Maybe we are a bunch of Little Britons

Have the tabloids made us less tolerant of immigration, or are they simply reflecting their readers’

The "'Transatlantic Trends" report appears to reveal that Brits are more worried about immigration than any other country surveyed – worse than five other nations with more immigrants in their population, says the BBC's Mark Easton.

What could be responsible? Is it because we're an island nation, fearful of "contamination" or "invasion" from overseas, without the free flow of people provided by a land border? There is no comparison in the figures with a similar island, so it's hard to be sure. According to the Financial Times (link requires registration), as reported by Primly Stable, "Immigration experts blame this on the hostility to foreign newcomers espoused by many British newspapers and the fact that the arrivals from eastern Europe rose so rapidly during the middle of the last decade."

It's tempting, as one of those bloggers who has written so much about the anti-immigration language and stories of the tabloid press down the years, to conclude that Brits are more worried about immigration than we should be because we're told to be more worried than we should be.

Certainly, headlines such as "Keep out, Britain is full up" (Daily Express, in an uncanny parallel of the BNP slogan "Britain is full up"), "Migrants take all new jobs in Britain" (Daily Express), "White men to face jobs ban" (Daily Express), "Asylum – you're right to worry" (Daily Mail), "They've stolen all our jobs" (Daily Star), "One in five Britons will be ethnics" (Daily Express), "Muslim schools ban our culture" (Daily Express), "Bombers are all spongeing asylum-seekers" (Daily Express) and "Strangers in our own country" (Daily Express) would appear to lead to that conclusion.

There are also somewhat misleading stories about race, ethnicity and immigration that pop up almost daily in the tabloid press. Just this week we have seen the Express's story about the ethnicity of doctors, shown by Full Fact to be not the whole picture by any means; and anti-war politicians labelled as "Muslims" rather than anti-war by the Daily Mail when they refused to give a standing ovation to a British soldier (but called him a "hero" nevertheless), as reported by Angry Mob.

It's tempting to see all of this going on and conclude that it's the angry, scaremongering language of the tabloids ramping up the fear factor when it comes to immigration – but that doesn't mean that the screamsheets are the only ones tainting the issue, or that they are the main agents responsible for what appears at first glance to be a rather intolerant, angry Britain depicted in the Transatlantic Trends survey.

For one thing, it's not just newspapers doing this: our politicians of all hues are more than capable of using dog-whistles such as "British jobs for British workers", linking "crime and immigration" in election manifestos and demanding impractical immigration caps as a red line during coalition negotiations, for example. It's not just the odious BNP, and their vile little cousin the EDL, who are doing the yapping about immigration.

For another, it may simply be the case that we are more anti-immigration in this country than liberals like me might like to think; and that politicians and tabloids alike, rather than driving the people, are being driven by them. I'd like to hope not, and I prefer to think of this country as a warm, welcoming, rich and diverse place to live – but it would be wrong to rule out the idea that we're Little Britons who want to pull up the drawbridge. Maybe a lot of us are.

Mark Easton's conclusion is a little more hopeful: he says that Brits are more confused than anything else and we think immigration is a lot more of a problem than it really is. If that's the case, then the language and tone of some newspapers when it comes to immigration can hardly help, particularly when they don't give the full picture. Even if they are reflecting the views of their readerships rather than defining them, and simply confirming the prejudices that already exist, newspapers aren't helping people see the full picture – which is surely what they should be there for.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty
Show Hide image

When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.