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26 April 2002Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

The 's' word
The furore over David Blunkett's 'swamping' remark has further muddied the waters of the asylum debate.

by Josie Appleton

UK home secretary David Blunkett has sparked off a furore with his plans in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill for some asylum seekers' children to attend separate schools (at present, asylum seekers attend mainstream schools).

The fuss is not about the measures themselves, but about a word Blunkett used in a Radio 4 interview. He said that the asylum seekers' children, housed at pilot accommodation centres, 'will be educated on the site…importantly not swamping the local school' (1).

A debate about semantics ensued. The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) said that the word 'swamping' was 'hugely emotive'. Left-wing Labour MP Diane Abbott provided the much-quoted quote: 'We are talking about children here, not raw sewage.' 'The home secretary needs to be careful in his use of language in this whole area', she said. Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said that 'swamping' was not a word that he would have chosen to use.

In his linguistic defence, Blunkett offered: 'I could have used "overwhelmed" or "overburdened" because the dictionary definition is exactly the same.' (2)

As it goes, if you accept that asylum seekers should be housed in separate accommodation centres in the countryside, then it makes sense for them to have their own schools. One planned accommodation centre will result in 750 asylum seekers and their children being housed near a village with a total population of 150. Obviously, the local school could not cope with hundreds more children - at least not without a radical overhaul of its facilities (3).

What was missing was any criticism of fencing asylum seekers off in rural ghettos. All in all, it seems that segregation okay, so long as people use the right terms to describe it. In this view, it is racial etiquette, not racial policy, that counts. If Blunkett had justified separate schools in order for asylum seekers to be educated in their own faith and culture, who would have complained?

Blunkett got to have it both ways
Beneath this focus on language lies a contempt for the British population as much as for asylum seekers. The concern with emotive and inflammatory language is based on an idea that the mob might misinterpret it and get emotional or inflamed. Racial etiquette functions as a cloak to keep the race issue polite; to keep the issue within the province of a political elite who are thought to be capable of dealing with it.

We have seen this fuss about language in asylum discussions before. In 2000 and 2001, Conservative leader William Hague caused fury by talking variously about a 'flood' of 'bogus' asylum seekers. (If only he had had a thesaurus handy, he could have talked about the 'large number' of 'illegitimate' asylum seekers.) Prime minister Tony Blair's official spokesman was adamant that you wouldn't get anybody in the Labour Party talking like that: 'The prime minister would never, ever allow the Labour party - to use that unpleasant, unfortunate phrase ['bogus' asylum seekers]: to play the race card in relation to asylum seekers.' (4)

But it is unlikely that Blunkett's choice of word was a slip of the tongue. In a week of shrill discussion about the far right in France, a term like 'swamped' was guaranteed to cause a stir. Commentators made all the expected associations with former Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who in 1978, before she became PM, warned that that British people were afraid that they 'might be rather swamped by people with a different culture'. When Thatcher made this statement in an interview, it was seen as an attempt to steal ground from the National Front before the 1979 election; and it worked.

In effect, by letting the term 'swamping' slip, Blunkett got to have it both ways. The link to Thatcher made him look tough-talking on asylum and immigration, and ready to make the issue his own ground. But because 'swamping' is only a word, and he could have used any similar word, he could come back and say that he was being misinterpreted. He got to make the association without having to spell anything out.

Meanwhile, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill got an unopposed second reading. Not only was there little criticism of the plans for accommodation centres - we also heard little dissent about plans to raise the maximum jail term for people convicted of harbouring illegal immigrants, to give new powers against employers who hire illegal immigrants, to introduce retina screening at airports… (5).

The message seems to be - send asylum seekers home, send them to accommodation centres in the middle of nowhere. But do it nicely.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

Asylum: the immigration laws are mad, by Mick Hume

Asylum - a bogus debate, by Josie Appleton

Asylum - enforcing discrimination, by Rob Lyons

The new etiquette on asylum, by Brendan O'Neill

spiked-issue: Race

(1) Blunkett defiant over plans for refugee schools, Daily Telegraph 25 April 2002

(2) See Blunkett stands by 'swamping' remark, BBC News, 25 April 2002; and Blunkett plays down 'swamping' remark

(3) Blunkett defends 'swamping' remark, Guardian 25 April 2002

(4) Are our politicans racist?, Guardian, April 19 2000

(5) Blunkett stands by 'swamping' remark, BBC News, 25 April 2002

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