When narratives form around politicians, they tend to be difficult to unpick. Over the weekend the carefully constructed image of Theresa May as a sensibly “cautious” prime minister was deployed by Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi and right-wing paper The Sun to explain her calculated silence over – and then limp criticism of – Donald Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. But that’s not what was going on. May wasn’t being cautious; she was reluctant to speak out against Trump.
The Prime Minister is angling for a viciously hard-Brexit and for that she needs a trade deal with the US. Academic Richard Seymour has pointed out that when she pulls the UK out of the single market – sacrificing the country’s prosperity in the name of getting down immigration – it is Trump, among others, to whom she’s looking. The language of caution hides the reality that connects Trump’s form of racist nationalistic politics with the UK brand that is driving May’s hard Brexit.
There are evidently significant differences between NATO-backing May and isolationist Trump and drawing direct parallels between UK and US politics can be a messy game. But as she tries to distance herself from Trump’s policy by criticising it in the weakest terms possible, her history on immigration is a reminder that May and the government are no strangers to demonisation and gross mistreatment of migrants.
The Prime Minister has no interest in dampening down the flames of prejudice; not when it’s politically expedient for her to stoke them. When she was Home Secretary, May signed off on plans for vans to be driven around diverse neighbourhoods in London with the xenophobic message “Go Home” stamped on the side of them, and she wanted to deprioritise children of people unlawfully in the UK, contra to the law, putting them to the bottom of lists for school places. As Prime Minister she has resisted calls for the UK to accept more Syrian refugees, planned to force companies to draw up lists of their foreign-born employees and said immigration harms social cohesion. As journalist Daniel Trilling has pointed out, current UK policy means the government can “strip people of their citizenship without approval from a judge or parliament” and arbitrarily detain people, denying asylum seekers recourse to justice. When people talk of British values, this is all conveniently forgotten.
This doesn’t make protests against May’s complicity unnecessary. In the US, the counter-movement against Trump’s ban is proving a significant challenge to his plans and the left should harness the global outcry against his presidency. But Trump’s racist nationalism must be situated in the contemporary and historical political landscape; the ban, even if it fails, is made thinkable because of the normalisation of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim politics. For years the US public has been told migrants and refugees threaten the stability of the nation. And after decades of demonisation and dehumanisation, it’s Muslims who are often depicted as the ultimate “other”: Muslim men are seen as hypermasculine terrorists and Muslim women as helpless victims trapped in a backwards traditions. On both sides of the Atlantic Muslims are held up as people whose belief system is incompatible with Western “culture”.
There is a British brand of this chauvinistic nationalism that finds its legitimacy in racist politics; it’s what drove the Brexit vote, underlies the government’s own xenophobic policies, fuels debates about Muslim integration and makes it possible for Nigel Farage to present Trump’s ban as reasonable and demand a UK version of it on the BBC.
Labour’s resistance to far-right populism has been weak, at best. When the right have wielded anti-immigrant politics, the left have cravenly capitulated (think Ed Miliband’s promise to put “controls on immigration”). Labour have refused to take on the myths about migration and instead patronised voters by telling them their concerns are legitimate – even when the evidence shows they aren’t. All of this feeds the narrative on which far-right populism thrives.
Left-wing politicians and commentators condemning Trump’s ban should note that there is a connection between arguing that people have “legitimate concerns” over immigration, abandoning freedom of movement, advocating the UK “takes back control” of its borders and Farage calling for a UK version of the Muslim ban.
The pressure building on May to condemn Trump and halt plans for his state visit are important forms of resistance to xenophobic politics, and the Labour party would do well to position itself as leading this charge. But while there is condemnation, protest and outrage, this shouldn’t obscure the link between the politics that made possible Trump’s xenophobic policies and the normalisation of anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK, in which the left is implicated. Counter-movements against Trump must be well versed in this reality to oppose not just specific policies or incidents of violence but racism in all its forms.
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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow