There’s nothing to cheer in the ‘racist van’ backlash

Criticism of the ‘go home’ billboards is fuelled by elite contempt towards the allegedly racist masses.

Russell McCarthy

Topics Politics

As I argued last week on spiked, the UK coalition government’s ‘go home or face arrest’ billboard campaign is an obnoxious attempt to play upon perceived anti-immigrant sentiment among the public. Many people seemed to agree: Tory councillors in the boroughs targeted for the campaign came out in opposition; Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable called it ‘stupid’ and ‘offensive’; and the Advertising Standards Authority announced it had received over a dozen complaints regarding the billboards and is considering launching an investigation.

Surely this highly critical response to an anti-immigrant campaign, one which deserves a lot of criticism, is a good thing, right? Well, no, not really. Because the outrage is not born of any genuine pro-immigration sentiment. Indeed, many of the campaign’s critics, from politicos to pundits, are neither committed to freedom of movement nor in favour of open borders. Hence their criticisms do not address the overall message of the posters; rather, they address themselves to the blunt way in which the message was conveyed. It was in bad taste, they seem to be saying. If the tone of the billboards had been a little less overtly intimidating, it is doubtful whether Cable or the ASA would have bothered to question the ‘go home’ campaign at all.

Cable’s criticism of the posters was telling. He complained that they falsely assumed that ‘illegal immigrants had a sophisticated grasp of English read at a distance’. The fact that many immigrants can actually read English at a distance shows how detached Cable is from the mass of British society. He continued: ‘We have a problem, but it’s not a vast one and it’s got to be dealt with in a measured way, dealing with the underlying causes.’ His sentiments were not dissimilar to those of London mayor Boris Johnson, who actually supports the campaign. ‘I suppose it could have been more gently drafted’, he said.

It seems, then, that Cable is still in favour of booting out undocumented immigrants but maybe not as many and not as rudely as his Tory colleagues would like. He would still like to uproot and expel thousands of ordinary people given the chance. It’s just he disagrees with his Tory partners in government over the manner in which this is to be achieved.

So if there wasn’t any genuine, pro-immigration sentiment behind the backlash against the ‘go home’ campaign, what was driving it? The answer, it seems, is a fear of Britain’s white working class, a fear, that is, that the billboards would provoke working-class types into racist acts.

For instance, the ASA said the majority of complaints considered the campaign ‘harmful and offensive for its potential to raise racial tensions and cause distress’. Elsewhere, Twitter, newspapers and blogs all rounded on the ‘racist van’ for similar reasons. One Guardian commentator said the ads were ‘encouraging and validating everyday personal racist incidents’. She doesn’t specify who will be perpetrating these incidents, but anyone reading her piece knows exactly who she means: the white working class.

This, after all, is a group that Britain’s cultural elite would have us believe are a bunch of latent racists, just waiting for a nudge from the state to embark on a twenty-first-century Kristallnacht. By implying that ordinary people will go out and perform racially motivated crimes as a result of a moronic advertising campaign, the critics of the ‘go home’ billboards are showing the same contempt towards the working classes as the government has shown towards immigrants.

If the anger directed towards the ‘go home’ campaign was fuelled by a demand for open borders, where anyone who wishes to make the UK their home is free to do so, then it might have something going for it. Unfortunately, the negative reaction to the Home Office’s ill-advised campaign is, in the main, guided by the elite conviction that the soft-minded plebs of London will become rabid racists after seeing a nasty billboard.

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Topics Politics


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