No one should be surprised that our prime minister should have marked Holocaust Day to regale the nation with a contemptuous joke about how Jeremy Corbyn met with a ‘bunch of migrants in Calais’ and ‘told them that they could all come to Britain.. Contrary to Jonathan Freedland’s schoolmasterish suggestion that this jocularity was ‘beneath him’, Cameron’s remark was in fact perfectly in character and pitched at exactly the level – somewhere in the lower levels of the political and moral gutter – that he and his government naturally inhabit.
After all, we are talking about a politician who has long since shed the flimsy veneer of compassionate conservative/green bicycle man that the Tory PR department invented for him, back in the days when it was politically convenient to do so. In power, Cameron has shown exactly what kind of man he is and what kind of politician he is. He has rarely missed an opportunity to portray immigrants as parasitic and dangerous intruders and enemies of the taxpayer whether they come from Eastern Europe or from outside it.
So it is entirely natural that he would say something like this in parliament, and that he would think that in doing so he was being funny and hilarious in a blokish Mock the Week/Jeremy Clarkson kind of way, and those who have accused him of demeaning his office or failing to pay due spirit to Holocaust Day are trying to give this hollow chancer a gravitas and integrity that he just doesn’t have.
Some of Cameron’s critics have highlighted the callousness of his ‘bunch of migrants’ remark; others have criticized him for diminishing and dehumanising the men, women and children it refers to. Both accusations are entirely correct, but there is another dimension to Cameron’s jocular banter that goes beyond the question of character or the suggestion of bad taste.
His choice of words wasn’t just intended to get his own backbenchers rolling in the aisles, it was aimed at a wider gallery that already shares the same contempt and loathing that his formulation expressed so glibly. The Oxford Dictionary contains the following definition of ‘migrant’:
- A person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.
- An animal that migrates.
The dictionary also defines the adjective ‘migrant’ as ‘tending to migrate or having migrated: “migrant birds”.’ Merriam Webster echoes the same definition, though it also has an older and more specific variant of migrant as ‘a person who moves regularly in order to find work especially in harvesting crops.’
In both dictionaries ‘migrant’ is distinct from ‘immigrant’, which the Oxford Dictionary describes as ‘ A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. ‘ Merriam-Webster also refers to ‘a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.’
It’s worth revisiting these definitions in order to see how far we have moved from them, and how Cameron’s remark yesterday was removed from them. In British political culture the word ‘migrant’ has become an almost entirely pejorative term. If we applied its strict dictionary meanings, we would find that many of the people who have come to the UK are both ‘migrants’ and ‘immigrants’ rather than one or the other. We would also have to refer to British citizens who live abroad as migrants and immigrants or both.
But these definitions don’t even begin to encapsulate the meanings that the word ‘migrant’ has acquired through decades of relentless misuse by politicians and newspapers. Like ‘asylum seeker’, ‘migrant’ has become a word that automatically dehumanizes and demeans the people it refers to.
Both terms have acquired various sub-meanings that are automatically understood by those who use them and those who hear them. Today ‘migrant’ has become a code word in British tabloidspeak which is synonymous with ‘invader’, ‘intruder’, ‘alien’, ‘parasite’, ‘criminal’, ‘job thief’, ‘fraud’ and a host of other assumptions.
These imagined and assumed characteristics routinely invite and enable the British public to freely fear and despise the men and women who come this country whether to ‘find work or better living conditions’ or in order to seek sanctuary and protection from war and persecution, without every having to express their xenophobic or racist sub-texts outright.
Let’s not pretend there are any other sentiments behind headlines like ‘Migrants take over idyllic British tourist hamlet’ (Daily Express), ‘ Migrants take our jobs’ (Daily Express again), ‘Migrant rape fears spread across Europe.’ (Daily Mail)
There is a lot more where this came from, and we have been digesting it for years. Within this more general framework of fear and loathing there is always room for specific variants, whether it’s Poles who come here to take our benefits; Bulgarian or Romanian criminals; or the shadowy hooknosed invaders in the Daily Mail’s ‘rats’ cartoon, walking into Britain with rats scuttling around their sandalled feet.
The goalposts can also shift according to necessity. When the Daily Mail claimed three days ago that ‘David Cameron rejects calls to take 3,000 migrant children’, it ignored the fact that most of these ‘migrant children’ in Calais are too young to be seeking work and are in fact seeking asylum, so they aren’t technically migrants at all.
But the purpose of this headline was the same as so many others: to fuel the bitterness, hatred and resentment that is steadily corroding British society, and present migrants of whatever age and origin as a threat to our jobs, security, culture and way of life.
Cameron’s ‘bunch of migrants’ joke yesterday was intended to have exactly the same effect. Last year, Cameron – or one of his ghostwriters – wrote an introduction to a report on Holocaust remembrance,which pointed out ‘…The poisonous words and passive acceptance of discrimination which marked the beginning of the Holocaust can clearly be found in the ideology of extremism or in the hatred that underpins antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism and homophobia today.’
Yesterday Cameron delivered more ‘poisonous words’ with the casual insouciance that you would expect from Jeremy Clarkson. He did so in the course of a debate about corporate tax avoidance, in which he variously depicted Corbyn as a defender of Argentinian claims to the Falklands, and a supporter of trade union rights – all of which supposedly defined the Labour leader and his party as enemies of the ‘British people and the hard-working taxpayer’.
So let’s not pretend that it was a mistake or a throwaway remark. Cameron knew exactly what he was doing and exactly which audience he wanted to reach. It is certainly true, as so many of his critics have pointed out, that language like this ‘demeans his office’, but it is also extremely useful to his government that his audience should think about migrants and migration as a threat.
Cameron’s intervention was partly a cynical distraction. But it was also a massive flashing green light to those who already see the ‘bunch of migrants’ in exactly the same way as he does, to continue what they are doing and thinking, which makes his remarks not only contemptible, but dangerous.