Politicians have always used cultural tropes in order to build popularity and even hegemony. Right now, however, it seems as if the small symbols are no longer merely semiotic in nature. Matters of nationality and cultural tradition no longer seem like window-dressing: once the state is offering to look after some of us, but not […]
Over the course of 2014-15, I took part in a research project, Mapping Immigration Controversy, prompted by the appearance of government-sponsored poster campaigns bearing the words “Go Home!”- words that had originally been dawbed on walls as racist grafiti during the 1970s. The project resulted in a book which will be published by Manchester University Press in April next year, co-authored by the research team. One of the tasks we faced in this project was to get inside the mindset of the Home Office and its officials, in an effort to understand how things had reached such a dire juncture. This was methodologically difficult, but involved some off-the-record conversations with various civil servants past and present.
A powerful image emerged of a department that had become embattled over a long period of time. In a ‘neoliberal era’, in which national borders were viewed as an unwelcome check on the freedoms of capital and (to a lesser extent) labour, and geographic mobility is treated as a crucial factor in productivity and GDP growth, the Home Office became an irritant for Treasury and BIS officials, with its obsession with ‘citizenship’ and security. Clearly there has been an ideological conflict within Whitehall for some time, regarding the appropriate role of the state towards markets and citizens, but which has been masked thanks to a succession of highly prominent, very ambitious Chancellors pushing primarily economic visions of Britain’s place in the world. One can imagine the resentment that would brew amongst Home Secretaries and Home Office officials, as they are constantly represented as the thorn in the side of Britain’s ‘economic competitiveness’, year after year.
Beyond this, there is a more subtle sense in which the Home Office occupies a different position vis a vis the public, which sometimes translates into class politics. Home Secretaries are often moved by the plight of those who are defenceless in society: children such as Baby P, the elderly people plagued by rowdy teenagers on their estates, the victims of Harold Shipman (whose suicide apparently tempted then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to “open a bottle“). Often, these people are defenceless because they are powerless, and they are powerless because they are poor, less well educated and culturally marginalised. And yet they are still British, and deserving of the state’s defence. One former Home Office official I spoke to suggested to me that the Home Office has long been identified as the voice of the working class inside Whitehall, and feels looked down on by Treasury and Downing Street Oxbridge elites. This person compared the ethos of the Home Office to that of Milwall fans: “No-one likes us, we don’t care”.