Meghan Tinsley and Neema Begum
On 28th April, Boris Johnson, recently released from hospital and still visibly weakened from COVID-19, led a nationwide minute of silence to commemorate NHS workers who had died during the pandemic. The minute of silence, which dominated the news cycle that day, came as criticism of the government’s strategy was mounting: NHS staff decried PPE shortages, police exercised their expanded powers widely and differentially, and people of colour faced markedly higher mortality rates than did white people.
Amidst growing cracks in the government’s approach, the minute of silence was an attempt to display national unity in grief—with the Prime Minister as the mourner-in-chief. This strategy, we argue, continues the longstanding practice of invoking war and mourning to construct national identity. It also draws borders between those who are included in, or excluded from, the nation. The result is a dauntingly high threshold for the acceptance of immigrants.
Representing ‘good’ migrants and ‘bad’ migrants
This week, as COVID-19 deaths continued to mount, Parliament voted in favour of a new, post-Brexit ‘points-based’ immigration system. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, claimed that the new system would attract the ‘best and brightest’ and end ‘routes for cheap, low-skilled labour’.
Even as the pandemic exposed Britain’s reliance on low-paid migrant care home and NHS workers, cleaners, supermarket workers, and delivery drivers, the new system would introduce strict salary and skills criteria. The Immigration Bill exposes a sharp divide between ‘good’ migrants and ‘bad’ migrants underpinned by the language of war, sacrifice and heroism.
The pandemic has spotlighted the overrepresentation of migrants among NHS staff. Among the first doctors to die of Coronavirus were those who had roots in Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka. These doctors, and NHS medical staff at large, have become subsumed into the category of ‘good migrants’ through the rhetoric of courage, sacrifice and heroism.
‘Good’ migrants are not only those who make measurable contributions to society, but those who are (seemingly) willing to sacrifice their lives for the British nation. Amidst a global pandemic, the highly-skilled doctors and NHS staff at the forefront of fighting the virus are cynically ‘rewarded’ by the Home Office. Their right to remain has been extended by merely a year, while Priti Patel recently rejected calls to scrap the annual £624 NHS surcharge for migrant NHS workers.
The pandemic has also sharpened attacks on ‘bad’ migrants. Whilst working class Eastern Europeans increasingly have been stereotyped as ‘criminals’ and ‘benefits cheats’, the new immigration bill promises to enshrine the stigma in law. A points-based system of sorts has been in place for years for non-EU immigrants, but from January 2021, it will also apply to EU citizens. At a time when so-called low-skilled migrant labour has become even more so critical to the UK, with Romanian workers even being flown in to help feed Britain, borders are being erected to keep such workers out in future.
The denigration of low-paid migrants by the new immigration system betrays the ‘good’ migrant discourse: celebrating NHS staff as ‘heroic’ entails comparing them favourably to an imagined category of ‘bad’ unskilled workers. Both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants, however, are regarded as expendable for the national cause. Rather than complex individuals with their own desires and motivations, ‘good’ migrants are subsumed into a faceless group of willing martyrs.
War, Mourning, and Britishness
Requiring ‘good’ migrants to prove their ‘contribution’ to the nation is nothing new—nor is deeming everyone who falls short a ‘bad’ migrant. The predecessors of NHS doctors and nurses were the colonial soldiers who joined up (or were forcefully conscripted) into military service during the two world wars. Rhetoric at the time cast the British Empire in familial terms, with colonial soldiers as ‘children’ heeding the call of their ‘mother’.
Tinsley’s work on the First World War centenary found that these same soldiers were cast retrospectively as a ‘community of brothers’ bound by a common cause—a discursive shift that erased the memory of Empire as a racialised, hierarchical project, replacing it with the myth of a convivial Commonwealth. Yet it left intact the character traits of ‘good’ colonial soldiers: they were uniformly courageous, loyal, and heroic, willing to ‘sacrifice’ their lives for the nation.
Importantly, these character traits did not extend to white British soldiers, who were often described as fearful, wounded, and suffering. White British soldiers, in short, were allowed to be flawed individuals, while colonial soldiers had to prove their worth with uncompromising, superhuman heroism.
Depicting ‘good’ migrants as heroes takes on a particular salience when the nation is at war. Wartime rhetoric calls on citizens—and those who aspire to be citizens—to set aside internal differences, rally behind the state, and unite in opposition to an external threat. Doctors and nurses, like soldiers, are upheld as the nation’s ‘frontline’ defenders, deserving of admiration but accepting the possibility of death.
Civilians, meanwhile, prove their loyalty by publicly displaying support for those on the front lines—by wearing a poppy or drawing a rainbow, clapping on Thursday evenings or standing in silence on Remembrance Day. They also refrain from criticising the state, since doing so would fracture the national body politic. At war, passive endurance becomes a virtue in itself, and refusal to accept the authority of the state is seen as treasonous. For migrants, who cannot take belonging for granted, the stakes are even higher.
In times of peace, wartime rhetoric continues to exert power. Rituals of remembrance, which took shape following the First World War, purport to honour soldiers for their heroism, loyalty, and sacrifice. They also construct the nation as a community of mourners, led by politicians and royals. Yet rituals of remembrance proclaim a narrow, exclusionary understanding of the nation: the wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph, for example, is royalist and heavily Christian, and the Poppy Appeal conflates the two world wars with more recent neo-colonial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Protesting the two-minute silence on Remembrance Day is condemned as an affront to dead soldiers—and, by extension, to the nation at large.
The trope of soldiers as martyrs extend to medical staff during the pandemic. Thus, the charity special Big Night In culminated in a montage of empty playgrounds, suburban streets, green fields, and pubs, evoking a pastoral image of Britishness that was far removed from the tower blocks whose residents were dying of COVID-19 at disproportionate rates. The segment ended with the words ‘Never forgotten’—strikingly similar to the Remembrance Day mantra, ‘We will remember them’. Ritualising the remembrance of COVID victims, and keeping the state at the forefront of those commemorations, translates raw grief and outrage into a familiar, depoliticised script. According to this narrative, the dead are not the victims of state negligence, but heroes who sacrificed their lives willingly for a grateful nation.
Observance of VE Day cemented the narrative of the pandemic as war. At the culmination of the state-led commemorations, the Queen proclaimed, ‘When I look at our country today, and see what we are willing to do to protect and support one another, I say with pride that we are still a nation those brave soldiers, sailors and airmen would recognise and admire.’ National unity amidst a pandemic, in other words, was the patriotic duty of ‘good’ citizens. Enacting unity carried on the tradition of civilians during the Second World War as it honoured the war dead.
Completely absent from this formulation was any sense that the present crisis was avoidable, or that systemic racism meant some would suffer more than others. Instead, BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell, echoing the Queen’s sentiments, claimed that VE Day had taken on ‘the added poignance of remembrance. . . with all the losses of the pandemic.’ Victims of COVID-19, alongside soldiers, were fallen heroes.
Solidarity over Heroism
On 15th May, following the government’s announcement that schools may begin to re-open on 1st June, the Daily Mail splashed an ominous headline across its front page: ‘Let Our Teachers Be Heroes’. The implications were clear: teachers, like NHS staff, were being called upon to sacrifice their personal safety for the good of the nation. They were also being told to accept that they may die in the process.
Wartime rhetoric is an exercise in bordering and nation-building. NHS doctors and nurses, disciplined for striking or speaking out, are lauded as heroes when they die. Dying for the nation, it seems, creates ‘good’ migrants. Yet these inward-looking narratives of a nation under attack are deeply unhelpful amidst a global pandemic. Rather, it is only through a transnational solidarity that values patients over passports, and lives over borders, that we may confront the crisis at hand and its implications for years to come. The post-Brexit immigration system does neither.
Meghan Tinsley (@meghanetinsley) is a Presidential Fellow in Ethnicity and Inequalities at the University of Manchester. Neema Begum (@NeemaBegum) is a Research Associate at the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity, University of Manchester.