This week the Daily Star informed its readers that an ‘army’ of Roma migrants amounting to 200,000 (advance troops) had already ‘infiltrated’ the UK – with the prospect of more to follow. Pic is Refugee Child (Alternative Title: Spanish Refugee) by William H. Johnson and from Smithsonian American Art Museum from Flickr under creative comms licence.
Not to be outdone in this rhetorical race to the bottom, the Daily Express pronounced that the votes were cast, the verdict was in, and the result was a landslide. It seems that in response to its poll 98% of the public ‘demanded’ a ban on further migration.
There were 12,000 participants, so there must have been around 250 intrepid souls opposing the newspaper’s proposition. Nevertheless, and with heroic selflessness, the Express has put itself forward to head the ‘crusade’.
It’s very tempting, I know, to dismiss these odious arguments as cynically contrived stratagems shaped by the base motivation of selling more newspapers. Tempting as such a course is, we should resist it. For these events, these cultural artefacts, speak to more than the witlessness of certain tabloid journalists. They reveal to us a social force and phenomenon that deserves our closest attention.
Crusades old and new
Let us look once more at the Express’s campaign. Except it’s not just a campaign, we should remember, but a ‘crusade’. Note the deeply unattractive trappings of religiosity in which it is cloaked. Indeed the front page depicts a woman in a headscarf – the inference we are supposed to draw about her religious affiliation being obvious – pleading (begging?) in the street.
Historically, as now, a crusade was a very specific form of mass aggression, a mass movement directed at reclaiming possession of a land deemed to be ‘holy’.
Tellingly, Conservative MP Philip Hollobone fully supports the Express’s stance, saying that Britain could not cope with these migrants with whom ‘we have very little in common’. These are, we should remind ourselves, men, women and children, all from the species Homo sapiens, from the continent of Europe, whose nations (Bulgaria and Romania) were accepted as members of the European Union back in 2007.
In better news, and just when it appears we’re about to be swamped by one invading army, another seems to have mysteriously disappeared. Two weeks ago (21 October) The Sun loudly proclaimed that a contingent of 600,000 ‘benefit tourists’ has been laying siege to our nation’s beleaguered welfare offices.
This week, with rather less of a fanfare, the newspaper was forced to admit that the story based on ‘no evidence’. The actual figure is rather less impressive. There are in fact fewer than 38,000 EU migrants claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance in the UK. But then why should a mundane truth get in the way of fabulous falsehood. In its apology, however, the Sun defiantly defended its commitment to the ‘highest editorial standards’. High indeed. In this case, too high by 562,000.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has been asking the UK government to provide evidence of its repeated claims of being the victim of benefit tourism. No response has been forthcoming. But then as Commission spokesperson Jonathan Todd explains, the EC has only been asking the UK for the evidence for three years.
The phony war
So it seems that after all we are not at war. At least not in any sense other than the preposterous and the absurd. Indeed it would be a strange kind of warfare where only one side is doing the fighting. So is it not safe after all to dismiss the histrionics of the Express and the Star as tawdry populist pandering? Well, they certainly are that. The problem is that they are at the same time something more.
They are cultural wind chimes set in motion by the torrents of hysteria surrounding migrants, which of course they contrive to whip up yet more. Therefore in a week of figures – 200,000; 600,000; 38,000; 98% – we would do well to recall what Orwell wrote about the number two.
In his dystopic society, there is famously a daily period called the ‘Two Minutes Hate’. It is a chance for ordinary people to vent their loathing and fury against public enemies and folk devils (most of which don’t even exist). Those in authority look on knowingly at the resulting emotional maelstrom, conscious of the power of harnessing such hostility, how it can defeat reason, dash down common sense and destroy the need for facts. It would be interesting, would it not, to investigate empirically the level of hatred and contempt generated by the Express’s poisonous little poll.
Therefore the mobilisation of the language of war in debates around new migrants is something that should alert us. It is part of a process: the desensitisation of feelings towards outgroups. So they are not considered as equivalently human – and their inconvenient moral and legal claims can be safely dismissed.
Thus we must certainly contest the offensive ideas expressed in those newspapers that have been falling over each other to go ‘on the record’ in ever more hyperbolic ways about the migrant menace. But we must also challenge the bellicose terms in which the debate is being framed. Because we know from Orwell’s nightmarish vision that our liberties are inextricably linked to language.
And the manipulation of the latter invariably damages the former.
Dexter is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers, a researcher at Harvard University and a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge