War, poverty and ambition drive people here

Solidarity, not sectionalism

Paul Demarty looks at the chauvinist backlash against the Calais migrants

There is, it seems, no sight as depressing as a British political worthy trying to look decisive during a crisis.

The crisis we have in mind is the ongoing labour dispute at My Ferry Link, a Dover-to-Calais passenger line operated until recently by Eurotunnel. Under pressure from competition watchdogs, Eurotunnel sold the business to the Danish company, DFDS, which in turn announced a good tranche of job losses. The French workforce responded as French workforces in such situations gratifyingly often do: with a series of militant unofficial strikes.

This dispute, however, has lurked largely in the peripheral vision of the British press coverage, which has been concerned with other factors (though the sight of barricades of burning tyres blocking major roads ought to put the usual jeremiads about this week’s tube strike into perspective). For there is something else in Calais than transport terminals - there are those wishing to travel. A few thousand are migrants from far afield, living in makeshift camps, and taking advantage of the disruption to cross the border to Britain.

It is these poor individuals who have caught most attention. The media has looked at migrants clambering onto the roofs - or undercarriage - of lorries almost as if they were a ravening horde of zombies. David Cameron convened a meeting of Cobra (cabinet office briefing room A) - the go-to activity for a prime minister who wants To Be Seen To Be Doing Something. The Labour Party’s contribution to the farrago has been to call on its deep-seated sense of natural justice - and call on Cameron to seek compensation from the French.

Indeed, even for an immigration scare, it is striking how nasty the discussion of this issue has become. Many of the usual suspects are to be found pushing hysterical chauvinist agitation, to be sure - a front-page headline in The Sun - “Softie Calais goes ballistic, Frenchies are atrocious” - rather sums up the noxious combination of anti-migrant poison and Frog-baiting typical of the rightwing press at the moment.

The prize in this regard, however, must surely go to one Phil Woolas, sometime New Labour immigration minister, who took to the Mirror to present his own ‘analysis’ of the situation, in terms that would probably even get you expelled from Ukip. “We need detention camps and mandatory ID cards,” declares the headline. Picking out highlights is difficult - “soft-minded liberalism” is to blame for the desperate scenes in the Channel Tunnel, apparently. Solving the problem of illegal immigration means mandatory ID cards for everyone; it means we must “intervene” in the Syrian civil war. As for the immediate problem, “A detention centre to replace the migrant encampments would send a signal. If migrants knew they’d be locked up and deported when they got to Calais they wouldn’t go” (August 2).

In fairness, I cannot remember a British immigration minister who seemed like a good sort, with a heart in the right place and a strong suit in basic human empathy. Still, there is something especially vile about Woolas. His contributions while in post were largely of this nature, with an additional overlay of modish anti-Islamic ranting. It was Woolas who brought to the attention of parliament the quirky hypothesis that Pakistanis were breeding too many disabled children by marrying their cousins. Of course, his greatest fame came when he was banned from parliament for three years, and suspended from the Labour Party, for mendaciously accusing his Liberal Democrat opponent in the 2010 election of being in cahoots with Muslim hate preachers. Classy!

Woolas is thus a cynical, disgraced bigot; we are grateful to him, however, for summing up in a couple of hundred words the stupidity of the bourgeois response to the events in Calais. The man has been sent packing from political life, after all - he has no earthly reason to pretend to believe something as nakedly ridiculous as the idea that another glorious military incursion into the Middle East is going to stem the tide. He must genuinely think this. He must say so at dinner parties.

Seriously now, Phil: what on earth do you think these people are fleeing? The last time migrants such as those currently trying to sneak into Britain were plastered all over the press, it was the business with ramshackle boats crossing from Libya to Italy, and all too often coming to grief on the way. Sure enough, many of those camped out in Calais are from Libya, which has gone from brutal dictatorship to failed state after yet another glorious episode in British (and French) military history.

There is, it is true, only trivial direct British military involvement in Syria (though even that is in contempt of parliament). Yet the war has gone on as long as it has - and shows no signs of ceasing now - because the Gulf States are committed to exporting Salafist fanaticism; and those states are propped up, in turn, by western largesse and military support. Conditions were ripe already for the barbarism playing out in that theatre, thanks to the calamitous effect of the US-British invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The number of people displaced by the Syrian civil war, at this point, is north of 10 million, of whom about four million have become refugees. The vast majority of the latter have gone to neighbouring countries, such as Turkey and the Lebanon. Given such vast numbers, it is hardly surprising that some managed to get close to Kent. Nor is it surprising that many of them would prefer to be in Britain than France - English is, after all, a more widely spoken language than French.

As for the ‘deterrent’ of detention centres, we could hypothetically imagine European governments taking this attitude seriously, and thus participating in a race to the bottom as to who is most unattractive to refugees. This equally, however, meets its logical limit in the same question: what are they fleeing? Is a detention centre in Calais ever going to be a worse hideout than a town with Islamic State at the gates, or subject to indiscriminate bombing by the Assad regime? When the likes of Phil Woolas want to ‘send a message’, it is never really to migrants: it is to the mean-spirited reactionaries of Middle England.

The run-of-the-mill British chauvinist is more worried that, in the words of Woolas, “these people want to live in a rich country. This is economic migration.” There is apparently something dirty or morally bankrupt about that - as if economics (after all, the means by which we eat) could not compel people to flee their homelands as effectively as main force.

In the longer term, the more narrowly economic forms of compulsion prevail over the direct threat of violence in shuffling people around the world. Capitalism is a global system, and it is written into its basic functioning that some countries will do better than others out of it. Following from that is the free movement of capital, and also that special form of capital: labour.

The conditions under which the two move, however, could not be more different. There is always some place willing to help a capitalist squirrel away some money, or otherwise keen to attract investment. The last century in particular, however, has seen the needle move dramatically against the free movement of people: a grand Kafkaesque bureaucracy has sprung up everywhere to man borders and manage visas, and the blame for all manner of complex social ills is offloaded onto migrants (or at least those among them who are ‘upwardly mobile’, going to countries higher up the global pecking order than they came from).

This situation has the character of self-fulfilling prophecy. Migrants - especially ‘illegals’ - are subjected to much more insecure living conditions. They are thus forced in large numbers to accept poverty wages and appalling working conditions for cash-in-hand jobs, and otherwise expand the reserve army of labour. Thus wages get depressed for all, and some among the working class become bitter about those people ‘coming over here and taking our jobs’.

The growth of anti-migrant sentiment among the popular classes, then, is hardly without any basis at all - nor is it motivated in some straightforward way, as less the imaginative on the left believe, by racial prejudice. The proposed solution, however, is a reactionary fantasy - it is quite inevitable that no border control system will actually stop people moving about. As long as capitalism remains, there will always be wars to flee, famines to escape and far-flung countries held in debt bondage by the imperialist metropoles. Controls on migration merely worsen migrants’ insecurity, and thus exacerbate the ‘taking our jobs’ phenomenon.

The only answer is class solidarity. Sectionalism, in the long run, is a negative sum game: it is collective, conscious organisation on a class basis that can both improve the lot of migrant workers and seize some measure of power over the conditions of life for all. We do not want to see migrants in makeshift encampments in Calais - we want to see them in the unions, in working class political parties.

That, ultimately, is the irony of the Calais fracas - the juxtaposition of the most complete destitution and militant union action. Both the migrants and ferry workers are actors in the same drama, but nonetheless almost completely disconnected in practice. How good it would be instead to see them helping each other light a fire on the motorway.