Turning previously radical ideas, originally confined to the fringes of the party-political narratives and social attitudes, into mainstream orthodoxies is not as difficult as it is often assumed. The flutter of a butterfly’s wings can, in some cases, cause a hurricane somewhere else, over a period of time and through a random chain of unpredictable events.
When the manifesto of the Conservative Party for the 2010 UK elections came to include an ill-judged commitment to reduce net migration and introduced a set figure as its ultimate aspiration, few saw this as little more than pandering to the populist narratives of the likes of UKIP in an effort to get votes and win power. When then-Home Secretary Theresa May coined the phrase ‘hostile environment’ in 2012, she was responding to the spectacular failure of her government to meet its manifesto immigration targets – from the hundreds to the tens of thousands, as had been originally promised. Still, net migration to Britain continued to rise stubbornly. The political opportunity for the UKIP constituency was hard to resist and seemed easy to capitalise on.
Yet here we are, in 2018, battered by a hurricane of unforeseen proportions. Britain is still on course to leave the European Union after the vote of the 23 June 2016 referendum; an outcome that was largely attributed to a widespread fear of immigration that the mainstream political class has helped foster, and then proved devastatingly inept in controlling. More recently, the government crisis over the Windrush scandal has exposed the brutal insensitivity of blindly chasing immigration targets and succumbing to the narrative of hostility towards immigrants. It has also been reported that the Prime Minister blocked efforts to relax some of the draconian immigration procedures to allow public service workers to come to the UK and work in delivering key services, which have been severely affected by staff shortages. Meanwhile UKIP is currently in the political wilderness, sleepwalking from one crisis to another and watching its electoral appeal collapse – exemplified by its disastrous showing in the June 2017 parliamentary and the May 2018 local elections.
Looking at electoral returns may tell a comforting story. The British radical right has failed to stage a breakthrough that looked quite possible only a few years earlier. The mainstream has neutralised, it would seem, the electoral threat from the populists – but at what price?
The persistence of narratives of a ‘hostile environment’ at the heart of the UK government, led by a mainstream party of the centre-right, is indicative of a deeper, cumulative shift in both policy and societal ‘common sense’. Last week, during the concluding panel of the inaugural convention of the Association of Comparative Fascism Studies (COMFAS), hosted by the Central European University in Budapest, I shared the platform with Péter Krekó, a leading expert in the study of the Hungarian radical right. It was naturally difficult for us to resist the temptation to reflect upon the current situation in Hungary, where the putative centre-right Fidesz, fresh from a stunning electoral victory, has for years been shifting rightward, even as the key party representative of the country’s radical right, Jobbik, was attempting a tentative move (of sorts) to the centre ground. Krekó described the situation in Hungary through a convergence of two processes – mainstreaming of the extreme and extremisation of the mainstream.
How does this parallel schema apply to the current ‘hostile environment’ toward immigration in the UK? It is true that the shifting political attitudes to immigration have been years, even decades, in the making. No matter how easy it is to construct, retrospectively, the genealogy of the current nativist spasm against ‘others’ in Britain (immigration laws, high-profile public pronouncements, numerous tabloid headlines, the rise in hate speech and crime, on- and off-line recorded through official statistics, and so on), the proverbial hurricane of the Windrush scandal has been the cumulative product of a myriad butterfly wings, fluttering trivially over an extended period of time. There has been no major turning point, no rupture with the normative values of a liberal society wedded to discourses of freedom, democracy, and individual human rights. The two processes that Kréko described have also unfolded in tandem in Britain, feeding off each other, through mundane and piecemeal transgressive speech acts and legal initiatives.
Professor Aristotle Kallis is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Keele University. See his profile here.
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