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Talking about Brexit (2): Theresa May and the hostile environment

The British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party declared her commitment to create a hostile environment for illegal migrants. Is it due to the desire for control or rather to manage anxiety?


Marcella Via


After the results of the Referendum, David Cameron’s withdrew from his post and Theresa May became the new leader of the Tories. This fact already showed evidence of a broken Government and since then the future of the country has not been promising. Since the start of her mandate as a Prime Minister, May has provoked controversy due to both her domestic agenda and foreign policy.

One sentence from May that still echoes in the mind of all foreigners present in the country is her promise to create a “hostile environment”. The reason for her taking this position is the desire to limit the flow of people coming to Great Britain, but also to reduce the number of those who are already here, but lacking the right paperwork.

However, this “hostile environment” that May is planning to create is not fantasy. The number of migrant deportations and detentions recorded so far actually demonstrates that the hostile environment is becoming a reality already. It is also one of the main symbols of the post-Brexit United Kingdom.

It is therefore essential to gain clarity around the figure of Theresa May and her hostility towards migrants, and how this sentiment is manifested in her policies. The second chapter of “Talking about Brexit” by The Prisma is aiming to answer these questions.

Theresa May – Caricature Wikimedia Commons

Who is Theresa May?

As mentioned above, Theresa May has been the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since the 13th of July of 2016, following  the results of the EU Referendum. Previously, she worked as Home Secretary,  from 2010 and ideologically she likes to identify herself as a “one-nation conservative”, reflecting her appreciation for the Victorian politician and philosopher Benjamin Disraeli.

To clarify, “One-nation conservatism”, is a political philosophy at the basis of became later known as “Tory democracy”. Some of the main characteristics of this political tendency are the commitment to defend free markets – together with the social inequality and exploitation they generate – and a huge fear of immigrants. Moreover, within this political party, there are Tories, Theresa May among them, who are “Eurosceptic” and they do not appreciate the multiculturalism of some parts of the modern United Kingdom.

When talking about Brexit, it is also important to differentiate between “Hard Brexit” and “Soft Brexit”. While the latter implies that Great Britain would be closely aligned with the EU, reducing the costs of Brexit, the latter rejects this idea of alignment, to allow Britain to draw up its own rules and customs (The Economist).

In practice, on the one hand, Soft Brexit would allow the United Kingdom to stay both within the EU’s single market and its customs union and, on the other hand, Hard Brexit would imply leaving both of them: In this context, Theresa May’s declared policy has been to take back control of British laws, borders and policies making clear her position.

Specifically, during her political career, many of the policies of Theresa May have raised discontent. For example, The Independent defined her migration policy as a “clear disaster”, pointing to her strategy to reduce immigration by making it really difficult –if not impossible – for migrants to see a doctor. As a consequence of this, currently, also migrants in possession of the right paperwork are avoiding using the NHS.

Furthermore, the article explains that linking migration status to rented accommodation or to jobs, favoured the exploitation of migrants in overcrowded and unsafe dwellings and working under illegal conditions.

However, it is not a secret that these policies are not working, as migration figures continue to rise. Still, it is important to clarify which are the main aims behind this policy and so, what is the hostile environment about?

The skeleton of hostility

One of the key concepts of the hostile environment is the boundary between “legality” and “illegality”. Drawing on this perception, conservatives have built their rhetoric trying to criminalise more and more those who are defined as “illegal migrants”. In fact, the former border chief David Wood said that migrants erode the rule of law, adding that governments have done too little to remove “those with no right to remain” (Migration Watch UK).

However, the aim of this hostility is not simply to cut net migration numbers, but rather to make sure that the’ right kind’ of migrants enter the country.

The boundary between right and wrong is in the hands of business, which sees refugees and asylum seekers as “low value”, compared to skilled professionals.

For example, Migrants Rights points out that the City lobby group London First was pushing for less immigration controls for students and workers, but was also calling for a “clampdown” on “low value migration”.

The main policies behind the construction of hostility in the United Kingdom are related to controlling the daily lives of immigrants. S

ome of them include the requirement on landlords to check the migration status of tenants; banks would also be required to check against a database of known immigration offenders before opening a bank account.

The migration status of applicants for a driving license would also be controlled, and the license would be revoked for over stayers. Most importantly, a “deport-first, appeal-later” policy would be introduced and the grounds of appeal would be reduced from 17 to 4 (The Guardian).

Hostility or better-called anxiety

Where does this need of control come from? There is another point of view that is interesting to consider and shed light on the hidden character of Brexit: anxiety. This feeling is reflected in the aggressiveness and intrusiveness of the identity checks that have been introduced, but also in their ineffectiveness.

According to The Corporate Watch the creation of a “hostile environment” is rather an emotional performance to make a show of control, by scapegoating what they call “illegals”. Additionally, politicians and advisers design policies in close interaction with mass media. Consequently, as political and media elites share many opinions, anti-migrant restrictions are part of their internal “jostling for power” – votes, promotions, audience share.

This message is then delivered to a specific target public, composed of some older white people, who are also key voters and big media consumers, but who make up only the 20% of the British population. It will follow that migration alerts and restrictions serve the beliefs determined by fear and control, which drive politics today. This sort of political system can be called an “anxiety engine”, as it works in order to foster the production of anxiety.

Is this working?

The many weaknesses of this system are not only highlighted by the ineffectivenessof the different policies that have been implemented so far.

Indeed, while migration numbers rise, the everyday life of those without proof of their legal status has turned out to be impossible, whether they try to find a job, open a bank account, access to healthcare or rent a room, as reported by The Guardian. Moreover, the Government itself seems to be broken at its heart. Only a few days ago, David Davis and Boris Johnson decided to resign within a matter of hours, demonstrating a clear lack in trust in Theresa May’s Brexit strategy.

The BBC and The Guardian highlighted that while Davis resigned because of the principle of the Chequers agreement, Johnson was motivated by a failure of ambition, considering Theresa May’s proposal “a semi-Brexit”.

Whether these politics of hostility are the result of the desire for control or of an anxiety engine, they are affecting people’s lives in a crucial way.  (Next edition: Those affected by the Brexit)

(Photos: Pixabay)

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