• World

Britain’s Risky Race-Baiting

4 minute read
Nick Cohen

In 1977, my father decided that my education would not be complete until he had taken me to a left-wing demonstration. We took a bus to London and there joined a protest against a neo-Nazi outfit called the National Front, which was threatening to smash up areas of London with large Pakistani populations. “Go home,” the neo-Nazis chanted, “Pakis go home.”

Even at the tender age of 16, I grasped how un-British their slogans were. They claimed to be patriots but venerated Nazism, which true British patriots had fought a world war to defeat. The electorate agreed with the antifascist protesters, and the National Front soon vanished from public life.

Racism is far less acceptable in Britain today; the police will arrest you if you use racial insults in public. Yet for all the political correctness in contemporary Britain, the favorite two-word phrase of the old neo-Nazis is back to taunt immigrants. Except that now “Go home” is not the slogan of skinheads but of Her Majesty’s Government.

This mainstreaming of extremist idiom began in July when the Home Office, the British equivalent of a Ministry of the Interior, sent trucks to tour areas of London that are home to large numbers of immigrants. The trucks carried billboards that informed passersby that the police had arrested large numbers of illegals locally. In green lettering underneath was the old racist line: GO HOME OR FACE ARREST. The government announced on Oct. 22 that no more trucks would be sent out after the Advertising Standards Authority, a watchdog that regulates advertising, banned the ad. The Home Office has, however, carried on with a long-standing campaign to text tens of thousands of people, telling them, “Our records show that you may not have leave to remain in the U.K. Please contact us to discuss your case.”

Propaganda vans touring the street? Bureaucrats sending intimidating messages to personal phones? Surely these things happen in countries where men in uniform seize the TV stations, not in gentle Britain.

Britain’s coalition government all of a sudden looks like it’s borrowing tactics from fascist regimes, but it’s not that simple. The government is not actually targeting the estimated 600,000 illegal migrants in Britain, because in truth the task of enforcing immigration laws and locating and deporting those migrants is far beyond the state’s capabilities. The advertising authority banned the “Go home” slogan not because it echoed old racist chants but because the government’s claims to have arrested vast numbers of illegal immigrants were inaccurate. Similarly, some of the people the government texted were in fact British citizens. The bungling state cannot figure out who is illegal and who is legal, let alone arrest and deport hundreds of thousands of migrants.

The campaign has little to do with targeting immigrants, and everything to do with targeting voters. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has to call an election by May 2015 — and his government wants to convince an angry public that it is “cracking down” on illegal immigrants. The pressure on Cameron has come in the form of the rise of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which blames all of Britain’s problems on immigrants and European bureaucrats. The party’s success — it won 3.1% of the vote in the 2010 national elections and is now polling at 8% — has terrified Cameron’s ruling Conservative Party, which fears that UKIP could split the right-wing vote and let Labour back in at the next elections. The Conservatives are therefore mimicking extremist behavior to shore up their vote.

Recessions, like the long one from which Europe is just — possibly — beginning to emerge, always frighten voters. Many do not understand the global financial system, so they blame cartoon villains: sly immigrants they think are stealing our taxes, even though most immigrants work, and welfare claimants they think are doing the same, even though most of the unemployed want work.

When my dad and I marched, we assumed that mainstream politicians would confront prejudice. Today, too many appease it. Now as in the past, appeasement may be self-defeating. When “respectable” politicians have shouted until they are hoarse that the extremists are right, why shouldn’t voters take these mainstream leaders at their word?

Cohen is the author of You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com