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Posted: June 19, 2009 12:57 PM

In Case You Hadn't Noticed: Britain's Got Fascists


By Laurie Penny

While the rest of the world has been distracted by Susan Boyle, the people of Britain have just sent two representatives of a far-right, white supremacist party to the European Parliament. Yep, you read that right. Almost a million excuses for my fellow countrymen just voted for a party whose main policy platform is the deportation of all people of immigrant heritage - not just illegal migrants, but any citizen of immediate black, minority ethnic or Jewish descent.

At home in London, I have found myself glaring at every other white person I see on the street, thinking did you vote BNP? Some of us were that stupid - are you one of them? Eventually I couldn't stand it anymore; I emptied out my savings and scrambled onto the next plane off that scuppered isle.

Which is how I found myself at 8am this morning in New York's Central Park, which seems to be essentially Narnia with a lot more dogs, washing down a pastrami bagel with a tasty Chinese concoction called 'bubble tea'. New York City: what an unearthly, alien, wonderful place. Ninety years ago, my ancestors arrived at Ellis Island, fleeing Lithuania's anti-Semitic purges. Now I can't get on the subway without seeing murals celebrating the city's rich history of immigration.

Whilst it remains terrifically tricky to access US citizenship, leaving millions living in this country illegally, the pro-immigration lobby in the United States is impressively well-supported: most Americans are sympathetic towards immigrants, at least in principle. President Obama has pledged to make immigration reform a Year One policy priority, and pro-immigration activists are taking every opportunity to hound him into keeping his promise. This month Deepak Bhargava announced the launch of the nationwide 'Reform Immigration for America' campaign on this site. By contrast, the most radical pro-immigration expressions I've heard whilst working in the British Parliament have been muttered admissions that yes, on balance, immigrants do contribute to the British economy.

Inevitably, of course, such sentiments are often followed up with qualifiers - 'well, we need someone to do all the dirty jobs!', 'well, where would we be without Friday Night curries?' - that are at best facetious, at worst disgustingly xenophobic. Google UK's top hits for 'pro-immigration' are a home office page on new, stricter immigration controls followed by a handful of reports on protests in Mexico and Germany. Even in the nominally liberal media, only a few columnists have been brave enough to challenge the orthodoxy that recently saw the Daily Mail publish what amounted to a racial purity test. I am not ashamed of my country: I don't think I have it in me. I'm a patriot. But I am disappointed, and I am deeply angry.

Here in NYC, the politics of immigration are subtler. For a start, distinction is drawn between people of immigrant heritage and illegal immigrants, only the latter of whom appear to face sustained resentment from certain sections of the right. In London, conservative resentment is dealt indiscriminately to anyone with a background which is not 'white, British'. We have no real semiotic equivalent for US constructions like 'African-American' and 'Sino-American'.

New York remembers what London has forgotten: that we are all immigrants, even white Britons who can trace their ancestry back to Saxon mud-hut dwellers. Immigration is what Britain is all about: since records began it's been the waves of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Romans, Normans, Spaniards, Celts, Hugenots, Jews, Italians, South-East Asians, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Africans, Jamaicans, Australians, Eastern Europeans and Americans that have kept us vibrant, whole and growing as a nation. It's racists and recalcitrants in power who are the real scum muddying up the waters of change and vitality roaring around our islands, keeping the poor poor and the rich ignorant.

When I return to squelchy London, I'll be bringing home peanut M-and-Ms and postcards of Liberty Island. I wish more than anything that I had room in my rucksack for the deep-rooted impression that migrants do not just contribute to Western culture: they are what makes it great.

Laurie Penny is a British freelance journalist and a columnist for LabourList.

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