New Internationalist

‘Bongo Bongo’, racist vans and the act of ‘othering’


In the UK Independence Party’s (Ukip) conference today, leader Nigel Farage will again place fear of immigration at the heart of British politics. Ukip’s recent success in local elections has the Conservative Party running scared and the shift in the politics of immigration has been dramatic.

In July 2013, the Home Office sent out vans with billboards featuring the slogan ‘go home or face arrest’ to drive around ethnically diverse areas of London. In August, reports emerged that Godfrey Bloom, a Ukip MEP, had told Ukip activists that Britain should not be sending aid to ‘Bongo Bongo land’.

Throughout this period, Home Office officials were conducting a series of spot checks, mainly at London stations. Such has been the shift in policy, driven by Ukip’s rise, that Sarah Teather, a Liberal Democrat MP, recently quit parliament in ‘desolation’ at her party’s complicity in the coalition’s stance.

Pressure is mounting to force illegal immigrants to ‘go home’. But like all processes of exclusion, what is happening says as much about those making the rules as those being arrested.

The 2011 British Social Attitudes poll claims that over 70 per cent of people want immigration reduced ‘a little’ or ‘a lot’. Enter Lynton Crosby. Appointed in November 2012, this Tory spin-doctor-in-chief is taking the fight to Ukip over who can be tougher on immigration. And Crosby is tough.  But what is interesting about Crosby are his tactics – labelled as ‘dog whistle’ politics – of using coded language to project different meanings to different constituencies. The dog whistle can be heard in Conservative slogans such as ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ or ‘It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration’. But how can we understand such tactics and their success?

From an anthropological point of view, Crosby’s ‘dog whistle’ and Ukip’s ‘Bongo’ agenda exploit uncertainties in how people understand being ‘British’. And what is key is how the anti-immigrant stance connects to these uncertainties to push a politics of what anthropologists like to call ‘alterity’, or how we construct ‘the other’, in relation to ourselves.

To single out people who do not conform is nothing new. But what is happening right now goes beyond scapegoating. François Hartog, a French historian, says that alterity is about translation, or transforming otherness into sameness. It works like this: firstly, by telling certain communities to ‘go home’, a British citizen’s identity is constructed; secondly, by grouping legal immigrants, illegal immigrants and asylum seekers and recasting all of them as a burden on our resources; only ‘authentic’ British citizens should have access to the NHS, schools, and housing. Put together, this equals an entire rethinking of who we can imagine as being a British citizen.

In 2011 the Migration Observatory found that most people in Britain could not distinguish between immigration and asylum. Ukip exploits this uncertainty. In a recent campaign in Chorley, Northern England, Ukip materials directly connect ‘uncontrolled migrant labour’ and ‘asylum seekers’ to ‘the British benefits system’ and the taking of ‘working-class jobs’. Again, we see British citizens being made, and the difference between them and the alien ‘other’ rendered as sharp as an uncontrollable weed infestation on a pristine British lawn.

The worst of it is that there is an ugly nuance to this anti-immigrant rhetoric – that of ethnicity. Following recent operations, the Home Office were forced to deny that officials broke the law by carrying out spot checks on the basis of skin colour. But the areas where the vans passed and spot checks took place were undeniably  ‘ethnically diverse’ and witnesses reported that the spot checks focused on ‘non-white’ people.

The majority of illegal immigrants are people who have overstayed their visas  rather than been smuggled into the UK but there is no mention of Australian, US or South African illegal immigrants in government discourse, although statistically, these nationalities are part of the data. What does this tell us? Politics of alterity reconfigures how we imagine the ‘other’, and therefore ‘ourselves’ and these differences are racialised.

Alarmingly, this is just the beginning. Although the ‘go home’ campaign was just a pilot, there is more to come. There are plans to demand a bond of up to £3,000 ($4800) from visitors from ‘high risk’ countries such as India and Nigeria and landlords now have to check that their tenants are not illegal immigrants.

But it is not just people of a darker skin colour that are subject to the politics of alterity. In discourse surrounding disability, claimants are fraudulent, benefits are doled out without checks, and taxpayers fund free cars. Kayleigh Garthwaite of Durham University has connected such scaremongering to governmental briefings and Ian Birrell of The Observer has argued that the Department for Work and Pensions is ‘demonising the disabled’. It is not just people of a darker skin colour in ‘ethnically diverse’ areas that can be ‘othered’. What is at stake here is who is a fit-and-proper British citizen.

This populist politics of alterity delivers short-term electoral gains. The Labour Party’s shadow home office minister Chris Bryant was recently quoted as saying that ‘it is in everyone’s interest to combat illegal immigration’. Conviction politics it is not. But there is hope beyond the dog whistle. While Searchlight’s 2011 poll shows that 76 per cent of respondents see immigration as a big national problem, it also reveals that only 15 per cent see it as a problem locally. When people break the barriers separating them from the ‘other’ in local communities, fear diminishes.

What counts therefore is bridging local and national levels of community. Third sector projects like STAR’s Regional Asylum Activism programme  are creating opportunities for face-to-face contact and personal testimony to break down the ‘otherness’ of asylum seekers and refugees. And social media such as Twitter has an important role to play. Through projecting local voices into the national, the unknown ‘other’ is broken down; stats become people. Pukkah Punjabi’s trolling of the Home Office by asking to ‘go home’ to Willesden Green is an important example of this, humanising abstract debates through humour.

Mark Harper, the Minister for Immigration, recently stated that ‘illegal immigration must be tackled. If the poster campaign helps with that, why would anyone be opposed to it?’ Divisive dog whistle politics does not cut it. We need constructive pathways for undermining this tidal, and urgent, politics of alterity.

The full version of this article will be published in the October issue of the Royal Anthropological Institute journal, Anthropology Today.

Alex Flynn is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Durham University. @auxmarquises

Comments on ‘Bongo Bongo’, racist vans and the act of ‘othering’

Leave your comment