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Permeable borders, performative politics and public mistrust

This chapter draws on the framework of performance politics proposed by the political scientist Shirin Rai (2014). It discusses Operation Vaken as part of a deployment of theatricalised violence by the British state in recent decades in which performances of state power are directed at many audiences and serve to segment the population. Despite attempts to address a diversity of audiences, our research suggests that immigration policing communications and performances appear to be met with indifference or anxiety. They can also be re-interpreted through a popular cynicism that is influenced by a broader culture of anti-politics. The chapter explores the impact of such scepticism on the politics of migration, and asks whether there are possibilities for a politics based on mutuality.


Permeable borders, performative politics and public mistrust

Rita: I was just taking the train from Victoria to Clapham Junction. And Clapham Junction when I get off from the train, I saw so many UKBA [UK Border Agency] people they were there, I saw them with large dogs, blocking the entire area. I had a visa and have it now also. But I got really scared because I could see the place blocked. I cannot describe how terrified I was, wondering why there is a man there with dogs and searching, what are they searching, was it drugs, or what? I got so panicked and scared that I went and sat in the wrong train … When I got on the train I started crying. I was thinking how long will I live with this fear? I'm not allowed to work … I started to think to myself, if I can't move around at all, that people are blocking the way like this, and I'm so scared then perhaps suicide is better.

(Ealing and Hounslow Focus Group, conducted by Sukhwant)

Our [Go Home poster] campaign targets illegal immigrants without any discrimination at all between them. By no stretch of the rational imagination can it be described as ‘racist’. Furthermore, the campaign is not meant to, and does not, discourage legal immigrants who have earned the right to live or settle in Britain. To claim that the poster campaign is unfair to legal migrants is silly.

(Mark Harper, Immigration Minister, writing in the Daily Mail, 2013)

Alan: Yes, they're trying to give the impression that they're doing something about it … ‘We are doing our job, we are catching these illegals, we are putting them in the van and we're taking them to the jail’ and half an hour later they're going to let them go again, they're not saying that bit, are they?

(Dagenham Focus Group, conducted by Yasmin)

The three statements above provide very different perspectives on the performative politics of immigration control, demonstrating some of the contradictory reactions to the increasing visibility of the ‘toughness’ of UK immigration enforcement. In the first narrative, a woman describes the visceral fear that gripped her on seeing a large, public show of force by border officials at a domestic railway station in South London. Rita had a valid visa and therefore in theory had no reason to fear being stopped. But she was ‘terrified’, ‘panicked’, ‘scared’ and ‘nervous’, to the extent that she got on the wrong train, and began to think that death might be better than such constant fear when simply trying to move around the city. She saw her way, and perhaps her life, as ‘blocked’, almost impossible.

This account is in contrast to the second extract, in which the then Minister for Immigration, Mark Harper MP, makes a defence of the Go Home vans in a column in the Daily Mail newspaper (see also Introduction). He argues that it is not ‘rational’ to view the poster as threatening to anyone other than people who are in contravention of immigration law. By extension it seems that Harper would class the experience of terror described by Rita as ‘silly’ too. Why should Rita feel ‘blocked’ if she is carrying a valid visa and being ‘rational’?

In the final extract, the speaker identified himself in our focus group as supporting the far-right British National Party (BNP), a party which has long supported ‘voluntary resettlement’ for (legal) ‘immigrants and their descendants’ (BNP, 2010; our emphasis). Much journalistic commentary and analysis of the Go Home vans suggested that their purpose was to appeal as much to this audience – the voter sceptical about immigration and turning to far-right parties – as to those ‘in the UK illegally’ (see BBC, 2013; Merrick, 2013; Wigmore, 2013). This was a view supported by some of our interviews with policy insiders about the reasons for the rise in demonstrations of toughness in government communications about immigration (see Chapter 3). Talking not just about the Go Home vans but also about the images of arrests by immigration enforcement officers circulated by the Home Office on Twitter and elsewhere, Alan both supports the idea that such performances reach out to these audiences, and questions their efficacy in doing so. The message is at once recognised and dismissed as insufficient and as a public relations game. It seems, indeed, that by following the logic circulating in Westminster, whereby government has given up on trying to discuss the facts of immigration in favour of emotional appeals to reassurance and fear (see Chapter 3), the Home Office has met with further scepticism.

In what follows, we explore these different experiences and viewpoints, focusing on the ways in which the theatricalised performances of the state emerged in the particular moment of border control materialised by Operation Vaken. Through our research we have been able to delve into the effects of the state performance and mobilisation of the border through the accounts of both those who have suffered the most coercive aspects of bordering and those who are most vocal in their distrust of political elites. In both groups, the performative aspect of Home Office immigration campaigns is identified as a moment of crisis and crumbling credibility. What should be constitutive becomes indicative of an underlying lack; and for both of these audiences this serves to confirm the vulnerability and contradictions of government activity in this area. In our discussion of these complicated dynamics, we will consider the responses of different audiences to highly staged instances of Home Office performance, suggesting that, in the process, what is revealed is the scepticism of these varied audiences towards the performativity of immigration enforcement and its politics.

In making sense of these different entanglements in the performance of immigration enforcement, in this chapter we:

  1. engage with debates about performative politics to consider the apparently contradictory performances mounted in the name of border control
  2. discuss the deployment of theatricalised violence by the state
  3. argue that performances of state power should be understood as directed at several audiences and also as techniques that segment the population
  4. consider how some attempts to address a diversity of audiences can be met with scepticism, anxiety or indifference
  5. note how, despite amplified expressions of anti-migrant sentiment across public life, the anti-migrant performances of government are viewed with suspicion and re-interpreted through a popular scepticism influenced by a broader culture of ‘anti-politics’.1

Performing coercion

The key question that concerned us during Operation Vaken was a deceptively simple one: how do governments seek to demonstrate that they are controlling immigration? Importantly, although the Go Home vans might be regarded as the most crass and obvious form of political performance, throughout the course of the project we came to understand the many other and varied forms political performance can take. For example, while we were doing our research the Home Office initiated a series of interventions, all designed to confirm the government's commitment to tough border controls. The majority of these constituted what we might understand as speech acts.2 These were public proclamations of intent. At the same time, there was a period during the project when the more overt coercion of immigration raids and people being ‘lifted’ in public places seemed to escalate. In trying to better understand the impact of the varied initiatives undertaken to create a ‘hostile environment’, we sought out responses to this range of quite different actions. We have now come to understand both the communication campaigns and the physical assertion of the border through checks, raids, detentions and deportations as modes of state performance.

Central to our interests has been the manner in which popular understandings of sovereignty place the issue of the border as a central test and marker of sovereign power. Nicholas Vaughan-Williams, a scholar in politics and international relations, explains the centrality of border marking to theoretical accounts of the exercise of state sovereignty:

the concept of the border of the state can be said to frame the limits of sovereign power as something supposedly contained within fixed territorially demarcated parameters.

(Vaughan-Williams, 2009: 730)

Alongside these assumptions about the role of the border in demonstrating sovereign power and for complex reasons that may be particular to the UK, the question of immigration control has become one of the central talismanic markers of the alleged failure of mainstream politics. In the moment of increasingly vocalised anti-politics in the UK, the issue of immigration has taken on a symbolic status that goes far beyond the detail of any policy intervention or outcome. While we will go on to reveal the extent to which ‘the UK’ is a diverse space in relation to the reception of government-led immigration campaigns (see Chapter 4), the presentation of the issue of immigration in mainstream political and media discourse erases many of these differences. For the most part then, immigration is presented as: a test of sovereignty and/or as evidence that sovereignty has been eroded; an example of the diverging interests of a (possibly metropolitan)3 political class and the rest of the population; an indication of the overall loss of control of central government; a demonstration of the questionable use of data in official pronouncements. The chapters in this volume will go on to reflect on the repercussions of these varying views among different audiences, including the manner in which such discourses position different actors as inside or outside political space.

In relation to the exclusions that arise from border marking, Vaughan-Williams has revisited the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben (1998, 1999, 2005 ) to think again about the spaces of indistinction and what Agamben calls the ‘banned’ person. In doing this, Vaughan-Williams reopens debates about the location and character of sovereign power and, importantly for our interests here, the ambiguous and ambivalent inclusion extended to those who are disallowed by the exercise of power. As we will go on to explain, these discussions of the banned and disallowed person have been important in helping us to acknowledge and interpret the unexpected and contradictory impacts of immigration enforcement campaigns for the (more usually) ignored subject of border enforcement (namely irregular migrants, refugees and asylum seekers).

Our aim then is to offer a critical reading of the performance of recent border enforcement campaigns in order to understand the impact of such campaigns on political spaces and popular understandings of the business of government. To do this, we will link our analysis of state campaigns to a larger debate about the conduct of political life and suggest that the assertion of power may not always play out in linear or predictable ways among the wider population. In particular, we have been alert to the debates about anti-politics or postpolitics (see Burnham, 2002; Hay, 2007; Schedler, 1997) signifying a disaffection, negativity or a disengagement from political institutions and processes, such as elections (see Saunders, 2014). Yet these ideas have been rarely linked to discussions of immigration and state immigration campaigns.

Our exploration of state performances in the name of immigration control found that the fear of popular scepticism both informed government tactics and circulated in the reception of the various campaign initiatives. This constant whisper of scepticism in the face of all and any government initiatives relating to immigration control brings up questions of political performance and the impact of such performances.

What do we mean by political performance?

Shirin Rai offers a useful framework through which to analyse political performances and the ways in which they are received and interpreted by different audiences. For Rai, political performances are:

those performances that seek to communicate to an audience meaning-making related to state institutions, policies and discourses. This meaning-making is read in very specific socio-political contexts; it can be either consolidative or challenging of the dominant narratives of politics.

(Rai, 2015: 1179–80)

Rai's interest is in the active and planned business of political life. Her own work has examined parliamentary ritual and how this positions women. When she writes of political performance, it is with a focus on statecraft and the actions of political representatives. It is a conception that places most of us as audience, not actor, but in a manner that gives due weight to the interpretative power of audiences:

Its legitimacy rests on a convincing performance; it has to be representative of a particular political stand; it must engage the audience that is its particular target; it should satisfy the formal rules, rituals and conventions of the institutions through which the meaning is being projected; and be received as logical and coherent. Because much of this performance can be challenged by disruption of the performance itself through counter-performance, mis-recognition or mis-reading of and by the audience, political performance is inherently unstable and vulnerable to being seen as illegitimate.

(Rai, 2015: 1180)

The central realisation here is the inherent instability of political performance. Much of what we found suggested that various audiences viewed government performances as weak or misplaced and, as a result of this reading, were confirmed in their view of the incompetence or irrelevance of government more generally. The inherent instability of political performance is of key importance when considering recent immigration campaigns because this reminds us that what the powerful say and do may not determine how all actors understand what is happening in public space. With this in mind, we have used Rai's work to inform our readings of this set of state performances. Rai suggests a framework for understanding the production of political performances by identifying two axes of activity:

On one axis we can map the markers of representation: the body, the space/place, words/script/speech and performative labour. Together, these four markers encapsulate political performance. On the second axis we can map the effects of performance: authenticity, mode of representation, liminality and resistance (of and to) political representation.

(Rai, 2015: 1181)

Applying this schema to Home Office immigration campaigns in the period of our project has allowed us to pull out the aspects of these campaigns that typify these particular strands of performance. Therefore, we might consider that bodies are adapted, rebranded or contained through the varied activities of updating uniforms and instituting immigration raids (see also Bunyan, 1985: 295). The performance of immigration control utilises space and place both by reiterating the border at the border and through new signage in public locations such as hospital waiting rooms (see Figure 2). Equally the circulation of immigration enforcement teams, branded vans and public raids all extend the space of political performance to the street and this also is a tactical remaking of political space (Yuval-Davis, Wemyss and Cassidy, 2016). As we have already identified, much of the campaigning activity under scrutiny consists of speech acts, including tweets, slogans and branding. As these performances are not tied to any particular representative, the performative labour can be harder to identify. However, the positioning of journalists as an internal audience to the most coercive elements of border control through invitations to witness its performance, along with the overall effort of communication and will to embody authority, all point to the locations of performative labour in these endeavours. We have understood the campaigns that we analysed as representing this range of tactical performances.

Figure 2: Signs in NHS on limited rights to healthcare for some migrants

Alongside focus groups, interviews and observations in our own six research locations, to help us understand how the wider population reacted to these campaigns, we commissioned a survey from Ipsos MORI on attitudes to Home Office immigration campaigns (see the Appendix for more details). The opening section of the survey mapped public awareness of a number of overlapping initiatives, chosen to represent the focus on communicating the active pursuit of immigration control. The survey asked people whether they were aware of the following:

  1. advertising vans around London in 2013 stating ‘In the UK illegally? GO HOME OR FACE ARREST’
  2. tweets from the Home Office showing images of people being detained by immigration officers and the hashtag #immigrationoffender
  3. journalists accompanying immigration officers on raids of wedding ceremonies, homes or workplaces
  4. signs in NHS premises stating ‘NHS hospital treatment is not free for everyone’ [see Figure 2]
  5. UK Border branded signs about immigration regulations at passport control areas introduced in 2006
  6. uniforms for passport control officers introduced in 2006/7
  7. Immigration Enforcement branded vans on UK streets
  8. other communications (please specify)
  9. none of these
  10. don't know.

We wanted to map the extent of public knowledge of the Home Office campaigns and also to get a sense of how it felt to be positioned as an audience to these campaigns. In effect, we conducted a very basic form of audience research and, in so doing, we sought to shift the discussion away from attitudes to a thing called ‘immigration’, and towards an assessment of how government campaigns about immigration made sense or incited sensation for different audiences. Table 1 summarises some key outcomes of the survey we commissioned from Ipsos MORI.

Table 1:

Awareness and responses to Home Office communication campaigns on immigration (%) (see Appendix for sample and methodological details)

Home office activity Proportion aware of this activity Of those who are aware, those who feel ‘reassured that the government is taking action against irregular/illegal immigration’ Of those who are aware, those who feel ‘concerned that some people are being treated with unnecessary suspicion in everyday situations’
Advertising vans around London in 2013 stating ‘In the UK illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest’
26 (n=603)2834
Tweets from the Home Office showing images of people being detained by immigration officers and the hashtag #immigrationoffender
6 (n=145)2033
Journalists accompanying immigration officers on raids of wedding ceremonies, homes or workplaces
13 (n=317)3126
Signs in NHS premises stating ‘NHS hospital treatment is not free for everyone’
20 (n=474)4119
UK Border branded signs about immigration regulations at passport control areas introduced in 2006
31 (n=715)4118
Uniforms for passport control officers introduced in 2006/2007
23 (n=522)4113
Immigration Enforcement branded vans on UK streets
18 (n=426)3128

After the heightened publicity accompanying the Go Home vans, it is perhaps surprising that such small proportions of the sample were aware of the Vaken initiatives. The media coverage of the Go Home vans was intensive for a short period of time, yet by the time of our survey more than a year later only a little more than a quarter (26 per cent) of those surveyed recalled this campaign. Other initiatives also had little impact on popular recall; only new signage at passport control elicited a higher level of recognition (31 per cent). In relation to the introduction of vans (either the ad-van or those used by enforcement officers), tweets or accompanying journalists, those who said that they were aware of various initiatives were almost as likely – or more likely – to be concerned about the impact of unnecessary suspicion as they were to be reassured by evidence of government action. The areas where a significantly greater proportion expressed a sense of reassurance – NHS signs, border signs and uniforms for border staff – relate more concretely to the marking of a static border albeit extended into the space of healthcare. As Rai (2015) has indicated, the sense of space and place significantly shapes the possibilities and impact of political performance. In our case, the spaces in which the ‘performance’ is enacted appears to shape the extent to which the general audience considers it legitimate.

The Ipsos MORI survey also gave respondents opportunities to provide textual, qualitative responses in addition to the multiple-choice questions. Although this option was taken only by a minority of those familiar with the government campaigns, the responses show the uncertain impact of the performance (see Table 2). In order to summarise this range of material, we have organised comments in relation to each campaign strand under the headings of:

Table 2:

‘Other’ written responses to the question ‘Which, if any, of the following best reflects how you feel about this communication/action?’ (responses are verbatim as typed by survey respondents)

Advertising vans around London in 2013 stating ‘In the UK illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest’
Considered ineffective ‘i feel strongly that the previous labour govt + coalition have performed badly in controlling immigration’
‘government doing nothing’
‘i think the vans are a waste of money on a personal note. we need to curb immigration to uk & i now vote for UKIP as a protest vote’
‘The Home Office are not doing enough to combat immigration ie funding reduced to tackle this major issue’
‘they have to control immigration so i am for the work of officers but against the vans as they create problems for us british citizens with our neighbours’
‘the vans are a waste of public money’
Opposition/disgust ‘A worrying shift to the right wing in this country’
‘Disgusted by it’
I think it's horribly racist.’
‘1930's Berlin?’
‘Absolutely fucking outraged that public funds were spent on such a crass and insensitive waste of effort’
‘i think the vans initiative in london is appalling’
Agreement with approach ‘the illegals are here on false pretences & should be deported immediately.’
‘where there is a strong suspicion’
Stupid or equivalent ‘Ridiculus’
‘ed embarrass’
‘It was stupid’
A failed or misplaced performance ‘counter productive’
‘bad publicity!’
‘inappropriate action’
Other responses ‘ON TV’
‘i am fully aware of the immigration problem’
Tweets from the Home Office showing images of people being detained by immigration officers and the hashtag #immigrationoffender
Considered ineffective NONE
Opposition/disgust ‘disgusted’
Agreement with approach ‘fine’
Stupid or equivalent NONE
A failed or misplaced performance NONE
Other responses NONE
Signs in NHS premises stating ‘NHS hospital treatment is not free for everyone’
Considered ineffective ‘they need to act more not just put up signs’
Opposition/disgust ‘Disgusted’
‘should not be there’
‘legal immagrints should get free nhs’
Agreement with approach ‘foreigners abusing our nhs’
Stupid or equivalent NONE
A failed or misplaced performance ‘its not necessarily immigration.its not being legal or illegal.’
Other responses ‘only concerned about postcadev treatment’
UK Border branded signs about immigration regulations at passport control areas introduced in 2006
Considered ineffective ‘not enough is being done’
‘should be stricter’
‘I feel thst these signs would make little difference - I doubt anybody intending to enter the country illegally is going to be discouraged by signs.’
‘theres not enough resources’
Opposition/disgust NONE
Agreement with approach ‘Fine’
‘concerned some may be treated with uneccesary suspicion as well as too many immigrants entering.’
Stupid or equivalent NONE
A failed or misplaced performance NONE
Other responses NONE
Journalists accompanying immigration officers on raids of wedding ceremonies, homes or workplaces
Considered ineffective ‘Steps taken not enough’
Opposition/disgust ‘Outraged’
Agreement with approach ‘Fine with it’
‘too much immigration’
Stupid or equivalent NONE
A failed or misplaced performance ‘dont feel the need for it to be publisised’
‘it is an inappropiate way of carrying out government bussiness’
Other responses ‘Null’
Uniforms for passport control officers introduced in 2006/7
Considered ineffective ‘theres not enough resources’
Opposition/disgust NONE
Agreement with approach ‘Fine’
‘it makes the process formal and tidy.nothing to do with illegal immigrants.it makes them look professional.its same in other countries.’
Stupid or equivalent NONE
A failed or misplaced performance ‘thought they were badly fitting - not good impression’
Other responses ‘More widespread than PEOPLE realise’
Immigration Enforcement branded vans on UK streets
Considered ineffective ‘government is not taking enough action’
‘money would be better spent tracking down illegals’
‘dont feel gov't is taking enough action’
‘waste of money’
‘it creates the wrong impression of the weakness of the immigration service’
Opposition/disgust ‘xenophobic, alarmist,unprofessional, unethical.’
‘feel digraceful‘
‘they are a disgrce’
Agreement with approach ‘like it’
‘If it's done in a good way then that's a good thing’
Stupid or equivalent ‘it's a joke’
A failed or misplaced performance ‘govt are doing their best’
‘badly phrased’
‘legal immigrants may be victimised’
Other responses ‘bigger problem than government thinks’
  • considered ineffective
  • opposition/disgust
  • agreement with approach
  • stupid or equivalent
  • a failed or misplaced performance
  • other responses.

The question of the effects of the performance of immigration enforcement has been central for us. From the very beginnings of the project we have tried both to describe the particularity of these interventions at a time of heightened politicisation of immigration control and to register and trace the impact of such actions on migrants and on others. In the process, our analyses have revealed the extent to which campaign messages circulate differently according to audience and location. With this in mind, the questions that are raised by Rai in relation to the effects of performance should be regarded as varying across audiences. The second axis that Rai identifies consists of:

  • Authenticity – Is this for real? Vocal scepticism reveals distrust of performance and effectivity of state actions overall (e.g. ‘Absolutely fucking outraged that public funds were spent on such a crass and insensitive waste of effort’).
  • Mode of representation – for vans, this mode has been regarded as improper and/or ineffective. For signage, there seems to be a greater acceptance of both script and place (e.g. ‘they need to act more not just put up signs’).
  • Liminality – possibility of rupture, here arising from dangerous admission that performance is required (e.g. ‘it creates the wrong impression of the weakness of the immigration service’).
  • Resistance of/to political representation – including humour, ridicule, outright disbelief (e.g. ‘it's a joke’).

All four of these aspects of reception were mentioned in the sceptical readings of state campaigns in our survey. In particular scepticism was sometimes expressed as ridicule and the performances were also taken as a reminder that authority is uncertain and sometimes ineffective (see also Living Research Five). Taken together the two axes allow us to consider political performance both as a set of performative techniques and as a set of responses or audiences.

It is important to remember that the immigration campaigns that we studied did not inhabit the usual spaces of political life and did not constitute the ritualistic performances of bodies such as those seen in Parliament. Instead, they were designed to enact and mark the border in everyday locations. At the same time, the very act of reasserting such sovereign authority also served to reveal the fra­gility and precariousness of state power. As Rai points out, political performances are always inherently unstable and open to alternative interpretations. The very act of seeking to make power visible can be regarded as a sign of weakness (because ‘real power’ has no need of such theatrical assertions) or as a demystification of the workings of power (revealing the secrets that create the illusion of authority).

Immigration campaigns that took place during our research were undertaken against a backdrop of public scepticism and the increasingly amplified view that government had no control over immigration. We learned from discussions with those tasked with the formation of policy and government campaigns that public opinion was considered to be beyond influence by any data that could be presented to demonstrate ‘effective border control’ (discussed further in Chapter 3). In this context, the performative assertions that the border is being guarded can be seen as an attempt to persuade the public that something is being done about immigration enforcement. The move to these particular modes of political performance is a response to the ineffectiveness of more usual practices of presenting evidence. Our task becomes, then, to understand the workings of government messages that are not presentations of evidence and to explore how such messages are received and interpreted by different audiences.

Popular scepticism

In our research, the most explicitly voiced scepticism came from those who identified themselves as wishing to see more and stronger controls on immigration. In Barking and Dagenham (a borough in the east of London), focus group discussion revolved around the negative impact of recent immigration in local neighbourhoods, yet these groups also expressed high levels of distrust in government initiatives to communicate actions taken as part of immigration control.

In Dagenham, one man revealed that he had stood for election as a BNP candidate – an action that had led to considerable public barracking. For this group, mainstream politics (national and local, as they were keen to point out) was out of touch with people like themselves and unable to address the issue of immigration in any meaningful way. In the context of these views, government communications on migration control, and the Go Home vans in particular, were interpreted as another distraction from the underlying impotence or indifference of government in relation to the issue of immigration control.

To understand the manner in which this form of scepticism is voiced, it is helpful to listen closely to the conversation. The first cause of scepticism arises from the purported audience for the ‘Go Home’ message. In assessing the impact, this group do not include themselves as part of the intended audience and point instead to the likely resistance from the implied audience.

Yasmin: So with things like the van, what sort of impact do you think it actually has?

Joe: None, because they don't take no notice anyway, they just wait until they get caught, you know that, don't you? What, you think someone's going to hand theirself in, look, I'm a criminal, I just robbed a bank.

Carol: Not when it's paved with gold, no, they ain't going to hand themselves in.

(Dagenham Focus Group, conducted by Yasmin)

However, this unambiguous assertion of the ineffectiveness of the initiative contrasts with a point made earlier in the conversation. In an earlier remark, it had been suggested both that the offer made on the vans was welcome to those who wish to see fewer immigrants in Britain and that the offer of advice and support was magnanimous and should be regarded as such (echoed in the views of a policy-maker quoted in the next chapter).

Yasmin: So you're sort of saying different things. So on the one hand you're saying it's good because it's advising and on the other hand you're saying it's going to have no impact at all?

Joe: No, it's not going to have no impact, it's good for the people that live here.

Alan: Yeah.

Joe: It'll make them happy.

(Dagenham Focus Group, conducted by Yasmin)

These statements suggest that ‘the people who live here’ (i.e. non-migrants) will be made happy by the circulation of the vans and the publicity given to government immigration advice. Local residents become the intended audience and the performance takes on a different intention, to evoke the emotion of happiness. The feminist cultural theorist Sara Ahmed has outlined a way of understanding such shifting investments in ‘happiness’:

An attachment to happiness as a lost object involves not simply a form of mourning but also an anxiety that the wrong people can be happy, and even a desire for happiness to be returned to the right people.

(Ahmed, 2010: 13)

For a moment it seems that those in our focus group participate in these feelings of properly returned happiness, viewing the vans as a momentary confirmation that they have been listened to. Yet this lull passes quickly and the conversation moves back to the question of why the vans were withdrawn.

Alan: But the fact is, though, it made an impact, didn't it, because who said that it was racist, all the foreigners, all the foreigners revolted and said we're not having that.

Carol: Yeah, all the English said it's racist.

Alan: And that's the impact that it made, it brought the foreigners out to say we're not having that, that is racist against us and therefore the government went for them again and said you've got to take it off.

(Dagenham Focus Group, conducted by Yasmin)

In this final analysis of the vans, the idea that the intended audience is elsewhere returns. There is an obvious confusion about who initiated the campaign and who holds authority – ‘the government … said you've got to take it off’ as a result of supporting foreigners and the complaint of racism. There is also some variance between the two speakers – is it foreigners or the English who said it was racist? However, the overall sense of deflation is palpable. After the momentary happiness of being heard, the reminder that the impact has been to reaffirm the illegality of overt racism places this group outside the circuit of communication again.

The scepticism continued in the response to tweeted images of immigration raids. Here the same group explain why they place little trust in such images:

Joe: they've obviously raided somewhere and found a couple of illegals and they've taken them into custody, but what brings to mind again is what I said before, they won't keep them in custody, they'll give them bail to appear in court or to report to the police station every Tuesday or whatever and they won't be seen again.

(Dagenham Focus Group, conducted by Yasmin)

As discussed in the opening of the chapter, this process of Home Office reporting was considered disingenuous by this group. This was an issue that arose again later in the same discussion.

Alan: I've seen this on the television, on the police programmes where they've raided certain shops and things like that and they've arrested four or five and within a couple of days they've all been released to report back to the station, every week.

There was a strong sense in the group that the theatricality of such performances was designed to distract public attention from government weakness in the face of immigration.

Alan: They're trying to give the idea to the general public that they're doing something about it, but they're doing absolutely nothing.

Carol: Nothing, yeah.

Alan: Because they're going to release them people.

Joe: That van ain't big enough, though, is it?

(Dagenham Focus Group, conducted by Yasmin)

Here the agreement within the group that such images are just for show reveals, paradoxically, that the government is not doing anything (‘absolutely nothing’). The group agree that these campaigns are unconvincing to them, but that they may work for other, more trusting (gullible), audiences.

In Barking, discussion of the vans and tweets took a slightly different turn, returning to the question of what government hoped to achieve through such initiatives. The discussion opened with scepticism:

Annie: It's not going to work, because if you're illegal you're illegal and you're hiding, because you don't come out in society, you stay hidden, so yeah, it's true, it is true, but it's not going to work, I don't think. I don't object to the actual picture.

(Barking Focus Group, conducted by Yasmin)

There is another circling around the question of the identity of the intended audience in this extract. Of note is how Annie clarifies that she is not offended (‘I don't object’), so that she is not aligned with those complaining of racism. Instead, her concern is directed to the effectivity of this approach (‘it's not going to work’). Annie assumes that she (and people like her) are not the primary intended audience; that role belongs to the ‘illegal’. Yet the intended interlocutor is absent and Annie does not believe that the targeted group will engage in this pretended dialogue (‘you stay hidden’). As the ‘secondary’ audience, watching the official address to this absent other, Annie feels that her doubt about the intention and efficacy of government actions is confirmed.

Yasmin: And so if it's not going to work, why do you think they did it?

Annie: Because they wanted it to work, they want it to work, because we've just explained to you, we're overloaded with illegal immigrants, not anybody in the government or anyone I spoke to can tell us how many illegal immigrants are here, how many have gone back, so that is just, well, it's playing lip service and yet this is what annoys me, you'll get our Home Office people going into say a Chinese shop, a Chinese takeaway shop and they're looking for people that have overstayed their welcome, overstayed their visas. They send one little Chinese man back home, because they caught him. What about 28,000 Romanian criminals in this country, they're here, they haven't sent them back, they haven't.

Chris: Or any of the terrorists.

Annie: One little Chinese man and I feel really sorry for them people, because what they're doing, they're earning a living in their little takeaways and they get sent back.

Chris: Well, they pick the easy target all the time, don't they?

Annie: Yeah.

Chris: Because then they can brag about what they've done.

Annie: Yeah, well, that to me, that is ridiculous, what you need is the wider, do the wider thing, leave them poor little devils who are not really doing any harm to us.

Chris: I think this was probably done as something to make people think oh look how brilliant we are and what we're actually doing, but it's a load of rubbish, really.

(Barking Focus Group, conducted by Yasmin)

Once again the conversation positions speakers as a knowing audience who are not susceptible to the somewhat foolish performances of government. More than this, the interchange reveals a more nuanced narrative around immigration, one where ineffectual government picks the ‘easy target’ but does not know how many people are here illegally and chooses to ignore ‘the terrorists’ and ‘28,000 Romanian criminals’ (see Chapter 5). In this instance, and despite the underlying discomfort with the impact of immigration, this group viewed the Go Home van campaign as disingenuous and not in good faith. As a demonstration of this, the discussion circles back to local knowledges in a lovely, almost Pinteresque exchange:

Yasmin: But did you see it [the Go Home van] at all because it went through Barking and Dagenham, didn't it?

Chris: Well, apparently it did.

Annie: What this?

Yasmin: Yes.

Chris: But you can't go through the high street, because it's pedestrian, so I don't know where it would have gone.

(Barking Focus Group, conducted by Yasmin)

The framework through which the potential efficacy of government campaigns is judged returns to these most basic constraints of local architecture. The ‘targeting’ of localities reveals the distance from what is local here. The spaces where such displays might have made sense as theatre, if nothing else, are pedestrianised, ‘so I don't know where it would have gone’. The claim of coming to localities, a key aspect of the theatricality of this particular initiative, is called into question. Where would it have gone and, it is implied, who would have seen it?

Without an audience, there is no political performance at all.

The suggestion of violence

Insaaf: This picture already made me sick because I've been in the same situation that they have been in and I know what it makes, it makes you feel.

(Coventry Focus Group, conducted by Kirsten)

This was the immediate response to the tweeted image of an immigration raid from one focus group participant who had been caught up in the cycle of raid–detention–release. Whereas some participants experienced Home Office campaigns as a belated but bungled recognition of their locality, others immediately placed the campaigns in a wider circulation of mediatised communications. For those who have had direct experience of raids and of detention, the trigger image of the deportation called up an array of fears and humiliations. To this constituency it was all too apparent that these circulated images and phrases were warning of the physical coercion not far behind. Jawad in Coventry explained, ‘they think it might force you without … We don't know what is going on but they're dragging like in the force, so you don't know what is going on, there is no human rights.’

Another person in the same group described their own experience:

Insaaf: I was in the same situation. I have been detained without a reason now they took me to the Pakistani high commission, Parliament, in front of everybody they put me in handcuffs and when they took me inside the Pakistan Parliament but I saw me, they said why have they brought you here, I said I don't know … When they check my case they say oh we are sorry, we made a mistake. They took me in front of everyone like I'm a criminal, they put handcuffs. So then they are saying we are sorry, we did a mistake, so I was very embarrassed and the whole … In front of the whole … I was like … I was very embarrassed you know … I was very embarrassed from inside for the first time in my life and very pent up.

(Coventry Focus Group, conducted by Kirsten)

This personal testimony points again to the central role of humiliation in such displays: even when the exercise of authority is mistaken (‘oh we are sorry, we made a mistake’), the processes of public shaming remain. As other chapters discuss, those subject to border enforcement were painfully conscious of the many techniques being deployed to link migration and criminality in popular discourse and imagination and also, increasingly, in the practices of law enforcement as described in the debates around ‘crimmigration’ (Stumpf, 2006, 2013).

What those who had been subjected to such processes understood from the tweeted images of a raid is that such actions were taken to confirm that an uncertain immigration status rendered you constantly vulnerable to state violence and public humiliation – and also that the state undertook actions to demonstrate this constant vulnerability to the wider population, even when no enforcement objective was likely to be achieved.

Although these discussion groups included people who had experienced the indignities of detention and attempted deportation, scepticism was also expressed in relation to the performative aspect of the tweeted photographs:

Ajala: I just want to say that I think they put this photo in Twitter on purpose to show the public or the local people that they are doing their job, they are catching people and they deporting them back. It's just using … they are using this image to get … For a political reason, to get more voice to work for them, you know what I mean. This asylum thing in the UK is not a matter of human rights or rights yet, it's a political matter.

(Coventry Focus Group, conducted by Kirsten)

This view that such displays on the part of the Home Office revealed an attention to political interest above anything else was expressed by a number of respondents, both those seeking refuge and those who opposed immigration. Another Coventry respondent who had been subject to border enforcement explained in some detail how the circulation of images of border control was designed to infiltrate popular consciousness and elicit support without the articulation of an argument or presentation of evidence:

Femi: We are a victim of a political matter between the political groups in this country, that's why they put this photo on Twitter, to show the public they are doing better than the others of sending people away, whatever these people, this guy may be a victim. Maybe his life really endangering in his country, they don't care, they just … for them he is a figure, a number, in the end of the year they want to show the public X number, we deported X number. They don't care, this X number, who they are and what has happened to them when they've been deported. So I think they put this one in purpose to show the public that they are deporting people.

(Coventry Focus Group, conducted by Kirsten)

Femi makes explicit the impact of different governmental discourses on how people are treated, in particular highlighting the wilful dehumanisation that comes with reducing people to ‘X number’. In the next chapter we discuss the tactical presentation of statistical data by government. Here it is enough to note that those who have experienced the intimidation of immigration enforcement understand that the spectacular display of one raid is designed to enhance the credibility of statistical claims about immigration control.

Rupturing political space

The Go Home vans presented an unexpected intervention into public space and in public debate. First of all, the direct address to those unspoken presences of the undocumented (or ‘banned’ (Agamben, 1998)) created a new dynamic and theatre of immigration control. The public address through the streets revealed what had been previously avoided or brushed over: that, when we speak of ‘illegals’ and the enforcement of the border, these unwanted others are already among us. The geographer Eric Swyngedouw (2011) summarises a range of debates about the ‘postpolitical’ and the apparent closing of contemporary political space by suggesting that we live in a time when there is a push to empty political space of divergent voices and ‘unrecognised’ actors. He goes on to suggest that the concepts of ‘the post-political’ and ‘post-democratisation’ describe the process by which politics becomes increasingly closed through an assumption or imposition of consensus in the name of management. Antagonistic interest cannot be voiced or even made visible. Against this tendency, Swyngedouw argues that the struggles of those who are undocumented may represent an example of the reinsertion of the political into public space:

Those un(ac)counted in the instituted order became the stand-in for the universality of ‘the People’. Today's undocumented immigrants, claiming inclusion, are a contemporary example of the political paradox, i.e., the promise of equality that is disavowed in the policing, categorization and naming of some as outside the symbolic order of the Law.

(Swyngedouw, 2011: 5)

This claim is based around the idea that the managerial politics of neoliberalism disallow some people from the status of political actor. The allowable space of political debate renders them both silent and invisible. The forced incursion into public space in order to undo this invisibility is described as the mark of the political and it is this moment of rebellion or disruption that interests Swyngedouw. What he seeks to describe are the events that reinsert politics into spaces that have been actively depoliticised. Yet in our research it is the state that disrupts the calm of existing political arrangements.

The Operation Vaken initiative and the Go Home vans seem to change the dynamic of political theatre altogether. There is an odd, almost cartoonish, ineptitude about them. Whereas other debates have indicated a falling away from participation in mainstream politics and alongside this an increasing scepticism towards what the government says and does, the Go Home vans appeared to be an attempt to somehow take the battle back to the street. If the public had ceased to believe in the actions of the political class then the Go Home vans appeared to be an attempt to change this through shifting the dynamic and location of political space. However, in the process, state enunciations appear to address the ‘banned’, those subject to immigration control and positioned as outside the realm of politics. Although this tactic amplifies terror for those who have experienced the physical coercion of immigration control, for other audiences this is a theatricalised interchange that further destabilises the pretence of sovereign authority. The address to the ‘banned’ reveals the limit of government authority and, unexpectedly, repoliticises the space of supposedly consensual community. The rest of this volume goes on to discuss the implications and impact of this disruption in different settings.


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Yuval-Davis, N. , Wemyss, G. and Cassidy, K. (2016) ‘Changing the racialized “common sense” of everyday bordering’, Open Democracy, 17 February, www.opendemocracy.net/uk/nira-yuval-davis-georgie-wemyss-kathryn-cassidy/changing-racialized-common-sense-of-everyday-bord [last accessed 20 May 2016].

1 By ‘anti-politics’ we are referring to both feelings of disaffection and disillusionment and to the movement of political activities and interventions outside of established political institutions and spaces.
2 The philosopher J.L. Austin (1975/1962), known for his pioneering work on ‘Speech Act Theory’, makes a distinction between the ‘illocutionary’ speech act that does what it sets out to do in the moment and the ‘perlocutionary’ component of ‘utterances’ that has impacts beyond the moment of interaction. However, as the feminist philosopher Judith Butler (1997) has pointed out, in reality this distinction is hard to maintain. Whatever the intention, any speech act might spin out to become perlocutionary. What is said may come to circulate more widely and in a longer timeframe, and in this process, other responses and interpretations can proliferate.
3 The term ‘metropolitan elite’ has been used by the media and politicians across the political spectrum not only to denote the class privilege of liberal Londoners but also as a way of suggesting that the views of this elite group are out of touch with the feelings and experiences of ‘ordinary people’ (see Chapter 6).
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Go home?

The politics of immigration controversies


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