News 2008


Imaginary enemies


Blaming multiculturalism for our vulnerability to terrorist attack belongs to Britain's sorry tradition of xenophobia and misplaced patriotism


Jeremy Seabrook

February 15, 2008


The polemic of the Rusi report, which declares that Britain is a "soft touch for terrorists" and claims this is a consequence of "multiculturalism", has an eerily familiar ring. Is it a last gasp of a decayed imperialism, a blast of nostalgia for a time when Britain was not a "fragmenting post-Christian society"; or is it a sign of things to come, when the whole world will be harmoniously united under the triumphal values of our most priceless export commodity, democracy, exemplified by the shining examples of Iraq, Afghanistan and Kenya?

It is of a piece with a far older version of the "enemy within": did Margaret Thatcher herself, as recently as the mid-1980s, not describe sections of the British trade union movement, especially the leaders of the miners, in those very terms? This itself was a final outing of the proposition that the labour movement and its organisers represented a severe threat to Britain; a threat created by the violence of early industrialism, and which haunted the ruling classes throughout the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries.

It is a myth to state that Britain was ever a nation at one with itself, a proud defender of this or that set of values. It was riven by violent and ugly class divisions throughout the industrial era, and those regarded as a menace to the conduct of the business of the nation comprised a whole class - all the people coerced by poverty out of a decaying rural way of life and herded into the raw manufacturing towns and cities of the industrial revolution. These wayward, estranged and alienated people seemed always on the verge of rising up and dispossessing the ruling classes of wealth and power. And this is why, contrary to narratives of our ancient democracy, the franchise was extended only slowly through the 19th century, to embrace limited sections of the people who had some "stake" in society. The poor and the outcast had no voice in the way the society that sheltered them was run, and the principal role of the keepers of law and order was to ensure that they did not, in the absence of participation, take to the streets. It should, perhaps, be remembered that the last shooting of industrial demonstrators in Britain took place less than a hundred years ago, in Tonypandy and Llanelli in South Wales and in Liverpool.

Class animosity, the unpredictable power of volatile and restless people (referred to at the time as "the masses", before these had been transformed into the individuals of today) was as much feared as the alien values and rancorous sentiments simmering in the heart of an imagined and impenetrable underclass in closed communities speaking foreign tongues and brooding on sombre plots of revenge and destruction. That some disaffected people are doubtless involved in conspiracies to damage Britain in pursuit of malign ideals from elsewhere is also not new: the subversives of the 20th century, too, owed their allegiance to an idealised elsewhere; and their loyalty to "Moscow" was seen then as no less inadmissible than the feeling of some Muslims that their true interests are embodied in an ideology which has replaced the fallen international solidarities of socialism. It is true that there is something more intractable in devotion to otherworldly ideologies rather than to materialistic creeds that at least have their headquarters on earth, even if these are in foreign capital cities. The single-minded dedication of the west to the demolition of secular alternatives and the substitution of ideologies of transcendence have been a major factor in bringing about the conditions the Rusi report deplores; and the apocalyptic millennarianism of certain Islamists was, until very recently, seen as a highly acceptable alternative to the godless creed of communism.

It seems that continuities between the disaffected of another age and the alienated of today are more powerful than the fables of a self-serving security apparatus would have us believe. Ruling castes must have enemies, and indeed, if these do not exist, they must fashion them. And this is precisely what the fulminations of the Rusi report do. What more effective way of estranging people could be imagined than the urge to "re-establish a sense of identity", or the admonition to "immigrant communities that refuse to integrate"? It is of a piece with earlier pronouncements of the British on those who brought terror to the former imperial lands; terrorists who became rulers in their turn, more often than not employing the apparatus of repression inherited from their colonial masters and instructors.

It is the destiny of dominant elites to speak constantly of the nation in peril, the threat to our way of life, our imperishable values and the inadequacy of the means willed to defend them. How else will they create the sense of urgency and fear that will provide them with the resources they require to set up their maladroit (and often ineffective) paraphernalia of surveillance; fear that results in a serviceable paralysis to unite people in a desire to turn away the stranger at the gate and to expel the traitor in our midst? It is an old story. But it is also a new one with its global inflection. The language deployed by the luminaries who see security as an industry (just as they see terror as an ideology) feeds the very phenomenon it is supposed to combat; since it de-legitimates all dissent, alternatives, other ways of living and being, and all other human values.

It is not, messieurs, mesdames of Rusi, the existence of the bogey of multiculturalism that exposes us to the risk of terror, but efforts to impose a single monolithic and invented sense of "nationhood", which, if it is weak in relation to the intensities engendered by other ideologies, must mimic these, according to Rusi, in order that "we" should prevail. What more eloquent tribute to enemies than the urge to become as inflexible as they are?

There are no such easy answers; and if the combined diplomatic and security experience assembled in this think-tank (so barren of thoughtfulness) imagines it can forcibly resurrect a uniform sense of national purpose; it is likely to be disappointed. This may be great in terms of out-relief for employees of an expanding security industry, but it has nothing to do with the safety, or the ability to live together, of all the people of Britain.