The big immigration debate: an emotional politics

Written by Nicole Dickinson, 23.

Britain has a long history of immigration, stretching back before the Norman conquest. Today, we are a patchwork of cultures and influences, a reflection of our colonial past; this new landscape is directly related to our displacement of previously colonised peoples. Yet, today anti-immigrant rhetoric rages stronger than ever.

This discourse, as it operates in Britain, a largely white nation, is the easiest to leverage against those who represent the antithesis of whiteness: i.e., black and brown immigrants and asylum seekers, the established “other”. Britain, conversely to the US where an ideology of individualism reigns, centres its identity around a rigidly defined nationality; members of this nationality are compelled to embody a myth of traditional “Britishness.”

This sense of white Britishness is weaponised in conversations around immigration, where anybody who does not embody whiteness is constructed as a threat to “British values” and, often, to Britain itself. This rhetoric enforces white British culture to the extent that anyone who doesn’t assimilate completely is rejected. While the practical and economic basis of these anti-immigration arguments is often emphasised, they are nevertheless grounded in an emotional reaction towards a perceived threat.

Afua Hirsch is a British journalist, broadcaster, and the author of the Sunday Times Bestseller Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. She emphasises that it is not the specifics of British immigration policy that are important, but the sentiment that lurks beneath it. She says: “The tone of the debate around immigration is, in so many ways, a window into Britain’s deepest view of itself. If it weren’t for the strongly held belief that ‘indigenous’ Brits are a white race, with a pristine culture stemming from time immemorial, then the debate around immigration could conceivably be a rational one, based on economic needs, public resources, historical facts and geopolitical realities. Instead what we have is an emotional, and emotive, story of threat and invasion, the undertones as old and as global as Britain itself – a delicate, white nation facing a black, brown, Muslim, Eastern and African swarm. It’s a narrative so strong that even members and descendants of previous ‘swarms’, when settled and conditioned into the British world view, begin adopting the same mentality” (243). Nigel Farage and Priti Patel, to name just a couple, exemplify this conditioning perfectly.

We see this story reinforced at times of national and economic stress such as the one we are in currently. Suddenly, the camera is turned, the threat to our economy is no longer the government that controls it, but the vulnerable asylum seekers, risking their lives to flee war and persecution and seek a better life for their families. Our gaze is redirected downwards to those on the bottom rungs of a struggling society, obscuring the corporate and governmental solidarity which maintains power and hierarchy.

The ridiculousness of this white nationalist sentiment was demonstrated for me when Hirsch herself, who is British with Ghanaian heritage, was interviewed by Nick Ferrari in 2018. She posed a now popular argument which questioned the continued glorification of problematic figures such as Cecil Rhodes. Upon hearing her argument, Ferrari asks her why she stays in this country if she takes such offense. Ferrari’s statement is quite clearly harmful, but it is important to analyse why.

Ferrari’s question others Hirsch: it positions her as the foreign “them” against Ferrari’s whitewashed sense of “us” (we may assume that he would never have said this to a white person). This suggests that – because she does not embody and in fact challenges white Britishness – Hirsch is somehow not a British citizen who deserves to ask better of the country she grew up in. Not only this, but his question enforces a logic whereby if you have any dissatisfaction with the country you were born in, you should seek to live in another. So, I wonder what Ferrari would have to say about the migrants and asylum seekers doing just that and coming to Britain?

If we can (somehow) argue or debate that colonialism had some positive impacts on the countries we invaded (you know, aside from the genocide and cultural trauma inflicted on each country’s peoples – but we built a railway), then surely by extension we can rationally evaluate the positive effects of people from those same countries coming here.

The recent history of immigration to Britain stems largely from conditions in newly-independent countries created by exactly the colonial history that Britain so enthusiastically brushes under the carpet. Afroze Fatima Zaidi, writing for The Canary, states that “former colonies continue to struggle under the weight of poverty and the crime and corruption emerging from it. And this is why so-called ‘economic migrants’ come to the UK in search of a better life. It was sociologist A Sivanandan who said about immigration: ‘We are here because you were there’”. Our unwillingness to come to terms with our own history, alongside the campaign for the protection of white Britishness, disassociates many Brits from a sense of responsibility towards the wellbeing of any humans who don’t look like themselves.

Additionally, upon surviving World War II, Britain encouraged many Black Caribbeans, many of whom were citizens of newly-independent nations, to migrate over on the Empire Windrush. This new policy sought to fill post-war shortages in the labour market. These people were at the time accepted as citizens of the British Empire, when they were needed to provide labour. Yet, in 2013, as Theresa May sought to create a “hostile environment” for immigrants, many of these British citizens were wrongly deported, splitting long-standing families and creating trauma for those who now consider this country their home. These instances of hypocrisy demonstrate that white nationalism and its influence over immigration policy does not exist to protect “the people,” but to serve those in power.

Paul Gilroy, an influential British historian, writer and academic who specialises in critical race studies (among other subjects), explores and questions this myth of white nationalism. To paraphrase a key idea in Gilroy’s essay, “Has it Come to This?”, the imagery and language of war are time and again instrumentalised in the discourse surrounding a homogenous, and white, “Britishness”. This is frequently used during difficult times to produce feelings of “comfort and compensation” (95) by constructing a myth of solidarity against an identified “other”. He emphasises that reaching back to this past myth of social unity not only reinforces this idea of a strictly white Britishness, but also the idea of triumph in the war against a foreign enemy.

Think about the times during lockdown when VE Day celebrations and street parties were lauded on BBC News, but Black Lives Matter protests and Eid celebrations were branded as “dangerous” and scapegoated in advance of a second wave. This instrumentalisation of a bygone war era was used to restore a sense of unity in a time of crisis, yet any embodiment of the reality of our multicultural and racially diverse society was weaponised and scapegoated as a threat to not only homogeneity, but public health.

So, how do we have productive conversations about immigration and race when we are raised on this deliberately divisive rhetoric? We can begin by questioning how the media and political campaigns are geared towards reinforcing this “lost” sense of white Britishness (something which never really existed in the first place). By doing this, we can become aware of how crisis and discomfort are weaponised for political gain. Politicians identify and publicly reject visible outsiders, construct them as the enemy and consequently craft themselves as protecting white Britons against this.

This myth of trust transforms into votes and demonstrates how powerfully racism is embedded within the foundations of our political bedrock. If we are aware of this, we can be mindful and critical when consuming media; we can engage others in conversation, in order to gradually chip away at this nationalist rhetoric’s power over our emotional minds.

This contribution was written by Nicole Dickinson, 23. Visit their profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.


Gilroy, Paul. “Has it Come to This?" After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture. Routledge, 2004, pp. 95-132.

Hirsch, Afua. Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. Vintage, 2018.

Zaidi, Afroze Fatima. “Dear Priti Patel: your parents aren’t the only immigrants that deserve compassion.” The Canary, 5th September 2020.

Accessed 6th September 2020.