Stuart Hall, cultural theorist and intellectual, died on Monday. The reluctant “godfather of multiculturalism”, Hall arrived in the UK with Jamaica’s Windrush generation to embark on a three-year Oxford Rhodes scholarship. He talked about that trip recently, declaring his life to be one of “partial displacement”. He was not in his words, English, but became a figure that documented the changes afoot in British identity, especially that of its new arrivals. Hall was a member of the New Left and a voice that expressed the ambiguities of assimilation, the politics of immigration and multiculturalism in post-war UK. He coined the term Thatcherism and held up the mirror to the UK’s racial journey, warts and all.
Where Stuart Hall and his contemporaries were victims of racially focused xenophobia, glance across Europe today and the anti-immigration argument rests less on race than it does on nationality, culture and economics. The popular arguments against immigration have changed little in the post-war years but have recently – at least in the UK – focused on the supposed drain on state benefits. In spite of evidence compiled by respected institutions such as University College London that shows immigrants to the UK leave a net tax benefit to the economy, the narrative against immigration in all its guises has taken hold.
In the UK, the fall in popularity of the main parties has lead in part to increased backing for the right wing UK Independence Party (UKIP). Consequently, the battle for support has lead to sensitive national issues being used to curry favour with the heretofore right-leaning – but not necessarily right-wing – electorate. The Conservative’s now former immigration minister famously used alarmist mobile billboards warning illegal immigrants to “Go home or face arrest” in racially diverse areas. Only one departee reportedly cited the campaign as a reason to leave.
On to the continent and Switzerland recently joined the anti-immigration bandwagon, confounding business leaders and its own government earlier this week with an approved vote to redraw its free-flow worker relationship with the EU. While not a hive of multiculturalism it has its own international flavour with around a quarter of its population EU workers. It has low unemployment and its success is contingent on Europe’s talented professionals but a right-wing coalition helmed by the Swiss People’s Party has nevertheless successfully brought the anti-immigration agenda to the Swiss story. Political opportunism is the order of the day as economies recover slowly across Europe.
Back in multilayered London and it’s easy to forget wider sentiment about this contentious topic. The work of Stuart Hall – angry and often hard headed – eloquently described the weights of racial outsiderdom for UK incomers. I’d like to say we’ve come a long way since then but the change from race to nationality or culture may be cosmetic. But while chancers in parliament and a collaborative media keep their contortion of the immigration issue in the spotlight, a new kind of isolationism is developing.
Aled John is a producer for Monocle 24.