When someone hears the UK home secretary speaking about “stopping the invasion on our southern coast”, they might be forgiven for thinking Britain is at war. Suella Braverman’s description of refugees landing at Kent as an “invasion” is an unprecedented comment from a government minister speaking in parliament.
Many in the Conservative party have traditionally distanced themselves from more outspoken right-wingers – Nigel Farage, for example – who have regularly spoken of the “invasion” of asylum seekers. Even the former home secretary, Priti Patel, who promoted a “turn back the boats” strategy and spearheaded sending migrants to Rwanda, was careful to avoid such dehumanising language.
Invoking invasion metaphors is dangerous precisely because it assumes the motives of a population whose experiences, backgrounds and migration stories are complex and often traumatic. Depicting refugees as an invading army – or a flood that threatens to sweep over the nation – represents them as a marauding force bent on aggression.
This language of invasion is one used often by right-wing extremist groups, who take it upon themselves to patrol the Kent coast and spread disinformation about asylum seekers through social media. In September 2019, the far-right group Britain First started beach patrols on Samphire Hoe, the country park created from the Channel Tunnel excavations. Tellingly, they dubbed this “Operation White Cliffs”. In 2020, its members blocked the port of Dover, causing gridlock. Later they launched their own patrol boat Alfred the Great, promising to stand firm “against the unprecedented invasion by economic migrants”.
With the context of the terrorist attack on the Dover immigration centre, Braverman’s unapologetic use of such inflammatory language plays into the hands of such groups. So why is she using it now?
In the run-up to Brexit, immigration was at the fore of public attention. Leave campaigners and parts of the press regularly invoked a narrative of territorial encroachment, suggesting that the British way of life was being threatened from the outside. The increasing number of refugees crossing the Channel was often conflated with the threat posed by EU bureaucracy and laws. This was one argument for “seizing back control” of British borders.
But years after the referendum, we are moving to a political era where migration is no longer of particular concern to the British people. In 2013, the British Social Attitudes survey suggested 77% of Brits wanted immigration reduced “a lot”. By 2019 this was down to 19%, and more recent surveys suggest that most believe immigration has a positive impact on the nation. By 2022, inflation/prices (54%), the economy (34%) and climate change (23%) all far outstripped immigration (11%) in the British public’s political priorities.
With this in mind, Braverman’s rhetoric of invasion could be an attempt to reignite debates about the border, to deflect from some of the economic problems that her party has struggled to address. Following the Tories’ disastrous flirtation with Trussonomics, claims about the threat of migration are a convenient smokescreen. They suggest the nation’s current travails are caused by “illegals” who take British jobs and homes.
Propping up her currently-ailing party’s reputation as one tough on immigration, Braverman’s intervention in the debates around the Channel crisis could have been a masterstroke ahead of a general election which looks set to be a disaster for the Conservatives. But given the reaction, even from her fellow ministers, it is one that looks to have badly misfired.
In recent days, harrowing images of child refugees held in the overcrowded Manston airfield accommodation in Kent have undermined Braverman’s tough talk. They have instead fostered widespread sympathy towards the plight of those who come to the UK seeking a better life. In this light, talking of refugees as aggressors threatening the island fortress seems badly out of touch with contemporary public opinion.
Kent as the frontline
The language of “invasion” being applied to migrants – legal and otherwise – is of course not uncommon. One of the most notable examples was the 2019 photo in The Sun, claiming to depict “The Moment Migrants Storm Kent Beaches”.
Militaristic metaphors of national defence being breached, and descriptions of a “deadly cat and mouse game” between border patrol and refugees in dinghies depict Kent as a battleground, rather than a site of reception and hospitality.
This language resonates powerfully because of Kent’s role as the military frontline throughout British history. This is embodied in the memorials, monuments and military structures around Kent’s coastline, from Dover Castle to the Road to Remembrance in Folkestone.
During the run-up and immediate aftermath of Brexit, when so much appeared uncertain, these sites were seized upon as part of the mythology of the “island fortress”. The spirit of 1945 was regularly invoked by those arguing it was time for the British to “take back control”. Boris Johnson argued that Winston Churchill would have joined him on his Brexit “battle bus” and compared the EU “superstate” to Hitler’s Germany. And Nigel Farage entered a 2019 rally to the sound of air raid sirens.
Brexit was fuelled by subtle cultural manipulation of ideas of Englishness – embracing both the nostalgia for the British imperial project as well as the class resentments associated with austerity. Brexit was a vote against London, globalisation and multiculturalism as much as it was a vote against Europe. This combination appeared to have particular appeal to many older, mainly white voters living outside the capital. Many would have voted Conservative in 2019, leading to Braverman’s rise to home secretary in the first place.
Philip Hubbard does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.