Hardly a Question

It’s already almost a week since Boris Johnson’s supposed valentine to Remainers, and the debate has moved on (most recently, to David Davis’s invocation of post-apocalyptic Australia), but one part of Johnson’s speech hasn’t attracted as much critical attention as it might have. Perhaps it was such a high-pitched dog-whistle that it escaped most British commentators’ hearing. But to Australian-British ears, it was a clanging bell:

But we also need to ask ourselves some hard questions about the impact of 20 years of uncontrolled immigration by low-skilled, low-wage workers—and what many see as the consequent suppression of wages and failure to invest properly in the skills of indigenous young people.

I’m not talking about the easily refuted suggestion that immigration has suppressed wages (the only things suppressed have been government studies showing that it hasn’t), or that immigrants in recent decades have been “low-skilled, low-wage workers” (we’ve been all kinds of workers). Nor am I talking about the insinuations of needing to ask “hard questions” about “what many see”, when an honest response would have been to rebut such points in the same breath as citing them. I’m talking about Johnson’s casual reference to “indigenous” young people. “Many see” a failure to invest in “indigenous young people”, says Johnson, with the nod of approval that the “need to ask ... hard questions” implies.

Those of us from Commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada know that word well. Our countries’ indigenous people are those whose ancestors were colonised by many of our other people’s British ancestors. The word’s meaning is highly contextual, such that some indigenous peoples may only trace their local ancestry back centuries while others go back tens of millennia, but wherever it’s used there’s a common core of meaning: you have to have been born here, and your ancestors have to have been born here for many generations.

As a white Australian, I’m not indigenous to anywhere. My recent ancestors hadn’t lived in Australia long enough, even though some arrived shortly after the First Fleet. My older ancestors, and even two of my grandparents, were from Britain, but I’m not indigenous to the UK, even though I’m now a citizen here. As children of immigrants, my kids aren’t indigenous either.

“Indigenous” in a British context is a term used by the BNP and EDL to distinguish between British-born people of long British ancestry and everyone else. Their use of it is clearly intended to exclude not only immigrants but the children of immigrants and their children as well, especially any who aren’t white. In former colonies, “indigenous” usually signifies a people whose lands have been taken from them, who are now outnumbered and disadvantaged. In this former colonial power, it’s a sign of people attempting to suggest that their land has been taken from them and that they’re outnumbered and disadvantaged, even though that’s patently untrue.

Why, then, would a preeminent Brexiter use the term in such an uncritical and apparently approving way?

What a hard question.

20 February 2018 · Politics