The day before Britain’s post offices closed for their long Christmas break, I stood in a pavement queue outside one, just before nine in the morning. The queuers were all pensioners, older and cold, politely waiting for the office to open. I wasn’t there to do last-minute festive business, but to ransom my rarely used car. This had been clamped by a predatory private company because it lacked a tax disc. The faded notice it pasted to my windscreen told me I first had to get a disc and then find their company somewhere in West London and pay hundreds of pounds to release the car. Doing this would save me another £200 in charges which would otherwise soon accrue (the actual clampers aren’t qualified to verify that the disc has been placed on the windscreen, or to accept payment of the initial fine). The office, however, weren’t answering their phone.
I was determined to get the disc from the post office, locate the clamping firm and liberate my car for Christmas. As we waited, a man came down the street, went to the door of the post office, tapped on the window smiling broadly, and was let in. It was exactly nine o’clock, and I assumed he was an employee. We all followed him inside, still maintaining our queue places, only to find him at the counter asking in very broken English about buying stamps. I felt an urge to intervene, because I was annoyed by his queue jumping, especially ahead of the elderly.
Walking to the window I asked the postal worker not to serve him. The previously silent queue then spoke up — no, shouted. “Don’t serve him,” they chanted. “Don’t serve him.” It was too late: safely behind his glass-screened counter, the postmaster slid forward his stamps. As the interloper passed me, I pointed out that he shouldn’t be so rude when a queue wasn’t of pensioners, because somebody might assault him. It wasn’t a threat, just advice.
When I made my point, a woman from the back of the queue, who moments earlier had been jeering for justice, looked at me angrily and snapped: “Now you’ve gone too far!” “Yes, perhaps I have,” I agreed. The queue-jumper slipped away and we all silently returned to waiting in line.
Everybody in that queue felt that they were in a difficult situation, and they felt at that moment together in their aloneness. They could not have known how un-alone they were. In a recent survey of 5,000 people (the largest survey of such attitudes ever conducted), the Searchlight Educational Trust discovered that a lot of Britons don’t support further immigration: 39% of Asian Britons; 34% of white Britons; and 21% of black Britons struggle with the steady influx of people into the UK. Some 43% of Asian Britons, 63% of white Britons, and 17% of black Britons feel that immigration has been bad for the country; 52% agree that Muslims in the UK are problematic (1). These feelings were reflected in last year’s election; according to a Times Populus poll in February, some 48% would consider supporting an anti-immigration party. An article in The Guardian put a more positive spin on these figures, claiming that if you combined the 28% of “identity ambivalent” citizens with the 24% who call themselves “cultural integrationists” you come up with the very slim majority of 52% who might possibly believe that, under financially stable circumstances, immigration could be acceptable (2). Fix the financial mess and the problem of multiculturalism could just disappear.
These sentiments remind us that David Cameron, in making his recent statement about the failure of British multiculturalism, was naïve, at best. He spoke in Germany, where Thilo Sarrazin’s Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab (Germany Does Away with Itself), has just outsold Harry Potter (3). In so doing, Cameron strengthened the idea that Britain’s downfall was the result of multiculturalism, and also the idea that Britain should be saved, for “us”, and from “them”.
Sarrazin’s wild success in Germany depends not only on his distaste for multiculturalism but his belief, as The Economist put it, that “the right sort of German women are having too few babies and that the wrong sort — Muslims and those with little education — are having too many. The result is not only that Germany’s population is shrinking, it is also getting dumber. ‘With higher relative fertility among the less intelligent, the average intelligence of the population declines,’ he writes. His defence of eugenics — through policies to encourage fertility among smart women — seems like a throwback to a grimmer time” (4).
You do not have to be of non-native origin to jump a queue or break other British behavioural norms. But when you clearly are not a native English speaker and you break a longstanding rule of fairness — and fairness attracts people to live in Britain — people will surely blame your faux pas on your “otherness”. When you do so brazenly, as some fundamentalists do when they undermine free speech by shouting down harmless eccentrics at London’s Speakers Corner, people may ask themselves why we all stand by as the world around us falls apart.
Some people in that queue began openly to ask aloud if things might have been different had their upwardly-mobile neighbours-turned-life-peers also had to stand in queues, lost their jobs to illegal migrants, or been told that their feelings of despair and social degradation could easily be redressed by Big Society volunteerism, philanthropy and the reinstatement of the family as a core moral institution. I wondered if my fellow queuers were also asking themselves why it was no longer meaningful to object that something was “not fair”.
Loss of civility?
But perhaps what bothered my post office pensioners, and what the Searchlight Educational Trust and Populus polls actually indicate, is not so much that Britons are getting more racist but that, cross-culturally, they are resentful of the loss of the basic civility that first attracted so many to migrate here. Law-abiding immigrants don’t like firearms or the idea that they might feel they need to own them; they like the idea that they can move about freely without fear of being shot. And they disapprove, just as much as my white pensioner neighbours, of the destruction of the NHS. As financial security erodes for all, those who seem less like “us” will always be blamed, both by the native-born and by those who, once safe, demand that the ladder be pulled up. The demand for the withdrawal of the ladder has less to do with racism, or multiculturalism, than the feeling that the better society and place that people once believed in has been lost.
In a couple of days I, an American, will take part in my citizenship ceremony, and I’m thinking about the British coalition government’s first attempts at a drastic reduction in immigration. This government now openly blames some national problems on immigrants almost like me — except that they’re mostly lower paid, which means that they won’t be able to contribute much to the growth of the economy, even an economy that won’t ever again be as morally healthy as it was when it invested in public welfare despite its limited resources.
David Cameron was very young when he listened to and believed the reports of his Conservative elders about the way that Margaret Thatcher saved Britain by selling off its welfare investments to those who could leverage funds to buy them. Her fiscal successes were predicated on having plenty of trains, hospitals, energy suppliers and social capital to sell. When Cameron tries to do something similar, he may find there is no more “family silver” left to sell. Has neoliberalism run out of welfare assets to market?
People are worried about who is going to pay for the future now that society’s hard-earned resources have been — often recklessly, and, indeed, unfairly — sold to profiteers. They are frightened of social collapse, and express that fright perhaps as anti-immigration rhetoric. In response, the government simplistically announces that it will now measure national unhappiness. That’s not going help assuage people’s justified anger. It’s only two and a half years since every Briton was forced to pay through taxes and national debt to bail out an irresponsible, profligate banking industry whose high earners publicly behave with the vaunting greed of medieval barons.
And my car? The privatised company was finally run to earth in an industrial estate by the Shepherd’s Bush roundabout. The man behind the counter didn’t speak much English. Maybe that’s why they never answered their phones.
David Napier is professor of medical anthropology at University College London and director of its Centre for Applied Global Citizenship; he has worked with homeless and other vulnerable populations around the world, most recently in Myanmar with victims of Cyclone Nargis.
(1) Mark Townsend, “Searchlight poll finds huge support for far right ‘if they gave up violence”’, The Guardian, London, 26 February 2011.
(2) “What Britons really think about immigration”,The Guardian, 26 February 2011.
(3) Thilo Sarrazin, Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab(Germany Does Away with Itself), Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2010.
(4) The Economist, London, 1 September 2010.
This article appears in the August, English language edition of the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, to be found at mondediplo.com. This text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.