In this post, Dr Sophia Price, Head of Politics and Applied Global Ethics, at Leeds Beckett reacts to the politics of fear and resentment in the UK and the violent murder of the Rt Hon Jo Cox MP.
These are dark times in British Politics. The mind-numbingly horrific murder of MP Jo Cox yesterday on the streets of West Yorkshire should make us all stop and look at what we’ve become.
While the terrible and violent manner of her death is shocking and awful, that we have witnessed such violence is not wholly unexpected. There has been a deliberate stirring of racial hatred in the name of a political project, something so graphically demonstrated by UKIP’s latest poster campaign that was unveiled yesterday. It depicts a long line of refugees, foregrounded by the statement ‘Breaking Point’.
The demonization of immigrants and refugees in the name of political gain has been a noted recent element of British politics. This sort of trend was met in the past by resistance from those to the left of right wing xenophobia. Since Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 the playing of the ‘race card’ in British politics has been something that has been widely criticised and recognised as divisive and dangerous. In reaction to Powell’s speech Tony Benn said:
“The flag of racialism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over Dachau and Belsen. If we do not speak up now against the filthy and obscene racialist propaganda … the forces of hatred will mark up their first success and mobilise their first offensive.”
The brutal murder of a left wing MP who spoke up for and defended the rights of immigrants is a marker in that offensive. A woman described by her colleague as someone who believed that a better world is possible, one without hatred and racism. She appeared to believe that the purpose of politics was to lead public opinion in pursuit of that better world, rather than stoke up fear and resentment of others for structural problems that they did not recreate.
That Jo Cox spoke up and stood against the forces of hatred is a mark of the woman that she was. For the rest of us the question hangs in the air.
What we have seen in UK politics recently is an extraordinary realignment of positions in the politics of race. Some elements of the notionally progressive sections of British politics have engaged in a Faustian pact, willing to have their positions allied to those of racists and xenophobes in the hope this will deliver the political result that they believe will justify that alliance.
In the interests of that pact, their opposition to the ‘filthy and obscene racialist propaganda’ has not been loud enough. Take for example Labour MP Kate Hoey, describing immigration as a ‘curse’:
“Outside London and the big cities, this abundant supply of cheap labour is not necessarily a guaranteed boon. It can be a curse – driving down wages, taking jobs from the locals, as well as putting pressure on schools and health services”.
Of course, Hoey is right that immigration is an issue that impacts on the working class and the poorest communities. Support for Powell in 1968 came from workers and trade unionist who staged strikes and marches against his sacking from the shadow cabinet after his evocation of the Tiber ‘flowing with much blood’. But care is needed in how these issues are addressed.
The answer is not a retreat into violent and hateful ‘Little Englanders’, pointing the finger at and blaming the most vulnerable and precarious in our societies. The problems facing poor communities and many immigrants alike are structural inequalities between and within nations; immigration is the result rather than cause of these inequalities.
Put simply; we have to be better than that. Jo Cox’s legacy has to be to remind us of the importance of this.
Dr Sophia Price teaches modules on international relations, gender and European politics at Leeds Beckett. Her recent research focuses on EU external relations, the relationship between trade liberalisation and poverty in African, Caribbean and Pacific states and micro-finance and gender in West Africa. Her most recent paper is published in the Journal of Modern African Studies, and available here.