How the Home Office Is Turning Britain Into a Police State
Institutions from the NHS to education are now complicit in the deportation of migrants.
Photo by Natalie Olah
If the Home Office has its way, you will soon be living on Planet Cop. The police will live everywhere, watching you without you knowing it. There won't be any need for telescreens or security cameras; the cops live behind every face, waiting for your mistake, and then they burst out: flesh bulging and shredding, liquefied skin running down into the sudden tight collar of authority, and a grim stern mouth sneering where there was once the face of a friend, a doctor, a teacher, someone you knew. It doesn't matter if they like it or not: the people who are supposed to help you are all hiding cops inside themselves, growing, waiting to emerge.
This is real. Slowly, with all the grim silence of an undercover cop, the Home Office has been turning half the country, with or without their consent, into an unregistered phalanx of immigration enforcers. The NHS, for instance, has had its patient records repeatedly ransacked for signs that someone might be here without government approval; ordinary doctors and nurses are being unwittingly turned into frontline cops in a war against the sick.
Sometimes it's more overt; in a trial scheme that could be rolled out everywhere, several hospitals have required patients – including women about to give birth – to show their passports before being given care. The same is happening to schools: after making classrooms into crime scenes for the ideological police through the Prevent strategy, the Home Office is now collecting data on pupils without British nationality, turning educational institutions into census-takers and data centres, the unfeeling eyes of a cop rolling silently forwards somewhere in every teacher's head.
Even homeless charities are being marshalled. The same people who try to care for rough sleepers are now the cops who march them into detention centres. Many of the street-level workers might not like this (doctors and teachers have also protested), but this isn't something as simple as snitch culture. It's the activation of the police function in every level of society: anything that could possibly become a cop will become a cop.
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The most recent – and disturbing – revelation is that Planet Cop is even affecting the police itself. The Metropolitan Police have, they've admitted, been passing on immigration details to the Home Office – not just of people they've arrested, but the witnesses and even the victims. If an undocumented migrant is attacked, or robbed, or raped, and they go to the police, the police will have them deported. It's not just utterly heartless and utterly obscene; it puts the police in direct collusion with the attackers, robbers and rapists of the world. If migrants know that reporting a crime against them could result in deportation, they'll be unlikely to report it. Which means open season on migrants: everything short of murder, as long as it's away from the public eye, is tacitly approved. Every violent racist is helping to do the state's work, to create, as Theresa May put it, a "hostile environment". By exercising brutality, they become an auxiliary wing of the police.
There are defences for all this – not good ones, but they exist. Undocumented migrants are here in contravention of the law, and it's the (supposed) job of the police to enforce that law, whatever the consequences. You might not like it, but you can hardly object. This misses the point. However unhinged and desperate and scary the current discourse on migration may have become, the real aim of power isn't just to send out a planeload of failed asylum seekers every few weeks. Planet Cop exists to spread and reproduce the existence of Planet Cop. It's the entrenchment of its own power that the Home Office is after; the general ability to turn the entire public sector into an army of hapless puppet cops, and the rest of the population into a loose militia of state-sanctioned torturers.
As in Michel Foucault's account of 20th century power, the repressive and dictatorial power of the state is increased when it's no longer concentrated in the hands of a select few officials, when it's generalised to the extent that "everyone [has] the power of life and death over his or her neighbours, if only because of the practice of informing, which effectively meant doing away with the people next door". The result is "an absolutely racist State, an absolutely murderous State, and an absolutely suicidal State".
"If we ever do manage to cleanse our little islands of every last person here without the appropriate slips of paper, the whole rolling carnival will move on to someone else"
As is so often the case, it's migrant populations – de-centred, alone and afraid – that are the first to feel the violence of Planet Cop, but they won't be the last. A state authority that has the power to instantly deputise anyone won't give it up easily. If we ever do manage to cleanse our little islands of every last person here without the appropriate slips of paper, the whole rolling carnival will move on to someone else: there must always be some group of wretched and vulnerable people to explain to everyone else why life continues to be so unremittingly shit.
Britain isn't exactly alone in this situation. Across the overdeveloped world there are powers that want to treat civil society in its entirety as a game of hunt-the-migrant, knowing that once that's been established everything else will follow. But people resist. Even in America there's a large network of "sanctuary cities", places where local ordnances prevent the police from turning in undocumented migrants to the national customs authority. The system doesn't always work, and it's constantly under attack, but it's an attempt. In the UK we have nothing of the sort. There are cities that call themselves sanctuary cities – Sheffield, Glasgow and Swansea, in particular – but this mostly consists of a stated willingness to take in and help integrate migrant populations, in full coordination with the Home Office.
But with directly elected mayors and police commissioners across the country, there's an opportunity, at the very least, to take a stand against the Tory government. Sadiq Khan could, if he wanted, try to stop the Met declaring open season on every migrant in the city. He won't do it without a lot of pressure – he's a politician, craven and cowardly; someone who just wants to make a few numbers go up and smile from the pages of the Evening Standard; someone who doesn't want to make a fuss. If anybody is going to make it off Planet Cop alive, there must be resistance: it needs to be made harder for these people to go along with it than it is for them to try to stop it.