In the end, it was a single tweet followed by a blatantly partisan attempt to silence the author that made Britain’s stiff upper lip quiver.
After famed football commentator Gary Lineker expressed discomfort at the ugly rhetoric accompanying the Conservative government’s proposed “Illegal Migration Bill” targeting asylum seekers, the BBC pulled it off the air.
Personally, the politically moderate Lineker had criticized “cruel” policies and suggested that the anti-migrant rhetoric was reminiscent of 1930s Germany. An obvious distraction from Britain’s widespread economic suffering and the many accusations of Tory corruption, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s sensational “stop the boats” policy is said to have caused desperate people who are floating on rubber boats on the coast of Britain arrive, are criminalised, detained, deported and barred from ever returning. The United Nations has declared this illegal.
In reality, Lineker had not breached the BBC’s ‘impartiality’ guidelines, but an unwritten national code. Britain, in its apparently trademark goodness, should never be compared to the Germany that the Allies finally defeated in World War II. It cannot be suggested that if Britain did not withdraw from xenophobia and demonizing people perceived as “others”, Britain could itself take the path that Germany once took.
Cultural theorist Paul Gilroy describes Britain as suffering from a “pathology of grandeur”, epitomized by the mixed war and football chant: “Two World Wars and One World Cup”. A sense of itself as eternally the good man, never in danger of becoming like the bad one, is fundamental to Britain’s official, if somewhat misleading, narrative of itself.
Although he had not in fact referred to the Nazis, the Holocaust or concentration camps, Lineker, who was reinstated by the BBC after a huge outcry, was nevertheless accused of making “Nazi insults”. This false claim came from tabloids complicit in describing, equally incorrectly, “swarms” of refugees and “illegals pouring into Britain”. Lineker had pointed out that there was no such “influx”, thus blowing a hole in a fiction propagated by ministers and media alike. Great Britain processes far fewer asylum applications than Germany, for example.
Yet those who shy away from the parallel need not look to the German past. Britain’s own long imperial and post-war history provides ample examples of inhumane language and deadly racism.
Contrary to popular history’s repeated mention of “the finest hour”, and Britain’s heroic victory (with Allies) in the anti-Nazi war, there is a stark silence surrounding British history in this country. racial violence and ethnic cleansing.
This history of white supremacy and racial terror is the more relevant backdrop to understanding Britain’s ruthless attitude to asylum seekers from war-torn regions of Asia and Africa. The contrast between their treatment and the commendable generosity extended to Ukrainians fleeing war who are perceived to be more “like us” (meaning white and European) is telling.
It is no secret that in order to enslave, subjugate, conquer or expropriate peoples over four centuries, the British Empire developed ideologies that viewed the dark peoples of the world as less human than Europeans or less than human at all. Some South Africans, seen as “wild” and sexually insatiable, were exhibited in “human zoos”, while East Africa’s “violent” and “primitive” Kikuyu were herded into small reserves, condemned to be now “squatters” on their own land called “the White Highlands”.
Bengalis who died in the millions from a colonial famine were derided by Churchill as “breeding like rabbits”, while the indigenous peoples of North America were considered cannibals and unable to work the land, which could then be easily taken from them. to be taken. The Secwepemc leader, George Manuel, recalls being asked by a white colleague in the 1970s, “Do Indians have feelings?” The idea that the dark peoples of the world are less susceptible to abuse remains pervasive.
As the government today demonizes undocumented migrants seeking shelter, it is worth remembering that Britain has historically been more of a refugee-making country than a refugee-receiving country.
Slavery literally turned people into freight, while indentured labor snatched many desperate people from homelands in Asia and deposited them to work on British plantations for pitiful wages. These extraordinary renditions took place on large ships rather than the small boats denounced by Sunak and his ministers, but the dehumanization of people on the high seas is not new to Britain. The dismissive attitude towards desperate people on inflatable dinghies who brave the danger to reach British shores is vaguely reminiscent of the callous spirit of those ship captains who threw enslaved people overboard to claim merchandise insurance, as illustrated by the infamous Zong massacre in 1781.
In her book, Bordering Britain, legal scholar Nadine El-Enany has pointed out that Britain’s borders and the successive pieces of legislation that formed them, such as the Nationality Act of 1981, “maintain the racial order established by colonialism “, in which black and brown bodies are coded as racially inferior and disposable.
In colonial Kenya, for example, the Native Registration Amendment Ordinance required African men to wear a hated “kipande” or passbook around their neck. It determined where they could go and whether they could work, even though most of their fertile farmland had been displaced by white settlers, history’s most deadly economic migrants.
After Britain expanded liberally to the world in the centuries before, it shrank into itself in the post-war era and then narrowed the definition of who could be British.
The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 sought to prevent members of what Queen Elizabeth – as Princess in 1947 – had described as “our great Imperial Family” from pursuing citizenship.
It is no small irony, of course, that the most vicious version of Britain’s racist immigration policy is spearheaded by two British Asian politicians with family ties in East Africa: Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
As is well known, many Asians from Uganda and Kenya itself have arrived in Britain seeking refuge after being expelled from these newly independent nations. El-Enany describes how Ugandan Asians were reluctantly admitted to Britain. Even these extremely modest numbers elicited viciously racist rhetoric, most notoriously from Conservative MP Enoch Powell in his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, as members of the National Front chanted ‘Keep the Asians out’.
It is deeply reprehensible that, instead of honoring the history of the anti-racist struggle that sheltered their families in Britain despite hostility, ethnic minority politicians such as Sunak and Braverman have tried to impose on others the brutal expulsions experienced by previous generations. had to do.
This does not hold them to any other standard. It is insistence on an obvious moral principle, the golden rule – that you must offer others the same principles of refuge and containment that were offered to you. A divided Britain is on the brink of a moral divide. Unless it pulls back, it risks becoming another stark historical warning.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.