Racist or authoritarian?

The new Immigration Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday – and was passed with almost no resistance. 303 votes in favour, just 18 against. The Labour Party effectively backed the Bill – to the distress of a considerable number of people, including myself.

Why are some of us worried about this Bill? Well, there are lots of reasons to object to it – not least the overall message that it sends, that somehow immigration is a big problem, one that we can pin a huge number of problems onto, from the pretty much bogus claims of ‘health tourism’ to unemployment to strain on schools to somehow blaming the entire economic problems of this country on them. If we have a problem, immigrants are a convenient group to blame – and have been for a long time. Making such a point of an Immigration Bill just adds to this… and Labour supporting this just adds to the feeling that  it’s just ‘truth’.

Your papers please!

That, however, is not what bothers me the most. I’m afraid that battle is one that right now is too hard to fight. The Mail, the Express and UKIP have done their work too well, and Labour, the Lib Dems etc are too scared to oppose it. No, what bothers me most right now is the increasing idea that we need to ‘check’ on people. Doctors need to check people’s immigration status, landlords need to check people’s immigration status, banks need to check people’s immigration status, the DVLA needs to check people’s immigration status etc etc etc…. I can see the argument for some of these – the DVLA it makes the most sense for – but it all adds to an atmosphere where ‘your papers please’ is pretty much the standard answer to any request. That in itself has deep and disturbing implications, implications we should be thinking about.


The first question to ask is who will be asked for their papers. Are people asked for papers only when there is a ‘suspicion’ that they might be an illegal immigrant? If so, what could create that suspicion? That they ‘look’ like an illegal immigrant? What does an illegal immigrant look like? Recent activities of the UKBA suggest that they have certain ideas of what illegal immigrants look like – and those ideas have a distinct whiff of racism in them. Or, perhaps that they ‘sound’ like an illegal immigrant? An accent that doesn’t seem ‘local’? The implications of the possibility there will be more checks on people who look or sound ‘foreign’ should worry anyone with any sense of decency – or any knowledge of history.


There is an alternative, non-racist alternative: that everyone, no matter what they look like or sound like, should have to prove who they are and their immigration status in pretty much every situation. That wouldn’t be racist – but it would be deeply authoritarian. In the UK we have had a deep resistance to the idea of identity cards for a long, long time. We allowed them in the second war, but after the historic case of Willcock vs Muckle in 1951 we rejected them, and attempts to bring them in since have all failed. Indeed, opposition to the last Labour government’s ID card plan was central to the Coalition government’s plans – and one of their first actions in government was to cancel the programme.

This Immigration Bill, and the strategy in which is plays a part, could well bring about a kind of ‘ID cards by the back door’ plan: if we’re all forced to prove who we are, isn’t an ID card the logical way to do it? They wouldn’t call it an ID card of course – something like an ‘entitlement card’ would sound less offensive…. but the effect, particularly for poorer and more vulnerable people who need to access more services, for people from ethnic minorities who are more likely to be challenged, would be identical. It would be just as authoritarian.

Or a bit of both?

In reality, the impact is likely to be both racist and authoritarian. People who ‘look’ or ‘sound’ foreign will be challenged more often – or simply ignored or refused services, not offered accommodation – and there will be increasing occasions when we all will be required to ‘prove’ who we are.

We should be thinking far more carefully about the implications of bills like this – both in terms of the messages they send out and in terms of their impact in the real world. At the moment we seem to be thinking very narrowly, and on a very short term basis, without seeing the bigger picture. That isn’t good at all.

17 thoughts on “Racist or authoritarian?

  1. I’m an immigrant. I have a white skin but a colonial accent.

    I’d have no problem with being checked to see if I were in the country legally and I strongly believe the same should apply to anyone, including (say) the friends I grew up with.

    It does worry me that people could be costing the UK money which we shouldn’t have to pay. This might be

    – people who are visiting the country who get sick, where the NHS could recover the money
    – people driving without a licence
    – illegal immigrants
    – people voting illegally

    An ID card might be one way to minimise these problems. There were ID cards in WW2 and that didn’t turn the UK into an authoritarian state. This may not be the only solution: I would just like to feel comfortable that the government seeks to reasonably enforce the law and spend our taxes on people legally eligible to benefit from them.

    We know that regardless of which party is in government we are going through tough economic times. I’d like to feel confident that we are not taking money from, say, students or pensioners to pay for benefits for those who aren’t eligible.

    1. The thing is, the economic benefit is minimal – despite what the papers say – and it may well even end up costing more than it saves, as the administrative costs will be significant and the systems needed to set it up will be costly and almost certainly problematic (as all government IT systems are) – while the civil liberties damage is significant.

      I’d rather let a few people have some services they’re not technically entitled to and be a more civilised country….

      1. Hello Paul

        I know my reply is straying somewhat off the subject (the Immigration Bill) but I don’t think the implementation costs have to be substantial.

        When someone comes for treatment at a hospital or surgery for the first time, ask for their NI card and some photo ID. Similarly when someone comes to vote.

        I strongly support civil liberties and I think this and the previous government have unreasonably used the threat of terrorism to restrict liberty, but what I would like is simply a check to be reasonably sure that someone is entitled to do what they are doing.

      2. The implementations would be substantial – as much as anything because of the speed that would be required, particularly in relation to A&E etc, but also because we’re talking about far more than hospitals, but everything down to private landlords and beyond. You still also miss the main point – it’s about the normalisation effect of asking for ID.

        And again, you don’t seem to have grasped that this really isn’t a significant problem. It doesn’t cost us much money – a tiny fraction, for example, of tax evasion or avoidance – and systems like this will also actually encourage a black-market in fake IDs, which itself could drive up the amount of fraud. In practice, we’re opening a huge can of worms, risking normalising racism and authoritarianism, all for a doubtful saving and a distraction for public services. Not worth it at all, in my view.

      3. By the way: according to the commission who looked into it, the cost to the UK taxpayer of providing NHS care to foreigners who should have to pay for it is £1.9 billion. Yes, billion.

      4. The Channel4 report itself includes substantial speculation, estimates and errors. There’s more than one hook, line and sinker.

    2. Do you think that’s much of a problem when a few people are taking advantage in a modest way, or when millionaires get a tax cut, multinationals avoid paying any tax, and QE shunts billions toward the banks? Maybe you, personally, have a sense of proportion about these things but clearly the government doesn’t.

      1. I’d have to disagree. There’s a vast difference between a country on a war footing and an authoritarian state.

        – You weren’t subject to arbitrary arrest if your views differed from the government’s.
        – Trade union activity continued: indeed there were strikes.
        – Immediately after the war there were elections and the ruling party was turfed out of power

    3. Dave, if someone gets sick, the only concern of the doctors and nurses should be to treat a human being who is sick. What would you suggest they do if the patient has no papers or ID card? Let them die? Let’s think about these issues as human beings for a change.

      The driving license example isn’t really relevant as everyone needs a license to drive, and those licenses can be checked, for everyone, regardless of their nationality.

      You then suggest that “illegal immigrants” are “costing the UK money”, whereas a far more common reality is that most migrants (I really detest the term “illegal immigrants”) are being super-exploited, mainly because their “illegal” status makes them particularly vulnerable to such exploitation, and they are therefore making buckets of money for those UK employers who are exploiting them.

      The sooner we start thinking of each other as fellow human beings with equal human and civil rights, the better. The xenophobia of the right wing gutter press, with its fear, hostility and often downright hatred of migrants, is unbecoming of a civilised society.

      1. Hi Roy

        When you go to see a doctor, an admin type person checks you in. That person can also set in train billing, where appropriate.

        I hear from unsubstantiated sources that a significant percentage of people on UK roads are driving without a licence. If this is true, I’d like to see checks made of people’s licences from time to time. In my opinion, as an immigrant, UK drivers are extremely good: why put this at risk because of people who aren’t licensed for whatever reason?

        Regarding illegal immigrants: you make a great point on exploitation. But this mostly happens to illegals, as they are afraid to seek protection of the law.

        You are right that we need to think of each other as human beings. However, the UK can’t become the world’s refuge any more than the US can be the world’s policeman.

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