The Gary Lineker affair was a warning: the culture war will come for us all in the end
The UK’s hostile environment is spreading. Just days ago, the country was downgraded in an annual global index of civic freedoms, as a result of the government’s “increasingly authoritarian” approach towards bodies that speak out against policies on anti-racism, refugee and asylum seeker rights, and the climate crisis. The Tory obsession with immigration in general, and lately small boats in particular, has become a gateway for even wider oppression.
The Gary Lineker affair seemed like a victory, but really it was a warning. He is reinstalled, the BBC is cowed, and the Conservatives are nursing a bloody nose having lost this round in the culture war. But all it illustrated was the strength of the chokehold the right has on our ability to speak against its agenda without vilification. When significant resources are directed towards scapegoating and punishing those whose rights have been taken away by a government, the result is a country where everyone’s rights are by extension removed. Disagreement is turned at once into dissidence.
The arguments by which that process happens are well rehearsed. If you deviate from rightwing lines on race and immigration you are unpatriotic, out of touch, elitist, actively working against the interest of the British people. Through the perversion of policy creation and enforcement, plus organisations such as the Home Office, and the dominance of political culture by a pliant rightwing press and a clearly compromised BBC, the Tories have successfully limited freedoms that go way beyond what happens at our borders.
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The first is your right to speak up, something that those in charities, civil society bodies and legal practices who criticised the government’s policies on race and immigration found out long before Lineker did, and with far less public profile and support. The “activist lawyers”, the “do gooder” refugee charities, the “campaigning” black journalists slammed for daring to question the government’s sacred story on Britain’s racial Eden – they have for years been labouring under the sort of restraints and rhetoric that in any other country would elicit pious concern from our politicians.
It doesn’t stop there. Even our ability to be served by the institutions of government is undermined. A Home Office shot through with cruelty and paranoia fails not only immigrants but British citizens, wrongfully deporting them, wrongfully stripping them of citizenship, refusing them their right to marry foreigners and settle in the country, and and giving British universities the jitters by trying to cut migration by targeting international students, the non-EU portion of which pays about 17% of British university’s income. For an institution that is all about upholding the law, the Home Office regularly breaks it, driven rabid by its obsession with not appearing a “soft touch” to immigrants.
And it doesn’t even stop at these failing organs of government. Cynically putting controls on immigration as a central policy has led government ministers into wild foreign policy adventures. In 2016, victimising migrants swallowed our entire politics. The leave campaign was a masterclass in how the flapping of butterfly wings end in a storm – we cannot let the country become captured by broadly unchallenged immigration hysteria, no matter how sheltered we are from it, without paying for it somehow further down the line. And so we sacrificed our freedom of movement, along with so many other losses, cultural and economic, which continue to be revealed.
Still, ever oblivious to the dangers, we allow our public discourse to remain saturated with messaging that portrays anyone who supports immigrants as an enemy that needs to be purged, while handwringing about what is the most “appropriate” language of protest. Those who rushed to criticise Lineker for his intemperate language comparing the government’s small boats announcement to 1930s Germany seem to have forgotten that, shortly after writing an article imploring people to recognise the good that immigration does for the country and not to “fall for the spin” of Brexiters, Jo Cox was murdered by a man who hoarded Nazi memorabilia, and in court gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. Another Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, almost met the same fate when a neo-Nazi affiliated to the banned far-right group National Action plotted to kill her. She was only saved by the actions of a whistleblower.
The links between state propaganda and violence are inescapable. In September 2020, a man carrying a large knife entered a London law firm and launched a “violent, racist attack” targeting an immigration lawyer in which a staff member was injured. The law practice claimed that “responsibility and accountability for this attack … lies squarely at the feet of Priti Patel”, who had days earlier said that “activist lawyers” were preventing the removal of migrants.
Related: ‘Stop the boats’ shows how Britain is really being governed: by Tory campaign leaflet | Rafael Behr
Despite all that the toxic immigration debate has cost us – lives, rights, freedoms – there is still a listlessness among progressives to see it for what it is. That is, not just a humanitarian issue, or a fixation of the political right that is ringfenced from the rest of politics, but a moral panic which the Conservatives have leveraged for electoral success and a relevance that is renewed with every immigration “crisis”. Particularly blinkered are the influential progressives of Labour governments past who have found second lives as social media lightning rods and podcasters. They spend a lot of time being appalled by Brexit and fiercely critical of Tory policies while ignoring the toxic narratives on race and immigration that caused them.
“Liberals across the world always think ‘it won’t happen to me’ whenever what are considered to be fringe groups are attacked by the right,” says Jonathan Metzl, author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, a seminal work arguing that racism deployed deftly by the right persuades white people to vote against their own interests. “There’s a lot of denial, dismissal and elitism,” he says – a reluctance to recognise how the rights of minorities are linked to those of majorities, as well as a lack of “message discipline” on the left that squarely negates, not just protests, rightwing messaging on race and immigration. This failure leads to “catastrophic consequences” for liberals who are being outflanked by the politics of resentment everywhere, in Israel, Hungary and the US.
A realisation of this may have stirred last week when it became clear that this stifling monoculture had come for someone such as Lineker, a man not only popular, but more importantly, a member of that ostensibly immune liberal tribe. But the reality is that nobody is protected in the culture war. Not in a country consumed by an addiction to performative cruelty towards those who arrive here only to shoulder the blame for all our economic mismanagement and political failure. An immigrant shivering on the beach or languishing in detention may be a long way from your life, but the government has sketched a line, long and winding, that connects you. When you speak up for them, you speak up for yourself.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist
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