In the end, it was a single tweet followed by a blatantly partisan attempt to get its author to shut up that made Britain’s stiff upper lip quiver.
After celebrity football commentator Gary Lineker expressed his discomfort with the ugly rhetoric accompanying the Conservative government’s proposed “Illegal Migration Bill”, aimed at asylum seekers, the BBC took him off air.
On his personal account, the politically moderate Lineker had criticised a “cruel” policy and suggested that the anti-migrant rhetoric was reminiscent of 1930s’ Germany. An obvious distraction from the widespread economic suffering in Britain and multiple allegations of Tory corruption, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s sensationalising “stop the boats” policy would see desperate people arriving on Britain’s shores on rubber dinghies being criminalised, detained, deported, and debarred from ever returning. The United Nations has described this as illegal.
In truth, Lineker had violated not the BBC’s “impartiality” guidelines, but an unwritten national code. Britain in its apparently distinctive goodness must never be compared with the Germany that the Allies finally defeated in the second world war. There can be no suggestion that if it does not pull back from xenophobia and demonising people deemed “others”, Britain might itself canter down the path Germany once took.
Cultural theorist Paul Gilroy describes Britain as suffering from a “pathology of greatness” embodied by the mixed martial and football chant: “Two World Wars and One World Cup”. A sense of itself as eternally the good guy, never in danger of becoming like the bad one, is fundamental to Britain’s official but somewhat deluded narrative of itself.
Although he had not in fact referenced the Nazis, the Holocaust or concentration camps Lineker, reinstated by the BBC after a huge outcry, was still accused of making “Nazi slurs”. This false claim came from tabloids complicit in describing, equally falsely, “swarms” of refugees and “illegals flooding into Britain”. Lineker had pointed out that there was no such “influx”, puncturing a hole in a fiction propagated by both ministers and media. Britain processes far fewer asylum applications than Germany, for instance.
Still, those who baulk at the parallel need not look to the German past. Britain’s own long imperial and post-war history furnishes sufficient examples of dehumanising language and lethal racism.
Unlike the repeated citation of “the finest hour”, and Britain’s heroic victory (with Allies) in the anti-Nazi war in popular history, there is a stark silence in this country around Britain’s history of racial violence and ethnic cleansing.
This history of white supremacy and racial terror is the more relevant background for understanding Britain’s brutal attitude towards asylum seekers from war-torn regions of Asia and Africa. The contrast between their treatment and the laudable generosity offered to Ukrainians fleeing war who are deemed to be more “like us” (meaning white and European) is telling.
It is no secret that to enslave, subjugate, conquer or dispossess peoples over four centuries, the British Empire developed ideologies that deemed the darker peoples of the globe either less human than Europeans or less than human altogether. Some South Africans, seen as “savage” and sexually insatiable, were exhibited in “human zoos” while the “violent” and “primitive” Kikuyu in East Africa were corralled into small reserves, condemned to be “squatters” on their own land now called “the White Highlands”.
Bengalis dying in their millions from a colonial famine were mocked by Churchill as “breeding like rabbits”, while the Indigenous peoples of North America were regarded as cannibals and unable to farm the land, which could conveniently then be taken from them. The Secwepemc leader, George Manuel, recalls being asked by a white colleague as late as the 1970s: “Do Indians have feelings?” The idea that the world’s darker peoples are less sensitive to ill-treatment remains pervasive.
As its government demonises undocumented people seeking shelter today, it is worth remembering that Britain has historically been more a refugee-making country than a refugee-taking one.
Enslavement literally turned human beings into cargo while indenture ripped many desperate people from homelands in Asia and deposited them to work on British plantations for pitiable wages. These extraordinary renditions took place on large ships rather than the small boats decried by Sunak and his ministers but the dehumanising of people on the high seas is not new to Britain. The dismissive attitude to desperate people on inflatable dinghies braving danger to get to British shores is faintly evocative of the callous spirit of those ship captains who threw enslaved people overboard in order to be able to claim merchandise insurance as illustrated by the infamous 1781 Zong massacre.
In her book, Bordering Britain, the legal scholar Nadine El-Enany has pointed out that Britain’s borders and the successive legislations which have shaped them such as the 1981 Nationality Act “maintain the racial order established by colonialism” in which Black and brown bodies are coded as racially inferior and disposable.
In colonial Kenya, to name just one example, the Native Registration Amendment Ordinance meant that a hated “kipande” or passbook had to be worn around the neck by African males. It determined where they could go and whether they could work even as most had been displaced from their fertile agricultural lands by white settlers, history’s most lethal economic migrants.
Having liberally expanded into the world in the centuries which preceded it, Britain contracted into itself in the post-war era, then narrowed the definition of who was allowed to be British.
The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 strove to stop members of what Queen Elizabeth had — as princess in 1947 — described as “our great imperial family” from aspiring for citizenship.
It is no small irony, of course, that the most vicious iteration of racist British immigration policy has been fronted by two British Asian politicians with family connections to East Africa: Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
As is well-known, many Asians from Uganda and Kenya themselves arrived in Britain seeking refuge after being expelled from these newly independent nations. El-Enany describes how grudgingly Ugandan Asians were admitted to Britain. Even these extremely modest numbers elicited viciously racist rhetoric most infamously from Conservative MP Enoch Powell in his infamous “rivers of blood” speech, as National Front members chanted “Keep the Asians out”.
It is deeply reprehensible that ethnic minority politicians like Sunak and Braverman, instead of honouring the histories of anti-racist struggle which afforded their families shelter in Britain in the face of hostility, have sought to enact upon others the cruel expulsions visited upon previous generations.
This is not holding them to a different standard. It is to insist on an obvious moral principle, the golden rule — that you must afford to others the same principles of refuge and inclusion that were offered to you. A divided Britain stands on the edge of a moral chasm. Unless it pulls back, it risks becoming another grim historical warning.
*teaches in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University.