Citizens into Strangers? A Critique of Strangers into Citizens

This post was written by Jacob on May 5, 2009
Posted Under: Communities,England,Human Rights,Identity,Islamophobia,London,Minorities,Protest,Revolution

“He thinks we’re all bloody bourgeois” scoffed Austen Ivereigh, as he puffed on his Montecristo in a trendy bar in King’s Cross, whilst reading aloud David Broder’s response to yesterday’s Strangers Into Citizens demonstration. “This looks like it was written thirty years ago,” he chortled to himself. Ivereigh is a founder of the Strangers into Citizens campaign, and seems to be a staunch reformist. In many ways I don’t think Broder’s piece goes nearly far enough, although it certainly seems to be along the right lines. The issues that this protest brought up have significance above and beyond the immediate violence of the current immigration system, as they also reflect and comment on the government’s policies with regards to minority communities living in England. Broder is certainly correct to take apart the nonsense of a one-off amnesty at the expense of having a thought-out ideological positional praxis on the structures of oppression that face refugees and asylum seekers.

The issues of minorities and the structural violence of borders are intimately connected; the way our government treats asylum seekers and refugees is subsumed in a wider context of the way that they treat minority groups. Whilst they consistently claim to value diversity and cohesion, the reality is that government policies have actually increased segregation, whilst undermining the fight against oppression both directed toward and within these communities. It is worrying that the Strangers Into Citizens campaign fully buys into this rhetoric uncritically. One of the most interesting documents on this issue in recent years was produced by Women Against Fundamentalism and Southall Black Sisters as a submission to the Commission on Integration and Cohesion (of which the first ten pages are most relevant to this debate.) It states,

We are concerned about the wider underlying … that it is the immigrant communities as opposed to the settled communities that need to be ‘integrated’. This implies that immigrant communities are somehow malfunctioning cultures whose values are intrinsically opposed to the so called ‘British’ way of life. New Labour politicians such as Blunkett, Brown and Blair, have often referred to the values of human rights, democracy and fair play – the basis of a shared British culture. Immediately the assumption is that there are a set of fixed and given (unchanging) ‘British’ values that are superior and to which all those who enter the country must subscribe.

And goes on to say

The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act of 2002 was preceded by a white paper entitled ‘Secure Borders, Safe Haven: Integration with Diversity.’ The assumption being that internal stability can only be guaranteed if the borders of the country are policed to prevent the influx of (undesirable) migrants and refugees. Immigration and asylum laws and polices have provided the basis for racism to flourish at an institutional level and on the streets.

This reified version of Britishness, somewhat reminiscent of Goodness Gracious Me’s The Coopers (Kapoors) and Robinsons (Rabindranaths) was present in a more pernicious version during the Strangers Into Citizens rally through the waving of the Union Jack, and the singing of God Save The Queen (not the Sex Pistols version.) Of course trying to get a bunch of impoverished immigrants and Catholics to sing this bollocks en masse wasn’t exactly successful, but that was hardly a surprise. I noted that only the first verse was sung, and the “O Lord, our God (the Anglican one?), arise. Scatter her enemies, and make them fall (how relevant to our recent colonial past.) Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks (what was that about valuing diversity?) On Thee our hopes we fix, God save us all (save to mention who does or doesn’t believe in redemption)” was omitted. The point being that this wasn’t just some silly little concession to try to get the Tories to agree with them, but rather that this treatment of Britishness is completely in line with the politics of Strangers Into Citizens. Such assimilation at the expense of cultural identity would seem rather to turn citizens of the world into strangers.

The speeches, too, failed to combat the structural problems with the government’s treatment of minorities as a whole. Time was given to the leader of the Muslim Council of Britain, an organisation WAF and SBS describe as “ha[ving] its origins in the sectarian Islamic politics of Pakistan and Bangladesh” and “claim[ing] to represent British Islam [but] has compromised the agenda on preventing extremism.” Other speeches were given to religious leaders who had nothing to say on politics above and beyond the affirmation that we were all people, God’s children to some of them, and one can assume all of God’s children have the right to be British without needing to acknowledge that such “Britishness” has been predicated on hundreds of years of colonialist oppression which continues (of course alongside hundreds of years of legacy of the Magna Carta that is slowly but surely being dismantled.) If only the Union Jack could be redeemed such that it could be value-free. If only our anthem requested that we “unite the human race” rather than “scatter enemies and make them fall.”

Maybe Ivereigh was correct in saying that Broder’s response sounded 30 years old. I personally think it may be worthwhile going a little further back to have a look at Trotsky’s work on the “Transitional Demand“. I know any reader is probably thinking “Oh no! He’s going to go all dogmatic on us now”, but rather than offering some kind of bizarre non sequitur of a defence of the Soviet Union, I just feel that Trotsky’s pamphlet on this matter offers a bit of conceptual clarity to the opposition of the No Borders movement and Strangers Into Citizens.

Trotsky’s concept of the transitional demand is that of a demand that could be met under capitalism but would not be without further consequences on the path to socialism (and I strongly believe that it is only in socialism that we’ll see the abolition of the structures that oppress refugees, asylum seekers, and minority groups.) the ‘transitional demand’ is counterposed with the “minimal demand” of reform. It is easy to map these two onto the two sides of this argument: Strangers Into Citizens maintains the nation, maintains the borders, maintains the structures that asylum seekers endure, whereas the No Borders campaign comes with the ideological baggage of an effective internationalism. On this very issue, Trotsky writes, ‘ ”Defense of the Fatherland?” – But by this abstraction, the bourgeoisie understands the defense of its profits and plunder.’ Strangers Into Citizens do this too with their economic arguments for the regularisation of those without status, rather than an analysis that cuts to the heart of oppression and racism. But Trotsky is not against reform though, as he says we should not “discard the program of the old “minimal” demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness.” But we should “carry on this day-to-day work within the framework of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective.”

It is fair to say that the left has often failed to work effectively within communities, and certainly has less success that church based groups. That is something for the left to work on, but I do not believe that this failure is a consequence of a failure in the politics of the left. Talking to people at yesterday’s event, many felt themselves to be in much more agreement with the “no borders” slogans. The point is that whilst organisations like the Citizen Organising Foundation may be good at getting people out on the street, that is far more a reflection of their extremely competent community work than the soundness of their politics. The crowd at yesterday’s event was a very interesting one, in that it was the true grassroots of the city, but the politics of the organisers was flimsy at best. We have much to learn but also much to add to this movement if strive to make change permanent rather than a one-off amnesty bought in exchange for the future.

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Reader Comments


Jacob, i feel moved to comment on this even though I agree almost entirely with everything you say about ‘Britishness’, the inherent racism in the government’s language towards immigrants and the idea that reform needs to come in the framework of the revolutionary perpective.
However, the strangers in to citizens campaign is not trying to be part of an intellectual debate. It is trying to do something practical by gaining widespread support. I know lots of people who would benefit from such an amnesty and for them its not an issue to be debated on a left wing blog by like minded people, but something which means more than I, for one, can imagine.
I disagree that the amnesty is being bought in exchange for the future. Rhetoric aside, it would be a great achievement, and one to be built on. I wish that attitudes towards asylum and immigration could be changed on our terms, using the arguments you use, but right now they can’t. And in my (maybe stupid) view its better to do what we can now, however arguably small, now.

Written By Liana on May 6th, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

Jacob, thanks. A few points.

The bit of the “God Save the Queen” anthem you quoted has in fact been sanitised. It was originally “Popish tricks” not “knavish tricks”. And it is the “Popish” bit that clearly makes your point about diversity hypocrisy – but it wasn’t sung at Trafalgar Square! That verse would not have been very popular with Catholics. Nor would some earlier verses about “rebellious Scots to crush” have been acceptable. It’s no wonder the same verse was sung three times, as you suggested. It would be fair to mention that one reason the organisers may have put the anthem in is that it does get sung at citizenship ceremonies.
I agree that oppressive immigration controls are inevitable in capitalist societies. The “No one is illegal” pamphlet is right to point out that there are no “fair” amnesties and no “fair” immigration controls. But until there is much greater equality between one part of the world and another, until there is some move towards socialism, that will not change. The “No one is illegal” slogan: “Right to stay and come for all – now and in future” will not be put into practice in a society based on divide and rule and inequality.
The Strangers into Citizens perspective was clearly reformist, but better to raise regularisation in a reformist way than not raise it at all.
The other protest: It’s a pity the counter demo ‘papers for all’ was moved on by the stewards at Trafalgar Square as it was not disrupting the main ceremony. Beyond that, since London Citizens has been campaigning for a better wage for migrant workers, including cleaners, they should surely have supported the Mitie-Willis workers in heckling Jack Dromey: An opportunity missed to link a demonstration for legalising immigrants – so that they can stand up for their rights – with a protest against underpaying workers.
I do disagree that Left politics are okay. If they weren’t weak and muddled would No2EU be the main ‘Left’ bloc for the European elections?

Written By Virginia on May 7th, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

Hi Jacob. Did you really hear Ivereigh say that, or is it just pastiche?

Written By c0mmunard on May 7th, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

“It is trying to do something practical by gaining widespread support. ”

I left when I realised that they were really going to sing God save the Queen. I won’t be coming to any future SiC events.

Written By rwichwill on May 11th, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

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