Expecting a general election soon, the political parties of the ruling class have united in a campaign round immigration, refugees and race. The Daily Telegraph (7/2/5) thinks that “a chasm remains between the two main parties on immigration … No one can complain that the country is being denied a genuine choice.”
You’d actually be hard put to distinguish the differences between Labour and Conservative policy. Both have been inspired by the restrictive immigration policies of other countries and come to very similar conclusions. Labour want to replace current work permits schemes with a 4-tier points system where financial experts can settle here without a job offer, low skilled non-EU nationals will only be allowed in under very specific circumstances and will have to leave at the end of their stay, and students can briefly pass through. Labour promise that refugees will be removed even quicker, that a National Border Force will be established, that arrivals will be fingerprinted and tested for TB and other diseases. In contrast, the Tories’ health tests would include HIV, they would have quotas for immigrants and refugees, would process asylum applications abroad, make deportation and detention easier, withdraw from the 1951 UN convention on refugees, and finance all their schemes by charging migrants for all the tests and checks they’ll have to take.
These differences are like those on prison policy. Labour is putting more people in prison than any British government before it and boasts that there are now 17,000 more prison places. The Tories promise that their longer sentences will mean another 14,000 in prison and they’ll therefore build 20 new prisons. There’s no “chasm” between the parties, more a competition in repressive measures and propaganda about all the threats that innocent people are under.
Climate of fear
The message of the political parties is backed up by commentators in the press, TV and radio. Britain is under threat. There are terrorists out to destroy thousands of lives if they could. There are hundreds under surveillance just waiting for the moment when they can commit some atrocity like 9/11, Bali or Madrid. There are millions of foreigners that want to take advantage of British ‘prosperity’. The unions denounce British jobs being exported to other countries. Politicians say that Britain can only take in so many people from ‘alien’ cultures because of the danger of foreigners either ‘swamping’ or not accepting the ‘British way of life’. Hazel Blears, minister responsible for counter-terrorism, has said Muslims will have to accept they’ll be stopped and searched by the police more often than other people. House arrest is supposed to be a fair price to pay at such times.
All this hysteria is actually making it hard for the overt racists of the BNP to make headway - the mainstream parties are stealing their ideas, they wail (but the BNP still has a role to play as a fascist bogeyman: everyone from Michael Howard to the SWP warns that it is a major threat to democracy and freedom).
This campaign is partly based on straightforward nationalism. Because of foreign threats – real or manufactured – the population is supposed to rally to the government, forget how it has suffered under Tory and Labour alike, and make sacrifices in the defence of British capitalism.
But there’s more to it than that. The ruling class and all its media are trying to make us not only afraid of terrorists or foreign invaders, but distrustful of those about us, even our neighbours and those we work with. Look at the continuing scares about paedophiles; any one who works with or has contact with young people is now under suspicion as a potential child molester. Not that children are innocent: there’s a constant procession of ‘wild’ children in the media who don’t know the meaning of the word ‘discipline’. Accordingly Charles Clarke at the Home Office has said that those as young as 10 who are the subject of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders will have their names and photographs published.
So, while the racism of the capitalist parties is intended to divide the working class along ‘ethnic’ grounds, the sowing of distrust and fear in the population has a more insidious effect. Take the government’s advice on burglars. You’re now allowed to use whatever force is necessary to protect your home against intruders. What this actually conjures up is a world where a violent break-in is imminent at any moment. The political parties say that they are responding to the real fears of decent people. In fact it is a continuing campaign in the bourgeois media that foments people’s anxiety and suspicion.
The different parts of the political spectrum play particular roles in the campaign, but to the same end. While the right scream about asylum seekers living in luxury, Muslims failing to integrate and terrorists lurking in suburbia, liberal commentators say that politicians have to respond to what’s being said on the street – otherwise the Tories and BNP will monopolise the argument.
Martin Kettle in the Guardian (8/2/5) asks if Britain is “a nation whose fears about immigration, asylum and crime are now so strong that the parties are compelled to bid and outbid each other in an effort to keep up with our anger” and thinks that “politicians have to be alive to the concerns of the voters.” Polly Toynbee, also in the Guardian (23/2/5), answers that that “Asylum plays horribly well: canvassers report that people talk of it incessantly, crazily, despite a steep fall in applications” and that “it’s no use pretending that a profoundly nasty streak in the voters will go away if it’s just ignored.”
This sort of argument can only be fought with a marxist understanding of where ideas come from. In modern bourgeois society the ruling capitalist class not only controls the mass media, its ideas are dominant at every level of society. The agenda for all debate in the bourgeois media is determined by the concerns of the capitalist class. Any discussion of the economy is on how to make capitalism most profitable; any discussion on foreign policy is on how best to defend national interests.
So, the “nasty streak” identified by Toynbee is something that has been stirred up by contributions both crude and refined, direct and oblique across the media. And where fear and suspicion is aroused by the ruling class they also insist that the capitalist state is the only force that could possibly defend us. All political parties insist the number one priority of the state is the security of the citizen. In reality the capitalist state can only defend the interests of the capitalist class, and workers can only defend themselves when they struggle as a class. But if you’re worried, isolated and insecure you are more likely to believe capitalism’s lies.
None of this means that there is no increase in crime, that terrorism isn’t on the rise across the world, that daily life is not becoming more and more insecure. These are all products of the accelerating decay of capitalist society and usually the first victims of crime and terrorism are not the rich and powerful but the oppressed and the exploited. But the true cynicism of the ruling class is shown by its willingness to use the very decomposition of its own system to prevent any real questioning of that system and to keep the exploited in their place with its deafening campaigns of fear and loathing. Car 4/3/5