Stephen Lawrence and the Hostile Environment

This hostile environment is no mystery. British capitalism developed in symbiosis with empire: a formal structure of violent domination and exploitation of people of colour the world over.

Twenty five years ago this week, a lad a year or two older than me, Stephen Lawrence, was killed in south east London, a few miles from where I grew up.

To people of colour like myself (I’m half South Asian and half British), the killing came as no surprise. The establishment of a BNP HQ in Welling a few years earlier had been quickly followed by a rise in hate crimes in the surrounding area. On the day the news of Stephen’s death came out, the consensus amongst people of colour I spoke with was that something like this was bound to happen eventually. The subsequent failings and worse on the part of the police, the ‘institutional racism’ identified in the Macpherson report, were hardly a shock to us either. Whatever our individual experiences, the collective experience was well known: the police were not the police for us.

What happened to Stephen was the thing I’d dreaded happening to me whenever out late at night as a teenager in north Kent and south east London in the early 90s. Racist attitudes were rife. More than that, they were normal. The epithets weren’t spat at you every day, or every week, but you heard them enough to get the message. And behind the occasional flashes of venom were the commonplace attitudes. Even before I’d left primary school I’d had it explained to me by kids my age - calmly but insistently, and on more than one occasion - that “my people” were inferior to theirs, and shouldn’t have come to this country. Of course, primary school age children don’t come up with this stuff by themselves.

In today’s political discourse, hostility to immigrants is often associated primarily with the ‘white working class’. But in my time at a grammar school in north Kent – with boys from all social classes, albeit disproportionately drawn from the middle and wealthier strata (the sort of people who go on to become politicians and journalists) - I noticed little difference in attitudes across the class spectrum. When the school held a mock election alongside the general election of 1992, the BNP came a comfortable second behind the Conservatives. This of course was deeply intimidating to the handful of boys of colour at the school, but no effort was made by staff to engage with us, reassure us, or challenge the attitudes they’d allowed to fester (and perhaps in some cases contributed to) in their own workplace.

This was the ‘hostile environment’, to use a current phrase, that Stephen and I grew up in. Widespread and sometimes quite virulent racist attitudes, tolerated (perhaps sometimes shared) by authority figures, and with occasional reports of acts of violence serving to concentrate the mind. Personally I got off far, far more lightly than many people of colour at the time, never being subjected to anything physical myself. Poor Stephen didn’t share my luck in that respect.

This hostile environment wasn’t a formal structure. Rather, it comprised of social attitudes manifesting themselves in concrete acts and omissions from individuals and institutions. The provenance of those attitudes is no mystery. For a three-and-a-half-century period, which in historical terms had only just ended, British capitalism had developed in symbiosis with empire: a formal structure of violent domination and exploitation of people of colour the world over. Slave labour in the west Atlantic had provided key commodities for British industry, and captive markets in south Asia and elsewhere provided its outlet. Racism, conceived with reference to biology or culture, was the key ingredient that allowed the British elite of the liberal Enlightenment to reconcile its claimed values with its dedication to the maintenance of this system, in all its brutality. In terms of how Britain understood itself relative to ‘Others’, jingoism and racism were two sides of a coin that was standard currency at all levels of the national culture through the imperial centuries preceding Stephen’s death.

These attitudes did not simply evaporate when the Union Jack was run down in Kingston or Hong Kong. Today, 59% of the public believe the British empire is something to be proud of, a view perhaps rooted in the ignorance displayed by the 49% who believe that colonised countries were better off for the experience. Forty per cent of the public believe that Enoch Powell’s lurid ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech has proven well-founded, and 26% say that immigrants and their families - including UK born children – should be “encouraged” to leave the country (only 43% disagree, the rest apparently can’t decide). That 26% includes 32% of Tory voters, 22% of Labour voters, and 51% of those sadly misunderstood UKIP voters with their ‘Legitimate Concerns’. The cruelty of Theresa May’s bureaucratic ‘hostile environment’ needs to be understood partly with reference to the hostile environment of social attitudes (including her own) that gave rise to it, and within which it operates.

There is a rather casual reflex in some parts of the left that explains racism and xenophobia largely as a misdirection of economic concerns, but while such misdirection certainly happens this account is too shallow to stand as an analysis by itself. It is fanciful to suppose that a bit of wealth redistribution or a few changes to immigration policy can begin to unstitch an entire fabric of prejudices that have been tightly woven into our national culture for a dozen generations or more. These prejudices thrive at all levels of society because people’s individual and collective sense of who they are, their status and self-worth, matters to them at a sometimes visceral level, perhaps as much as their economic situation. The so-called ‘culture war’ now waged by the political right is not a ‘distraction from the real issues’ in the eyes of those who are deeply invested in a social order which Corbyn’s Labour Party and the wider left now supposedly threaten. If we are serious about power, and serious about changing the country, then we need to take these battles seriously as well.

Eighteen months after the publication of the Macpherson report into the Lawrence killing, the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain produced another report which happened to survey (though this was not its specific purpose) the wider social context in which the murder took place. The commission argued that Britain was at a crossroads. It could attempt to reimagine itself as a pluralistic nation with a welcoming approach to its relatively newer communities and an open and honest view of its history, or it could cling harder to the familiar forms of exclusionary, chauvinistic jingoism, and reap increasingly grim consequences as a result. We know what happened next, but the report’s recommendations still stand , now more than ever, and demand revisiting.

Reimagining our national communities is not a question of inducing pride or shame. Nor is it a question of working back from the cringe-inducing assumption that Britain is ‘great’, and ransacking history for left-wing evidence to support that pre-determined conclusion. It is a question of fundamentally re-imagining who ‘we’ are collectively, and how we relate to ‘them’.

This is a major task, which requires a panoply of initiatives from the local and grassroots levels all the way up to national government policy, and for those initiatives to be sustained and developed for decades to come until their roots are deep, their effects hegemonic. Harnessing the creativity of the broad left and the wider public, the goal would be to drain the toxins from the dominant culture and lay the foundations of a national community based on inclusion, openness and solidarity. If we pull that off, we can end not just the hitherto permanent hostile environment for migrants and people of colour, but for democratic socialism itself.