At that time (as now) racism was often couched in terms of concerns about immigration, but I understood very clearly that my own status as an immigrant was never considered relevant by the boys who carved NF into the desks at school.
The measures in the 1981 British Nationality Act did affect me, but I was not their target. As Imogen Tyler argues in this excellent 2010 essay, “Whilst race and ethnicity were never directly named, the 1981 Act effectively designed citizenship so as to exclude black and Asian populations in the Commonwealth while leaving ‘routes home’ for white nationals born within the boundaries of the empire.”
The 1981 Act was the foundation of a decades-long establishment consensus on immigration that has prevailed ever since. Each successive government has tightened the rules yet further, reinforcing and feeding on popular racist myths about scarcity, overcrowding and invasion. From the 1990s onwards, both Tory and New Labour governments focused their rhetoric on asylum seekers, laying the foundations for the shameful conduct of the 2016 EU referendum campaign.
Before the option was withdrawn, I decided to apply for registration as a British citizen. This took some time. I must have applied before 31st December 1987, but my eventual certificate of registration is dated 31st January 1990. It cost money (I can’t remember how much) and I had to relinquish my Australian citizenship. I had to send in all my previous passports, with the all-important indefinite leave to remain stamp. None of this was a particular problem for me.
I was prompted to do this mainly because I wanted the freedom to travel and work within the EU, and because I didn’t fancy having to swear allegiance to the Queen as part of the naturalisation process. So I am now safe, unlike poor Albert, whose lack of documentation means he has been asked to pay £54,000 for his cancer treatment by the NHS.
Should anybody ask me to prove my eligibility for lifesaving treatment, I am ready. I had travelled abroad often, and had passport stamps to prove it. My parents haven’t moved house since 1974 and all the documents were easily available to me. I had enough money to pay the registration fee, and knew the deadline was approaching. All these things are a consequence of the dumb luck of being white and middle class.
I could have made different choices, had worse luck, been less well-informed. If I had, maybe I would be in Albert’s position.
But of course, nobody will ask me. Nobody has ever asked me to prove my right to live here. I acquired British citizenship purely for my own convenience, not because I was treated with suspicion and hostility in a country that would never truly acknowledge me as its own. That is the real privilege of my white skin.
This is an edited version of the speech I gave at the final event of my Welcome Blanket project, last night.
This evening is the moment for me to say farewell to the blanket. I am handing it over to A Thousand for a Thousand, an amazing local community-based charity. I understand it will be used to welcome and comfort a refugee family who are struggling to find a new home here in Brighton.
The Welcome Blanket has been a large part of my life for the last 10 months. I want to say a couple of things about that experience.
The blanket was made by many hands – everyone who contributed squares, everyone who donated money, everyone who sewed names, everyone who talked to their friends about it.
Thank you to all those people. It’s been a lovely experience. I’ve enjoyed seeing the variety of styles and bringing everything together. I’ve loved working with the fabric and taking care of each person’s contribution. I’ve made new friends.
But it’s also been an unsettling experience. I’ve been reading and learning about the reality of migration in the UK, and thinking about the meaning of the words on the blanket, as I worked on them.
One thing that has become clear to me is that living in the UK as a migrant is often a conditional existence.
People make their lives in temporary spaces that can be snatched away by one ‘if’ after another. If they renew the visa, if they accept the asylum application, if they believe we are really married, if we can raise the money for the fees and so on.
The verse on the blanket – which stands at the entrance to our city – is lovely. But I’ve noticed that the people who respond most positively to it are white people like me, who have indeed found that Brighton accepts us without asking us to justify ourselves.
Yet for many people in our community, there is a positive epidemic of asking, and the reality for them is nowhere near as welcoming as we may fondly believe it to be.
Many people have said to me that this blanket should be hanging in Brighton Museum or somewhere like that. I understand the sentiment. But I think having produced this beautiful object is not the thing that needs to be remembered and marked.
What would be worth putting in the museum would be a story about how the people of Brighton took action – at this time of crisis – to live up to their image of themselves. It’s all very well having these fine words, but what matters is how we act.
The Welcome Blanket project is above all a call to action. Action is required from all of us to help bring these words to life.
For most of 2017, I have been working on my Brighton Welcome Blanket project, a large scale, collaborative piece, which incorporates the verse carved on one of the Patcham Pylons at the entrance to Brighton:
Hail Guest. We ask not what thou art
If friend, we greet thee, hand & heart
If stranger, such no longer be
If foe, our love shall conquer thee
This verse appeals to progressive white Brightonians, like me, because it encapsulates something we feel is distinctive and characteristic about our city – its openness and acceptance of diversity, its willingness to provide sanctuary to those who don’t belong in the places they come from.
As I worked on this blanket, I photographed each crocheted word, sharing my progress on Facebook in order to encourage other people to take part by contributing their own textile squares. The slowness of working by hand with yarn means that there is time to develop an intimate relationship with a piece of work. I tried to reflect on the significance of each word and phrase as I went along.
For instance, when I had finished the word hand, I posted this on the Facebook group:
In Sophie NL Besse’s show, Borderline, there is a scene in which a young refugee is told, after travelling across Europe to Calais, that because his fingerprints had been taken in Italy, he must return there. His response is to take a lighter and try to burn away his fingerprints. For others, stranded in camps and sleeping rough across Europe and beyond, a photo of their hand sent to the grassroots Facebook group Phone Credit For Refugees brings in return the precious gift of a chance to talk with loved ones or summon help in an emergency. But this word is simply about a greeting, human to human, hand to hand.
As I read and learned more about the situation of refugees and migrants in Europe and the UK specifically, I began to feel differently about the verse. Two thoughts have crystallised for me, as the blanket reaches its final stage.
1. ‘We ask not’ is the key phrase
Not asking means starting from the basic assumption that all humans are equal, and equally worthy of respect. It is a risky stance – as explained in the verse. There’s always a chance that you are unknowingly welcoming a foe into your home. But it is the only way to maintain your own humanity.
To say in advance that you will extend a hand of friendship to every visitor, without first questioning their status or motives, means that you relinquish your power to pick and choose who may enter. It means you opt not to see people from outside as a resource to be exploited or as victims to be rescued.
On the other side of the coin, not being asked is an experience that many progressive white Brightonians like me take for granted. It feels great, to be accepted at your word. We want to celebrate that feeling and that freedom, and share it with everyone.
But unfortunately, it is a lie.
2. We ask all the time
The unpalatable truth is that the welcome we offer to people who turn up in Brighton, the UK or Europe is very far from the open acceptance suggested by the words on my blanket.
In reality, the experience of arriving in Europe or the UK is one of being asked repeatedly what your value is, and whether you can prove you meet the (arbitrary) standards we set for people to settle here.
We ask at the border, and we keep on asking. The UK’s hostile environment for “illegal” migrants is a system that is designed to bring the border into every aspect of day-to-day life.
We ask at hospital
From 23rd October 2017, hospitals and other providers of secondary health care will be legally obliged to ask people about their immigration status and to charge overseas visitors in advance for the treatment they need.
We ask at school
Schools carry out a pupil census every term. Campaigners revealed last year that since December 2015, the Home Office has had an arrangement in place to regularly request access to the data gathered for immigration purposes.
In September 2016, new questions about nationality and country of birth were added to the Schools Census. The purpose of gathering this data is nothing to do with ensuring adequate funding for schools or support for pupils with additional language needs. It is directly related to the hostile environment programme, as Against Borders for Children explain:
In 2015 then-Home Secretary Theresa May outlined proposals to be included in the Immigration Bill that would bring schools under the government’s agenda to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. According to the BBC, those plans included schools withdrawing places offered to children of irregular migrant families and checking immigration status before accepting new pupils. After the then-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan expressed ‘profound concerns’, they reached a compromise, and the DfE agreed instead to collect nationality, COB and and expanded language data through schools “to improve [the DfE’s] understanding of the scale and impact of pupil migration on the education sector.” The new data collection is explicitly linked to the government’s policy to create a hostile environment for migrants, and is part of an attempt to make schools a proxy for immigration enforcement.
We ask at the letting agency
Since February 2016, private landlords have been required to check the immigration status of all adults they are letting property to. Landlords must check up every year and report tenants to the Home Office if they find they no longer have the required documents
Deeds not words
If you were not aware of this epidemic of asking, you are probably white, with a British-sounding name. Many of us will most likely never experience the impact of Theresa May’s hostile environment, but that doesn’t mean we can continue to assume we live in an accepting, welcoming country. We do not.
If we want to make our idea of ourselves a reality, we have to take action. Take a risk. Make a stand.
Here are some groups of people who are doing that. If you like the idea of the Welcome Blanket, you can help to make it less of a lie by joining and supporting them.
Thousand 4 1000
You can sponsor a square of the Welcome Blanket by making a donation to Thousand 4 1000, Brighton’s community response to enforced homelessness of forced migrants.
Prints and cards of the blanket are also on sale, with all profits going to Thousand 4 1000.
Docs not Cops
This campaign brings together healthcare providers and patients to resist the introduction of charging into the NHS. Download their toolkit and take action in your local area.
Against Borders for Children
Their September 2017 update has a list of clear actions you can take to disrupt the use of the school census to enforce immigration controls, whether you are a parent, teacher or anyone else.
So I went to Calais as part of the Critical Mass to Calais bike ride last weekend.
A week later, I am no closer to having anything coherent to say about it, but I thought I would put down some of the disjointed ideas it sparked anyway.
As David Charles pointed out in his excellent piece about the bike ride, cycling is not the most efficient way to get bikes from London to Calais. But the process of travelling there under (to some extent) our own steam gave me plenty of time to think about what such journeys mean for people in different circumstances.
I spent some days thinking about what to take with me, trying to imagine what I would need and what would be unnecessary weight on my bike. Everyone planning a long journey must make decisions like this, especially if their journey is on foot or by bike.
It is quite a satisfying experience, to pack your bags well and efficiently, to know where to find the things you need along the way, to be pleased with what you have brought and what you have left behind. But I was haunted by the thought of people packing for a journey they could not imagine and could not prepare for. I thought about what that process would feel like if every decision brought with it a pang of sorrow.
Before I left, lots of people told me I was doing a great thing. My journey was admirable. I realised that for people like me, travel is always to be admired. Even if I had been heading off on a holiday, people would have been pleased with me, congratulated me on my spirit of adventure. Our culture celebrates exploration, exertion and discovery.
In Kent, our route incorporated paths and roads now marked as the Pilgrim’s Way, a reminder of an older tradition of journeys made for the sake of journeying, and in the hope of hospitality along the way.
But for the people we met in Calais, and those trapped in Greece and Hungary, hospitality and admiration have been much harder to find.
Refugees and migrants
Nearly all the people we saw at the camp in Calais were young men. 90% of those stuck there are men, though I did see a young child in the brief time I spent there.
When I say young men, I mean very young. I spoke with one young man who was probably no older than my daughter, about to set off on her own big adventure to university in a couple of weeks’ time. He told me he wanted to reach the UK, so that he could work and send money back to support his family in Sudan.
I think Paul Mason is right in this piece, when he says that the distinctions between people fleeing war and poverty are increasingly meaningless.
Why is getting on your bike to find work the right thing to do if you are unemployed in the north of England, but the wrong thing if you are in Sudan? (clue: racism)
Charity and solidarity
The spontaneous mass movement of people all across Europe wanting to welcome refugees and share their belongings, and even homes, with them has been astonishing.
Just as the political institutions of Europe are being swept away by the sheer numbers of people arriving, so the power of the media to determine public opinion is being undermined by the swifter and deeper communication of Facebook.
As this excellent piece by Plan C describes, there is not a clear distinction between charity on one hand and political pressure on the other. David Cameron has been forced to shift his position in just a couple of days. All four Labour leadership candidates declared themselves in support of offering sanctuary to more refugees in the Sky News debate on Thursday, in terms that would have been unutterable by most Labour candidates before the election.
The camp at Calais is hardly built at all. All the buildings are made of wood and tarpaulin, those that are not simply tents. There is a tap, but no sanitation to speak of. When it rained on Sunday night (after I had left), many structures were simply washed away.
And yet, there are systems. There are roads. There is a shop and a cafe. There is a church, a mosque, a library and a school. There are neighbourhoods, marked with signs showing the countries where people have come from – Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia. People make society, whatever their circumstances.
I didn’t take any photos on my trip. Here is a photo album taken on the same day by Natasha Quarmby, who was careful not to compromise anyone’s immigration claim or exploit their plight for sentimental or campaigning purposes.
I’m glad I went. I wish I had stayed longer in the camp (as it turned out, my ferry didn’t leave for another six hours, so I could have done). I hope we can keep up the pressure on the governments of Europe long enough to make a real change for everyone who needs a safe haven here.