Global judgements and ideas.

Class and panic in British immigration. In memory of Stuart Hall


Moore, P and Forkert, K (2014) ‘Class and panic in British Immigration’ Capital & Class October 2014 38(3), 497-505

In Policing the Crisis, Stuart Hall (et al 1978) wrote about artificial crises and the role of moral entrepreneurs (politicians, journalists, and others) in constructing crises in a way that justifies  rapid legislation to suit a particular agenda which appears to resolve a social problem. Policing the Crisis focusses on the term mugging as a signifier for ungovernable inner cities and anxieties around immigration, and for the introduction of externally imposed short-term crises seen to require iron rule from the ‘law-and-order state’ (Hall et al 1978 p. 322). Even politically liberal lawmakers clamp down on problems and people seen to have created a given crisis, and a state gives itself the right to ‘move swiftly, to stamp fast and hard, to listen in, discreetly survey, saturate and swamp, charge or hold without charge, act on suspicion, hustle and shoulder, to keep society on the straight and narrow’ (ibid.).

This paper is about a contemporary moral panic that is potentially turning into a dictatorship over a new proletariat who are legal immigrant workers in the United Kingdom. We explore the manner in which, as part of the moral panic invective, moral entrepreneurs have attempted to remove any possibility for class identity from people who have settled into a new life in the UK, by reducing them to a peasant or servant category as has been attempted by such public figures as Frank Field (2014). In the 18th Brumaire Marx noted that small-holding peasants have no ‘national bond, and no political organisation among them [and so] do not constitute a class’ but claimed that the working class should supply a framework to organise and to support unseen and unrepresented workers. Indeed, the moral entrepreneurs in the series of public orations we identify here place a moral supremacy on British work and promote nostalgia about its working class. They distinctly confuse the issue through forgetting that immigrant labour is a very real, legal and frankly beneficial force for the economy, or even if the economic advantage is mentioned, immigration is still seen to be bad for society. Our position is that immigrant groups are as entitled to class status as any other workers but that emerging reactionary far right wing elites consciously intend to declassify immigrant workers. In this way, their work becomes a type of unfree labour in that people are not represented and their rights to class status are removed. Solidarity between the British working class and immigrant workers would be an intimidation too great to bear, it would seem as portrayed by the ideological project we outline here.


Written in 1978, Policing the Crisis took as a starting point the importation of the term mugging into British media discourse from US media, and how it was used to channel anxieties and resentments about immigration and the 1960s counterculture. The term was first used to describe an incident where a white man was attacked by two mixed-race youths outside a Birmingham pub. Stuart Hall (et al 1978) explored how, in the American context, the term was used to characterise ungovernable inner city areas which had been abandoned by middle-class residents through ‘white flight’. The term was more broadly associated with the backlash against the civil rights movement and its white liberal allies, and figures such as Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon who pitted liberals against ‘decent white folks’ and the ‘silent majority’. In the British context, it was used to express anxieties about immigration, integration and the presence of ethnic minority communities (1978, p.28).

In Policing the Crisis, authors explored how the ‘calculus of work’ (p.141) and the familiar trope around portraying certain categories of people (students, benefits claimants, anti-war protesters, and Black and Asian people) as taking advantage of the majority, often on very little evidence. The concept of work became abstracted so that it was longer about employment (as some of the people seen to be taking advantage of the system are actually themselves in work), but more about conformity with certain norms and social conventions. In other words, to not fit into these conventions became equivalent to being a ‘skiver’ (p.142).

Matthew Cole draws attention to a moralising discourse which ‘shapes work’ as well as shapes:

‘[work’s] role in manifesting human nature… approximating to an ideal manifestation of humanity according to their relationship with work. It justifies itself with reference to a set of common sense concepts as to the individual and social beneficence of work, and more fundamentally to an epistemological rather than ontological definition of persons. (Cole, n.d.,p.4)

It is this moralising discourse of work – work as moral duty, but also as connected to citizenship (in this case British citizenship) which underpins the debates on immigration. Work, for British citizens, is a moral duty – but for migrants it is morally wrong to come to the UK and work – they are seen to be depriving British citizens of this duty. Central to this is the linking of class, and particularly working class people to citizenship, national identity and place  – work as producing shared (national) identity and belonging? Within this context, it doesn’t matter what sorts of conditions one is working under, or whether or not people are being exploited. Moralising work pre-empts questions about why many jobs that are available are precarious, low-paid, mostly in the service industries, and in some cases pay less than what people would receive on benefits.

Pitting the classes against each other

This is also connected to an emerging populist media consensus (which has become a certain indisputable truth, despite the lack of evidence)  that working class people are not only anti-immigration, but also that immigration is fundamentally bad for working class people. This also reflects a narrative which John Grayson describes as the construction of a racist electorate (2013): the idea that xenophobic ideas and values are spontaneously, intrinsically held by voters, and disavowing the responsibility of politicians, the media and commentators such as Goodhart himself in encouraging these ideas. Conversely, anyone who makes a pro-immigration argument is dismissed as belonging to an out-of-touch metropolitan elite who (typically) benefit from immigration policy because they employ foreign domestic workers (again, evoking servants).

This narrative assumes that all working class people are white and British (as in the increasingly prevalent term “white working class”, but also, more fundamentally, helpless and passive; this is connected to both a melancholic narrative about deindustrialisation, and about underachievement at school. An example of this can be seen in British Dream (2013), the book by director of the DEMOS think tank David Goodhart. He says: ‘One of the challenges to our immigration story is how to allow older poorer white people a safe space in which to express a sense of loss, and homesickness for the past, without this mood becoming destructively pessimistic or spilling over into racism’ (2013, p.256). There are several assertions being made here: that changes to communities are entirely a result of immigration, rather than through factory closures, gentrification or other social and economic processes; that “older, poorer white people” (who are taken as representative of the working class) has a completely negative response to these changes.

The far right have joined forces with the supposed left in this moral panic about immigrant work. In a 2012 speech entitled ‘A country with an economy that works for working people’ delivered to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the Labour leader Ed Miliband alluded to a moral difference between peacetime vs. wartime immigration, insinuating a skills and class discrepancy between who would be welcome and under what circumstances, despite, again, the absolute legitimacy for all EU states’ citizens to live and work in the UK. Miliband’s speech drew on received ideas about the nature of class. Rather than a shared set of economic conditions–such as the condition of working for an employer, or earning a certain income–class was framed in terms of cultural identity – as a shared set of experiences, cultural references and values. Specifically, the right kind of working class consciousness is framed in relation to British national identity, and even ethnicity and place, a socially conservative nostalgia. Anti-immigration rhetoric, such as the speech by Miliband or other politicians, justifies tightening immigration rules as a duty of care towards the (supposedly powerless and helpless) white working class.

In another speech, Birmingham MP Jonathan Walker noted that British history must be remembered when thinking about reparative policies for schools in Birmingham with underachieving white working class children. White students should have more opportunities to express their own culture, and Burden states that it is ‘well documented’ that not enough had been made of culture and ‘identity of white communities in some areas’. This ignores the diversity within whiteness itself (he assumes that none of these pupils would come from Polish or Irish backgrounds, for example, despite these being long-established immigrant communities in Birmingham). He also fails to note a possible recognition of cross-racial oppression that might bind class (rather than racial identity). This type of rhetoric pits white working class against migrants and non-white working class people (whose experiences are ignored and for whom class is not permitted) as in competition for low-paid, precarious jobs.

Because class is framed within the terms of shared cultural experience – and specifically national identity, it follows that immigration threatens to erode it (as migrants do not only ‘steal jobs’ they also supposedly ‘change communities beyond recognition’). This shared cultural experience is seen to be intrinsically static, so change can only mean loss (as a melancholic narrative about deindustrialisation becomes conflated with another decline narrative about immigration. In a speech reported by the Evening Standard Labour MP for Birkenhead and a former government adviser on poverty Frank field characterises immigrant labour as a new servant class benefiting the elite, and in a tone of ambivalence gives immigrant workers a moral complement, stating that the ‘eagerness to work of many immigrants puts some of us to shame’. Using an anecdote from a friend’s experience hiring people to work in his business in London, the business owner stated that:

…one English person came in to ask for work. But she didn’t last long. Unlike the eager new arrivals, our local Brit, while charming, was unreliable. She could never be relied on to turn up every day.

This type of narrative may sound unlikely for this newspaper, but it does not take long for the moral judgements to return around what a government should and should not be doing in these circumstances. House prices have skyrocketed, Field complains, and schools cannot accommodate the increase in population. In May 2013, the Daily Mail reported that Planning Minister Nick Boles, who was sympathetic to immigration, had ‘changed his mind about immigration after seeing how the arrival of 2 million new immigrants over the last decade has left Britain short of houses’. While his suggestion to build more houses is suitable in a country with a rising population in the UK and a ‘booming birth rate’ which in 2011 was the highest it had been since 1971 (BBC News 2013), his unambiguous blame on immigrant workers is unsubstantiated and unqualified.  Boles warns that failure to build enough homes would mean only the professional classes would be able to buy a house as though immigrant workers are always unskilled and/or unable to be part of a class in the UK. There is no increase in house building Field (2014) notes, and ‘to build on the scale needed we’d have to be taxing the rich at 95 per cent or more’. Clearly this would never work, Field goes on to say, as the lengthening NHS queues and lack of school places are just too expensive to fathom. He states that

there simply isn’t going to be the money to provide public services on a scale that’s needed to take account of the ever-increasing numbers coming here. The losers have been, and will continue to be, poor Brits (ibid.)

So those enjoying the benefits in having a servant class, Field notes, do not understand two things. One is that the Edwardian monied classes let servants live in their own homes, whereas the immigrant class of today needs roads to drive on, houses to live in and schools and healthcare for their children. The elites need to realise that this is having a detrimental impact on the British working class and will have a detrimental impact on themselves as well, if they are expected to pay for it! The moral dimensions then are that, though immigrant workers are seen to have a work ethic that is not matched by the British working poor, it is still not enough to consider using British people’s hard earned taxes to pay for their livelihoods. It is not acknowledged that migrants pay taxes as well. Migrants are not allowed to (ever) be part of the working class because of its linking to nativist conceptions of place and citizenship here, and are therefore classless and placeless, or specifically are part of a certain kind of lumpenproletariat and the term ‘servant class’ can be interpreted with these terms as well.

In his keynote speech to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) conference in Torquay, UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed that parts of the country had become like a ‘foreign land’ – specifically mentioning a commuter train journey through Southeast London, in which he did not hear English spoken in the train until he had reached the outer suburbs, which made him feel ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘awkward’. He claimed that ‘It’s ordinary folk, it’s ordinary families that are paying the financial price. But what about the social price of this? The fact that in scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognisable’. The term ‘ordinary folk’ is conspicuous for those it excludes – it’s assumed that those who speak another language other than English do not belong to the category of ‘ordinary folk’, which is possibly code for ‘working class’ – but they are brought together through a sense of being aggrieved at immigration.

But it is not only far-right politicians such as Farage, but there seems to be a consensus amongst both far right politicians and mainstream politicians. For example, Stephen Barclay, Tory MP for North East Cambridgeshire, suggested that politicians are ‘too middle class’ and out of touch with the rest of society, saying that ‘it’s stating the obvious to say the middle classes dominate in positions of authority’ – responding, presumably, to public frustrations with the professionalisation of politics, the fact that MPs have been spared many of the effects of austerity and so on. But then these frustrations are framed within an anti-immigration lens. He says,

the people in positions of authority have the financial means to mitigate the negative impacts of immigration on their own situation, they may even personally benefit from it… It doesn’t affect their wages, it doesn’t affect their private medical cover or impact on their children’s schooling. So getting problems addressed can be difficult.

The speech contains many assertions that, again, working class people’s wages are affected (although, again, this is debatable), and that migrants cause unsustainable pressures on both health care and schooling. But also, it is, again, about mobilising resentment.

No evidence and continuing contradictions

There is little evidence that migrants in general drive down wages, particularly as non-EU work visas have a £20,000 minimum income threshold. Basing wages on nationality is in fact illegal, as it contravenes equality and employment legislation. There is a slight downward pressure with the most casualised, low-skilled jobs, such as in the building industry for example (IPPR 2009). However, this downward pressure gets amplified in the media, provoking a tendency to talk about all migrant work (including most work – where one would be an employee of a company or organisation, and wages would be connected to the job, not the individual employee) as though it were in low-paid, low-skilled areas of the economy, and we were all individual contractors who compete with each other.

Politicians in the UK have taken the lead in spinning a story about a utopian economy where (certain) people who work are also the people who deserve to be part of society. The overtones of these elite moral entrepreneurs’ messages are layered in blame and vindication. ‘A country with an economy that works for working people’ (Miliband 2012) overlooks disabled, underemployed, zero hours contracted workers. The question ‘what is work’ underlines the context for labour process debates about deskilling, worker surveillance, control at work. However, the tendency to place a moral dimension on work has been used as an attack on immigrant workers, as though only white local workers deserve to work, as though their citizenship provides them an inherent right to work. So this view becomes compromised when non-citizens are at work. Political rhetoric leans toward a blame diatribe seen in Edward Miliband’s  2012 immigration speech, where, despite factual foibles such as the location of a chicken factory which supposedly only employs Polish people, he attempts to defend the moral panic spreading across Britain in the post-New Labour era through reminding researchers that, despite his parents were wartime immigrants, they managed to become part of the elite through service in the Royal Army and becoming a world renowned professor. But, Miliband went on to say, now, other parents just like his (which is confusing, as he hasn’t clarified whether ‘other parents across the country’ can justifiably be compared given class differences) ‘are worried about the future. They want there to be good jobs. They want their communities to grow strong. They worry about immigration. They worry it might make things harder rather than easier for them and their kids’. These statements become increasingly problematic when he states that specific industries of agriculture and construction are served by agencies who ‘denigrate the talents of those who are living locally isn’t right’.

In order to ‘build our economy so that it works for working people’, Miliband recommends that we offer ‘working [British] people a fair crack of the whip’, but in the same breath, he states states that immigration seems to only benefit immigrants themselves, despite of course, the same people he refers to are also working people. So the moral ascription to work only applies to good, hardworking, British working class and probably white people. There are benefits, Miliband begins to say, but then immediately states ‘there are also costs’ and these costs are ‘related to economic position: class’. However, Ed Miliband’s was not a class argument at all. It is one of several elite moral entrepreneurs’ attempts to trigger moral panic to justify reactionary policies that do not serve to address the fundamental questions around rising unemployment in all sectors, at all levels of pay resulting from neoliberal policies and exacerbated by austerity measures taken as a response to the economic crisis.


Class is indeed an economic category of people with similar life experience, social position and cultural experiences, but the political speeches we have described effectively pit working classes of varying nationalities against one another which conflicts with any interpretation of Marx’s discussion of class and in particular the transnational class. The British working class apparently has a moral duty and a right to work on British soil, whereas, peacetime immigrants seem to have little right to be there, much less to enjoy class identity. The British working class is also framed as lacking any sort of agency at all (it is class ‘in itself’ rather than ‘for itself’), and are largely positioned as helpless victims, whose resentment threatens to transform into prejudice and who must be placated by dog-whistle politics and increasingly restrictive immigration policies as the state becomes increasingly law-and-order centric. Both this patronising and reactionary framing of class and this moralisation of work are part of the cultivation of moral panic engineered by journalists and politicians, a group of moral entrepreneurs whose role in this process must be publicly challenged in order to create a politics of solidarity rather than scapegoating, of recognition rather than mugging. Through attempts to deny people the right to class identity, decision makers take a symbolic stance that contributes to the environment of unfreedoms increasingly experienced by immigrant workers.

Authored by Dr Phoebe Moore (me) and Dr Kirsten Forkert, Lecturer in Media Theory, Birmingham City University Please email to cite p.moore at and kforkert at


3 comments on “Class and panic in British immigration. In memory of Stuart Hall

  1. Compayee
    March 26, 2014

    Thank you Phoebe for writing this superb essay whose points I totally agree with. A true debunking tour de force!

  2. Pingback: Adolescence and migration: Struggling to fit in | JAPANsociology

  3. Pingback: Cosmopolita Scotland Spanish immigrants in Edinburgh-CosmopolitaScotland

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