Even by this government’s standards, last week was bleak and this one, as the Tory conference gets under way, promises to be no less dispiriting. It is clear that Conservative party policy proposals and rhetoric are now nothing but wild last-ditch attempts to renew chances at the next election, but Suella Braverman’s latest assertion that multiculturalism has “failed” proved that when it comes to immigration, we have moved away from dog whistles and back towards the sort of Powellite language that, even decades ago, was considered beyond the pale.
Braverman’s comments were made to a handful of slouched thinktankers and journalists in Washington, and are no doubt part of her attempt to ingratiate herself with powerful, well-funded rightwing organisations as the voice of Tory future. But in the constant din of political campaigning, sloganeering and posturing about immigration, Braverman’s speech is a reminder of how badly millions of real people have been let down. The hostile environment, the “go home” vans, the “controls on immigration” mugs, the “small boats week”, and countless other dutiful pronouncements by both parties about “controlling” immigration have all led to this point.
Millions have gone through the pain and bewilderment of displacement. They have experienced welcome and rejection, love and heartbreak, childbirth and growth. They have changed, and made peace with their differences. They have all been, in one vulgar swoop, traduced and humiliated by Braverman’s declaration.
It’s hard not to take it personally, for it not to break your spirit a little. This really does, finally, cover everyone who has migrated, not only the several cohorts over time (“illegals”, “fake asylum seekers” or simply “the boats”) that have served as the targets of the government’s most extreme rhetoric and policies. What level of assimilation does Braverman think is desirable?
To what extent are we expected to shed the different religions, customs, foods and cultural heritages in order to render the UK a place where there is only one culture? Is it OK to attend a mosque, a synagogue, a temple? Is it OK to not go down the pub with colleagues, to fast during Ramadan, to wear the hijab, to wear braids? There is no coherent answer to this of course, other than Braverman’s repetition of a conveniently uncodified set of “British values”.
What is often forgotten about immigration is that there is something sacred at the heart of it – what it takes to make a place your home. It is never entirely hermetic. It always involves, even to the most isolated of immigrants, some faith in their new country; some form of letting go and letting in, if not on the part of the first-generation immigrant then through their children or grandchildren, resulting in complex multiple identities that confound any definitions of just “British” or “other”. The result is a pluralism born of choice, not obligation.
Through relationships with other people and institutions, there is a yielding to a new life and a new way of doing things that, to those who have experienced it, feels little short of miraculous. Those who have seen their previously hardline parents not only accept, but eventually welcome, their children’s partners from other backgrounds have seen the most improbable of these miracles.
And it has happened, again and again, for as long as the country has existed. “It could take a while – perhaps centuries,” wrote the immigration scholar Robert Winder of England’s medieval settlers. “But the landscape would drip into their souls eventually.” It is an organic process that, when left alone, is based on the fact that humans instinctively know that to survive, to coexist, is to trust.
Reframing this historical odyssey is a political class whose analysis is cold and abstract at best, cruel and dehumanising at worst. It is about net numbers, about resources, about “weaning the economy” off immigrants, and “managing” and “processing” people. Then, after a firehose of this sort of talk, we are told by politicians that we have to tread carefully around the fears of voters who they themselves have primed to be suspicious of newcomers after years of hysterical fixation on migrants’ illegality, and their cultural and economic impact. The result is a moral vacuum so large it has swallowed us up.
Braverman is a useful politician, in that she is unskilled enough to say things others so far have smoothed over in more temperate language, and in that her own background helps to market the right’s position on immigration. But the problem is in neither of these characteristics. Braverman’s statements are not a product of her political shortcomings and failure to follow the rules of migrant speak (be harsh but always maintain plausible deniability about racism). They are not problematic because she is herself the daughter of immigrants. They are calamitous because the stakes for making such claims are so low.
There is no heavy moral counterweight to her, because there are few people making the argument at a high-profile political level – in a way that is consistent and central to progressive politics – that frames immigrants as people who have made the UK their home. Whatever their lifestyle looks like, they have the right not to be maligned, bullied and demoralised by their leaders. It is left to immigrants themselves, or their children and grandchildren, to plead for the humans behind the headlines, as I have just done.
Or it is left to public figures such as Gary Lineker to point out not only the factual incoherence of such far-right statements, but also their wickedness, before they learn that there are indeed high stakes when it comes to speaking about immigration. Meanwhile, multicultural Britain continues to do its thing, to evolve, merge and affirm its right to difference in ways the state has no means of managing, or interest in understanding. What the state can do is peevishly look on, introduce the sorts of tensions it pretends to be concerned about, and then exploit multiculturalism for its own ends.
This is the point where I am always tempted to make a case for the fact that standing up for immigrants is not only right, but tactically important for liberals who, not least with Brexit and the ensuing disastrous years, have paid a high price for allowing scaremongering about immigration to thrive unchallenged. But not today, because even that argument is an apology. There are red lines. And if making statements that would not go amiss in a “great replacement” pamphlet doesn’t cross them, I don’t know what does.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist