Racism and the Hostile Environment

In 2012 Theresa May, who was the Conservative Home Secretary at the time, introduced the Hostile Environment Policy with remarks including that: “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”. The policy ran into trouble when Operation Vaken’s notorious ‘Go Home’ vans created a popular outcry. Overall, the policy has met with criticism on a variety of grounds and from various quarters, but the really high-profile disaster was the Windrush scandal.

As information on Windrush has gradually been made available, there is one peculiar aspect of it that becomes increasingly clear: the alacrity, the zeal with which some Home Office officials have pursued their victims. This zeal has spilled over into the treatment of asylum seekers, academics and researchers:

Working Towards the Führer

It is well worth reading about historian Ian Kershaw’s ‘Working Towards the Führer‘ concept. It outlines a process whereby ill-defined policy aspirations formed at the highest level set the tone, the interpretive framework, adopted by those lower down the hierarchy when actually implementing what they perceive to be the real intentions of policy. In this kind of process there is no need for detailed instructions to be issued from the top level – it is enough for those lower down to be in sympathy with the aims of policy. This at least explains some of the more puzzling aspects of the Hostile Environment story:

  • The headline Tory objective, repeatedly promised but never attained, has been to bring immigration figures below 100,000 a year. The Hostile Environment posture makes a pitifully small contribution to this aim. The UK economy is structurally addicted to immigration.
  • There is a subtext of spite in Home Office action: Windrush victims tend to be long established, upright citizens who have made a solid contribution to their adopted country; blocking the entry of academics damages Britain’s academic reputation that underpins education as a successful export industry; key NHS employees are victimised at a time when shortages of medical staff are growing;the overall picture is one of willful economic damage.
  • Home office policies designed to deter illegal immigrants create an often homeless, sometimes criminal underclass, constituting a public health hazard without access to NHS services. This group of people are forced into a position where their financial cost to society outweighs any possible benefit to be derived from hounding them


The petty detail of these absurdities leads to only one tenable conclusion: the Hostile Environment culture provides cover for blatant racism. Individuals within the system are encouraged to give vent to their prejudices by the belief that they won’t be called out because what they are doing is interpreting policy in a way that would be approved of by politicians at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy.

Footnote 5th March 2021: ‘Windrush victim denied UK citizenship despite Home Office admitting error’. This story is utterly scandalous. It demonstrates quite clearly that, whatever pronouncements are made for PR purposes and public consumption, there is a much more sinister agenda at work in the interpretation of the rules.

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