The dark side of the English Channel

As the demonisation of migrants trying to cross the English Channel in 2020 has shown once again, a very British xenophobia can arise from “our island story”
December 8, 2020

On 11th August, Sky News and BBC Breakfast sent camera crews and broadcast journalists into the Dover Strait to report on migrant crossings. At just 21 miles across, the route from Calais is favoured by people wanting to seek asylum in the UK—a protracted process that can only be started on arrival on British soil. Many migrants are fleeing political persecution or conflict in countries including Yemen, Syria and Iran.

Though crossings have been attempted for several years, renewed media focus came in summer 2020, in part because of Nigel Farage tweeting a video of a small vessel in August with the caption “shocking invasion on the Kent coast taken this morning.” In expressing his outrage, Farage was appealing to a small number of self-styled patrollers of the Kent shoreline—members of the public who document and seek to deter migrant crossings, and who often have far-right associations. He was perhaps making a play for nationwide coverage and if so, he succeeded. Four days later, he appeared in the pages of the Telegraph with a warning: “I predicted that there would be a summer invasion.”

The television reports that followed showed a similar pattern. Journalists safe in medium-sized boats approached the migrant vessels—most of them cramped and precarious dinghies—to interview the passengers. Sky News’s Ali Fortescue shot from the hip: “I have to say, it is an unsettling image, coming this close,” she said. A metallic-grey dinghy then came into view, where 10 people were shown perched restlessly on its outer rim. Like the reporter, most were wearing life jackets. “Are you OK?” is Fortescue’s repeated opening question. “Please, no camera!” replied one passenger.

The BBC’s Simon Jones echoed this line of questioning while following a separate vessel: “Are you OK?” he asked, followed by “Where are you from?”—a query which, even in less dramatic contexts, often carries political and racial undertones. These are the moments during which Labour MP Zarah Sultana’s comparison of the footage to a “grotesque reality TV show” feels most warranted. Jones reported that the occupants of the dinghy were using a bucket to remove water from the vessel’s footwell. “They’re using a plastic container just to try to bail out the boat, so obviously it’s pretty overloaded there,” he remarked.

The lack of empathy on show in the footage was especially jarring given the number of deaths recorded in this stretch of water. The Institute for Race Relations reports that 292 people have died trying to cross the Channel by vehicle, tunnel and on water since 1999, including 36 children. After the deaths of four migrants—two of whom were children—off the coast of Dunkirk in October, the charity Save the Children warned that “the English Channel must not become a graveyard for children.” While for most people the waters are a place of convenient transit, for others they are a site of fatal risk.

*** The grey, stony seas of the Channel—and, above all, the white cliffs of Dover—are a fitting backdrop for English contempt for and wariness of outsiders. An “island apart” spirit has long lurked deep in the national mindset, ready for the likes of Farage to draw on. The notion that Britain is at risk of “invasion” from outsiders taps into histories that imagine the sea as a final frontier—and often a patriotic entity in itself. These narratives have been reanimated as British insularity returns to the political mainstream, along with the corresponding belief in the country’s alterity from mainland Europe. Instead of viewing Britain’s isolationist fate over the past five years as an abrupt change of direction, it can be seen as a revitalisation of a long history of nationalist instincts and xenophobic fears. In this context, it is fitting that the English Channel should re-emerge as a site of intense cultural and geopolitical contestation.

French historian Renaud Morieux identifies the Channel as the seat of the British establishment’s isolationist streak for over two centuries, enabling it to exercise faraway naval imperialism while remaining apart from European threats. In The Channel (2016), he writes that throughout British history, the role of the stretch of water has been “to consolidate the notion of an essential difference between England (or Britain), and France, Europe or ‘the Continent,’” concluding that “the longstanding idea that Britain has always been spatially and intellectually segregated, and economically and culturally independent from its continental neighbours is part of its special ‘island story.’”

That last phrase has long had Churchillian associations but it traces back further, to the Edwardian Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, who used it as the title of a popular history for “boys and girls.” A century on, its continuing grip over the mind of the ruling class was confirmed when David Cameron named it as his favourite children’s book and Michael Gove, then education secretary, invoked the phrase when setting out a programme to put “British history” at the “heart of a revived national curriculum” in 2010.

And invasions—both real and imagined—are not just a Faragian invention, but perennial components of the stories that this island likes to tell about itself. Roman settlements followed by Anglo-Saxon and Viking raids during the Middle Ages form the backbone of the way that Britain—and before it, England—imagines its national identity. As the Norman Conquest was followed by the Hundred Years’ War, the idea of a threat from across the water became entrenched in the psyche. A successful seaborne “invasion” of sorts saved the Protestant ascendancy, with the arrival of William of Orange (soon to be William III) in the Glorious Revolution, but that episode was gradually written out of the script, as it carried the unwelcome suggestion that maritime arrivals could spell salvation instead of doom. Though now also little-known, the foiled landings during the Napoleonic Wars fitted better with the tale. And then Operation Sea Lion—Nazi Germany’s name for its planned invasion of Britain in 1940—holds a special place in the national psyche, perhaps especially for the very fact it never happened.

The island under threat does not necessarily need to be Britain’s own in order to call forth a stirring summons of national unity. In her Falklands War victory speech in 1982, Margaret Thatcher asked: “Why do we have to be invaded before we throw aside our selfish aims and begin to work together?” By reimagining the Falklands as a microcosmic British state, Fintan O’Toole argues, Thatcher suggested that “what had not happened in 1939-45 had finally happened in 1982.” In the lead-up to the Brexit referendum, the similar absence of any real threat at the sea border did not stop past episodes of island invasions being invoked. Boris Johnson warned that the EU was attempting to create a superstate in the image of the Roman Empire: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically,” he said. “The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.”

The place of the Channel in post-Brexit immigration rhetoric is accompanied by its real importance as a physical instrument of UK border policy. A tangible barrier for migrants, it is also a site of evolving militarisation. Initiated by then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s decision to declare the increase in migrant crossings at the end of 2018 a “major incident” (thus enabling a heightened emergency service response), UK Border Force boats have since been periodically assisted by Royal Navy patrol vessels. In August 2020, the Ministry of Defence confirmed it was considering a Home Office request to deploy naval vessels in the Dover Straits (lawyers and the French government later stated they believed the move to be unlawful, despite Home Secretary Priti Patel’s assurances to MPs). Royal Air Force surveillance planes already occasionally supplement the Border Force and, according to a YouGov poll from August 2020, 71 per cent of Britons believe that using naval vessels would be an acceptable addition. Among Conservative voters, that figure jumps to 93 per cent. The desire  to “defend” this island seems to run as deep in the population as it does in government.

The international waters surrounding Britain are also imagined as liminal waiting rooms where the state can deal with migrants while ensuring that they don’t set foot on UK soil. Home Office documents leaked this winter detailed a series of suggestions, some rejected, for reducing migrant crossings. Proposals included processing claims on disused ferries, oil rigs and even Ascension Island, a remote territory in the South Atlantic. In August 2020, EU negotiators rejected the British government’s request for a post-Brexit migration pact that would allow the UK to continue to return asylum seekers to any other European country through which they have travelled—currently enabled for EU member states by the so-called Dublin Regulation.

London, already frustrated by the logistics of removing migrants and fuming at the so-called “activist lawyers” who represent them, is no doubt scrambling for new ways to evict would-be asylum seekers. While seeking to return arrivals to other EU countries could now get more complicated, the Home Office can at least comfort itself with the thought that it will soon have a diminished responsibility towards reuniting migrant families, which is a priority of the Dublin Regulation. Westminster will be freer than before to use the sea to separate sibling from sibling, and even parent from child.

In the leaked correspondence, government officials explored floating walls, marine fencing and wave pumps—to push boats back towards France—as possible tactics. Such fanciful feats of maritime engineering were eventually dismissed, but they hold a deep appeal for those many British minds in which the D-Day operations still loom large. (And if the long shadow of the Second World War over the English Channel still needs underlining, note that the group of anti-migrant campaigners who now patrol the Kent coast call themselves Littleboats2020, inspired by the Little Ships of Dunkirk, the private boats that helped the British naval evacuation of 1940). Britain regards the sea itself as an instrument to be mobilised, a watery border that embodies both the practical means to deter migrants and the geographic essentialism that motivates that ambition.

The notion that British sovereignty will sink or swim in the water may explain the otherwise baffling weight given to fishing—an industry worth perhaps 0.03 per cent of GDP—in the autumn trade talks with Brussels, in which potentially crippling tariffs for swathes of the economy were at stake. Throughout the process, diplomatic inertia has inevitably led to grandstanding. In March, Environment Secretary George Eustice told a parliamentary committee that seven extra vessels (three from the Royal Navy) had been employed to protect UK fishing waters, alongside 50 extra protection officers and planned surveillance. The Channel is a satellite space in which the UK can exercise its border policy at a safe literal and imaginative distance from the nation itself.

*** In July 2020, the former head of the UK Border Force Tony Smith wrote about the importance of “turning the tide on migrant boats”—an idiom that may one day be realised by some of those technologies which, for the moment, remain in the domain of the bureaucratic fantasy. Immigration rhetoric has long drawn upon aquatic metaphors to conjure fear around security, belonging, threat and nationhood in the British imagination. After the eastward expansion of the EU, Michael Howard’s Conservative Party pushed immigration up the agenda with a sly wink of a 2005 campaign poster—“It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration: are you thinking what we’re thinking?” Linguist Jonathan Charteris-Black drilled down into manifestos of that year and noticed, especially in the case of the Tories and the BNP, two main sets of natural disaster metaphors: one of them “predominantly relating to fluids.” (The other, incidentally, was around “containers” subject to “a buildup of pressure”: think Farage’s 2016 “Breaking Point” poster).

Political language, then, blurs the lines between security, immigrants and the waters surrounding the UK. Conceptualising people as water is a central part of this: the idea of a “deluge,” “torrent” or “wave” of migrants “flooding” or “flowing” into the UK is commonplace, evoking associations of enclosure, saturation, and the particular vulnerability of an island. Such rhetoric overwhelms all sense of proportion: a relatively small number of arrivals—especially when compared with other European countries—is recast as an existential threat. In a briefing paper tracing the history of UK asylum legislation up to New Labour’s Asylum and Immigration Act 2004, the zealous anti-immigrant campaigners at Migration Watch wrote: “Since then the trickle of applicants has become a flood.”

Prior to her first election victory in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was criticised for claiming that Britons were “afraid” they might become “rather swamped by people of a different culture”; in 2002, Home Secretary David Blunkett saw fit to reassure that he had plans to ensure asylum seekers’ children would  “not [be] swamping the local school.” In 2014, the then-Defence Secretary Michael Fallon suggested the government needed “to see what we can do to prevent whole towns and communities being swamped by huge numbers of migrants”; tellingly, perhaps, he singled out communities “down the east coast,” which face the waters, as feeling particularly “under siege.” The following year, his boss David Cameron, when asked about Calais, preferred to mix metaphors, warning of “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean.” Such metaphors not only dehumanise migrants, but erase and collapse their individual experiences—allowing narratives of unworthiness and illegality to dominate public perception.

In 2007, poet Daljit Nagra released his debut collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!. Its title poem—a response to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1867)—creates a wry collage of Britain before the European migrant crisis. Arrivals are “stowed” in Arnold’s calm sea, “swarms of us, grafting in,” and the poem ends with immigrants being “flecked by the chalk of Britannia!” Meanwhile, tourists are “prow’d on the cruisers, lording the ministered waves.” As safe, secure broadcasters breezily reported on the Dover Strait this summer, Nagra’s lines gained a renewed significance.

Since 2017, the poem has appeared on A-level English syllabuses, a reminder that nostalgic nationalism doesn’t reign unchallenged. It might perhaps be read as a relic of the near past. But in the UK today the solipsistic currency of demonisation is again rife, merely updated for our times—complete with new, but always vulnerable, targets. Warped histories are sold back to the public as appealing futures. And the English Channel is used to rationalise it all as something natural: constant, essential, irrefutable, imperially ordained. Arnold, too, recognised that a certain pessimism followed the inevitable movement of the tides. “Begin, and cease, and then begin again,” he wrote. “With tremulous cadence slow, and bring the eternal note of sadness in.”