Brits Don't Need to Compare Refugee Policy to Nazis—British History is Cruel EnoughRoundup
tags: colonialism, racism, British history, British Empire, refugees, Gary Lineker
Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University.
In the end, it was a single tweet followed by a blatantly partisan attempt to get its author to shut up that made Britain’s stiff upper lip quiver.
After celebrity football commentator Gary Lineker expressed his discomfort with the ugly rhetoric accompanying the Conservative government’s proposed “Illegal Migration Bill”, aimed at asylum seekers, the BBC took him off air.
On his personal account, the politically moderate Lineker had criticised a “cruel” policy and suggested that the anti-migrant rhetoric was reminiscent of 1930s’ Germany. An obvious distraction from the widespread economic suffering in Britain and multiple allegations of Tory corruption, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s sensationalising “stop the boats” policy would see desperate people arriving on Britain’s shores on rubber dinghies being criminalised, detained, deported, and debarred from ever returning. The United Nations has described this as illegal.
In truth, Lineker had violated not the BBC’s “impartiality” guidelines, but an unwritten national code. Britain in its apparently distinctive goodness must never be compared with the Germany that the Allies finally defeated in the second world war. There can be no suggestion that if it does not pull back from xenophobia and demonising people deemed “others”, Britain might itself canter down the path Germany once took.
Cultural theorist Paul Gilroy describes Britain as suffering from a “pathology of greatness” embodied by the mixed martial and football chant: “Two World Wars and One World Cup”. A sense of itself as eternally the good guy, never in danger of becoming like the bad one, is fundamental to Britain’s official but somewhat deluded narrative of itself.
Although he had not in fact referenced the Nazis, the Holocaust or concentration camps Lineker, reinstated by the BBC after a huge outcry, was still accused of making “Nazi slurs”. This false claim came from tabloids complicit in describing, equally falsely, “swarms” of refugees and “illegals flooding into Britain”. Lineker had pointed out that there was no such “influx”, puncturing a hole in a fiction propagated by both ministers and media. Britain processes far fewer asylum applications than Germany, for instance.
Still, those who baulk at the parallel need not look to the German past. Britain’s own long imperial and post-war history furnishes sufficient examples of dehumanising language and lethal racism.