The birth of new street protesters: observations from the Stand up to Racism and Fascism demonstration in Cardiff (22 March 2014), part 2

In her last post, Roiyah ended her participant observation at a demonstration on UN Anti-Racism Day 2014 by asking ‘What drives activism? And in terms of immigration, is Wales so very different from other parts of the UK?’ Here, she continues to explore these questions.

Yes: in terms of immigration figures, it is evident that international migration to Wales is considerably lower than the UK average (Plaid Cymru, 2014). The demographic changes linked to international migration and to the rise of non-UK nationalities are less pronounced in Wales than in Scotland; the difference is even greater when comparing Wales with England. However, I do not think that this makes the issues any less vexed. Why should a slow rate of demographic change make it any easier to address the rising levels of anti-immigration sentiment? Should it weaken anti-immigration sentiment? The fact that this is not the case is borne out in part in the findings of a recent study, ‘Public Sentiments Towards Immigrants and Minorities: The Difference Wales Makes?’ (Welsh Government, 2012). The study captured data from the European Social Survey and the Citizenship Survey to explore sentiments towards immigrants and minorities in Wales, and how these sentiments relate to national identifications and bilingualism, as well as how sentiments in Wales compare to those in other nations and regions of the UK.

The study found that in many cases, though not always, people in the North and Midlands of England showed less favourable attitudes to immigrants than those in Scotland, London and the South East; the data on Wales revealed a pattern similar to that in the North and Midlands of England. The study also found that when Scotland and Wales (as devolved nations) are compared, the pattern is characterised more by difference than by similarity. Also evident (when comparing the 2008 and 2010 waves of the Citizenship Survey) was an overall increasing tendency for less positive views towards immigrants. However, the regional differences between Wales and other regions were less – or at least less clear – in 2010 than in 2008.

Another study conducted a year earlier to explore public opinion on immigration in Scotland in the context of the Referendum debates (Migration Observatory, 2011) reported results from a survey of 1,000 British adults. This also found that opposition to immigration was lowest in London and Scotland, with more negative attitudes towards different types of immigrants (asylum seekers, extended family, low-skilled workers, students and immediate family) in the North, South, Midlands and Wales than in either Scotland or London.

Rising migration has combined with heightened public debates around the impacts to make immigration and asylum among the most important political issues in the UK. Of equal importance is the national context in which such debates take place and policy is implemented. In terms of how racist, anti-immigrant or xenophobic attitudes interact with nationalism, this is likely to be different in Wales (and no doubt Scotland) than in England. In Wales, the discourse of tolerance towards others claimed through the experience of national oppression (by England) and through the framing of England as the ‘significant other’ (Williams and DeLima, 2006) has shaped political discourse. It is within this pervasive national narrative – which was clearly evident from the speeches made at the demonstration – that race and racism, immigration, and notions of belonging and inclusivity are most often articulated. However, therein lies the rub. Such sentiments need to be reined in, because the sentiment of tolerance in terms of minority ethnic groups can be seen to underpin the ‘hyper (in)visibility’ of minoritised groups: the awareness and acceptance in Wales of the long-established presence of diverse ethnic groups that exists alongside a lack of attention to the impact of such diversity on Welsh society works to render invisible those marked by racialisation. How will this play out within the context of immigration? How does this narrative sit with the findings from surveys on the individual attitudes of people in Wales? Indeed how does it sit with a much longer history of incidents of violence and evidence of conflicts and intolerance in Wales such as the race riots of 1919 and 1920 and more recently, the anti-immigration riots in North Wales in 2003?

This is not the whole picture. Of equal importance is the fact that immigration is not devolved; in this, as in other areas, policy is driven from Westminster. However, the long-standing political might of the Labour Party in Wales, the clear lines of distinction between the philosophical underpinnings of the parties in Westminster and in Cardiff Bay, and the competing immigration policy agenda emerging from political parties such as Plaid Cymru are all working to shaping the Welsh Government’s response to immigration in Wales, pushing forward the need to respond differently to the immigration policies and techniques employed by Westminster. Of equal if not greater importance are the ongoing commitment and campaigning of key anti-fascist and anti-racist organisations and campaigns – many with international links – which have long worked across a range of issues (e.g., immigration, the bedroom tax and Islamophobia) to challenge rising anti-immigration sentiment – within Wales and beyond.

This is still not the whole picture, but it is a start.

 

Postscript

He wants to know what racism is

I am still left with a burning question: what does it take to make people march? Although deeply aware of the impact of the immigration policies on people, and having spent my whole academic life seeking to lay bare the impact of structural inequalities on population groups, I had never attended a march. Passionate – yes. Passionately active – no. Looking at the people gathered for the demonstration, I could sense both those for whom activism was a part of their lives, and those for whom such activity was new and unknown. Time and time again, people told me they came because they wanted to show their support, because it was important to stand with others around the UK and the world to protest against racism, and because they needed to feel they were doing something. I think I have subconsciously thought that my research activities were enough; they have been my contribution. Perhaps it is time for a re-think. My husband is active and so was happy with the event. It was my son’s first demonstration; listening to the speakers, he wanted to know ‘why people get killed because of how they look … that is not right’. I did not know what to say.  The loss of innocence – for him.  The birth of new street protesters – him and me.

 

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