Britain is not a racist country, but it is struggling to contain those messages filtering through.
Britain is not in itself a racist country, as anyone armed with social attitudes survey data will tell you. But an overwhelming sense of prejudice, either from the mainstream press or from high profile politicians, has resulted in the perception of the UK as a country intolerant of others.
Take for example the perception of the UK over the recent fiasco involving halal foods: with the Sun’s halal meat ‘secret’ and the Daily Mail’s ‘Millions are eating halal chicken without knowing it!’. As one Washington Post writer opined:
“It doesn’t take long to find these people while browsing #boycottpizzaexpress, with the arguments ranging from the plainly Islamophobic to the frustratingly disingenuous.”
Then of course there is the considerable rise of UKIP. One frequent debate circulating online is whether UKIP can be considered racist or not. Dan Hodges, the Blairite Cuckoo, is quite sure: “Ukip is worse than the BNP”, he wrote in April. Others in UKIP argue that it is principally a party of libertarianism. Nigel Farage has previously described his party as a “libertarian, non-racist Eurosceptic party”.
Whether or not it is fair to label UKIP as a whole as racist, certainly racism has been a feature of their evolution in recent times. In 2010, for example, the party was blasted for advocating a burkha ban, which is considered less a nod to libertarianism and more a blow on the dog whistle. More recently Sanya-Jeet Thandi, a British Asian former supporter of Ukip, announced that she was leaving the party on the grounds that it has descended into a “form of racist populism“.
A recent poll by YouGov found that on all questions relating to immigration, UKIP are around twice as likely to be negative than the average voter.
UKIP has succeeded in shifting politics to the extent that dog whistle politics are mainstream. Potentially the UK has this poisonous turn until the 31st of December 2017, with both UKIP and the Tories inevitably racing to the bottom to show who can offer the British people the greatest slice of xenophobia.
What has happened in the meantime is that this perception has had a tangible effect on people from abroad who want to come to the UK to work or set up home with their family, and on those who want to study here.
The latest ONS figures show that there are 3,000 fewer workers from Romania and Bulgaria in the UK than before border controls were lifted – a stark contrast to the message UKIP have promoted. A Guardian article this week tells Romanian and Bulgarian workers’ own stories. One, from a Romanian dentist, said the fall in the numbers of Romanian and Bulgarians working in the UK was “no surprise at all” given the volume of “scapegoating in the UK”.
Another story, from a Violeta Patrascu, tells how she struggled to ignore the negative press, saying: “That hysteria before 1 January, when the media here in England said a lot of Romanians would come to take money. Well, I came here to work. And to study.”
Another recently study by Hobsons, the education specialists, reminds us that international students are estimated by BIS to contribute £14 billion to GDP – and yet the numbers coming to the UK are falling. Indeed almost 50 UK Higher Education institutions have seen year on year falls in applications for the last two years.
Hobsons’ survey of 18,393 students from over 195 countries finds that the overwhelming majority of potential international students are not motivated by a desire to live in the UK after graduation. A country’s attitude towards immigrants rates very highly from students who are choosing where to study, and it is found in this research that the brightest and best are being put off through a combination of government policy and negative attitudes.
Whether we like it or not attitudes count, despite evidence to the contrary. In the early and mid 1990s, the British Social Attitudes survey found that 44 per cent of people said they would be uncomfortable if their children married across ethnic lines; now according to British Futures that is only 5 per cent.
Further still the World Values Survey found British people among those most likely to befriend a neighbour from a different ethnic background, and in the Anti-Defamation League’s recent Global 100 Index of anti-Semitism it found that the UK ranks very low at 8 per cent – beaten only by Vietnam (6 per cent), the Netherlands (5 per cent), Sweden (4 per cent), Philippines (3 per cent), and Laos (0.2 per cent).
Britain is not a racist country, but it is struggling to contain those messages filtering through, and this is having a knock-on effect at the way the country is perceived by those wishing to come here. Politicians and the press have a big part to play in countering that narrative, but also in reflecting back our largely positive attitudes to people abroad.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.