Ordinary hard-working people have genuine concerns about immigration, and to ignore immigration is to undemocratically ignore their needs.” Other than the resurgent importance of jam, this is the clearest message we are supposed to take out of Brexit.
So concerned are we that the government’s hands are tied that it must send all the doctors back where they came from. It must crack down on students coming here to get educated in our universities in exchange for money. It must check teenagers’ teeth lest we accidentally extend compassion to a Syrian adult.
Who are “ordinary hard-working people” though? It seems the consensus following Brexit is that they’re the marginalised white working class; the people who have been left behind by modernity, who feel alienated by the “liberal metropolitan elite”. I’m a white man from the north-east, living in strongly Brexit-voting Middlesbrough, so you might expect me to tell you all off for looking down on us from your ivory towers. But the truth is that this outbreak of “the poor proles can’t help it” is both incorrect and patronising.
The working class mostly lack our own voices in the media. Instead, we are reported on. This reporting seems, even now, to believe that the true working-class identity is, as Kelvin MacKenzie put it in the 1980s, “a right old fascist”. Culturally insular, not interested in or smart enough to understand real news, generally afraid of people not like him (it’s always a him).
Migrants and native people of colour are stripped of their right to a working-class identity, and even cast as the enemy of the “real” (ie white) working class. I spoke to Marsha Garratt, a working-class, mixed-race woman who heads up the All In Youth Project, and she was cutting about the “underreporting of positive stories of solidarity between all members of the working class, including ethnic minorities”. Working-class history is migrant history, but we ignore that because it does not match what we believe to be authentic.
Likewise any of us who are white and born here, but refuse to blame migrants for the result of government policies, are cast as the “metropolitan elite” even if we’re earning the same amounts and living in the same towns. Working-class identity becomes necessarily and by definition anti-migrant.
We’re not the only people with concerns. It’s just that everyone else seems to have them on our behalf
Once everyone who doesn’t fit is excluded, those who remain are transformed from real people into weaponised stereotypes to be turned against those who resist the advance of jam-obsessed fascism. Even the complexity within people is stripped out as individuals are merged into a howling mass whom you must “understand” or risk losing your tolerant, liberal credentials.
We’re not the only people with concerns. It’s just that everyone else seems to have them on our behalf, out of the charity of their hearts. The white middle classes are just as likely to be disturbed by brown faces or foreign accents as the white working classes are, but they are generally educated enough to realise they can’t just come out and say it. Working-class poverty, framed as the result of the strains these new arrivals place on our generous social safety net, provides the cover for them to object to immigration even though they are unharmed by it.
But our other “genuine concerns” – such as school and hospital funding, benefits and disability payments, the crushing of industries that formed the backbones of our local economies – are ignored or dismissed out of hand. They are cast as luxuries, an irresponsible “tax and spend” approach, or they are turned back on us as evidence of our own fecklessness and lack of ambition. When we say “we need benefits to live because you hollowed out our towns in pursuit of a flawed economic doctrine,” we are castigated for being workshy, and told we only have ourselves to blame. If we alter our complaints to blame foreign people it’s a different story. “I can’t get a council house because they’ve all been sold to private landlords,” gets nothing. “I can’t get a council house because they’ve all gone to bloody Muslims,” gets on the front page of the tabloids.
Just as we are given identities as good or bad working-class people based on whether we adequately perform our roles as good little workers or whether we insolently insist on being disabled, unemployed or unionised, so our authenticity as working-class people depends on our use for political ends. Are we salt of the earth yeomen, or skiving thickos milking the system, or drains on the already stretched infrastructure? That all depends: are we kicking out immigrants or privatising a clinic today?
If we only matter to politicians when we can be used as to defend old bigotries about hordes of eastern Europeans stealing our women and poisoning our jam, then we don’t matter at all.