Is there reason to the ‘Silly Season’?

The foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has weighed in to the debate over migration with some of the government’s strongest language yet, claiming millions of marauding African migrants pose a threat to the EU standard of living and social structure.

So begins an article from the Guardian website regarding this strange new outburst from the foreign secretary. This quote from Hammond caught my attention:

“The gap in standards of living between Europe and Africa means there will always be millions of Africans with the economic motivation to try to get to Europe.”

Always? What about if we work to reduce the massive disparity of income and standard of life in the world or is that deemed to be so fantastical that it needn’t be considered? This is a strangely defeatist and pessimistic view of the world couched in flamboyantly hostile language.

And there, I believe, is the key: language. The government doesn’t really have many options when it comes to the Calais “crisis”, largely because it’s happening in Calais, but as Parliament is in summer recess and ‘silly season’ is upon us, this is the stick with which a usually very supportive press is choosing to beat Cameron and his ministers.

Papers like the Sun, Mail and Telegraph are usually only too happy to bolster Cameron’s government; to loudly defend its position; ignore, bury or spin any news that may damage it; and to mercilessly attack any opposition to it. But here we have the same papers attacking the government for once and in very strong language on an issue that is already well-known for exciting the public’s emotions. I can see a few possible reasons for this:

  1. General silliness of the season. This includes impishly interrupting the prime minister’s and other MPs’ holiday plans. The tabloids are well-known for a (sometimes likeable) mischievousness and there is a little of that at play perhaps.
  2. The press is used to whipping up hostility against immigrants and that is just part of their modus operandi.
  3. The press genuinely think the government needs to take a battering over this.
  4. The press is keeping the issue in the public consciousness despite knowing there’s little Cameron can do and that Parliament isn’t sitting so there’s particularly little they can do about it right now.

So how has the government responded. By raising their rhetoric on migrants to levels approaching bad taste too, as the article above shows. But that’s all it is, language, there is very little action. Reading Hammond’s comments the first response even the most fervidly anti-immigration person should be, “OK, so you don’t like it either – what are you going to do?” (Note that I say “should”).

Daily 'hate' Mail parody
Panda’ing to the lowest common denominator (Image: Byzantine_K)

So we have a situation where parts of the press have taken advantage of a fairly mild “crisis” (see Owen Jones’ recent exposé of this as well as various Independent articles showing that this is far from being a crisis) during parliamentary downtime by increasing the zealotry of their anti-immigration rhetoric. In response the government also changes its language up a gear. The air is now thick with aggressive invective that does nothing to solve the issue, overexcites people who are already indisposed to immigration and causes more concern for moderate people into the bargain.

So who gains from this unpleasant impasse? Well, the government and the press both gain from increasing the generally negative, right-wing atmosphere. A large part of the motivation of the Tory/Ukip troll industry – or government communication strategy, if you will – on news websites is to be provocatively far fight, to speak the unspeakable in order to try to normalise it for others. The aim for them and elements of the media is to move the public to the right, even if only by a little, by presenting an extreme opinion as a seemingly widespread belief.

However, the heightened language on migration is also uniquely beneficial to the media who are employing such language. They are, of course, vociferously anti-European and a big battle is coming up in that arena in the form of the EU In/Out referendum. The press is not used to losing battles but on this occasion their opponents are equally formidable: the might of the City and the financial services industry as well as many captains of industry who generally have the government’s ear as well as the economic clout to strike fear into voters’ pockets. So in fact, behind all this fairly unedifying bluster, there appear to be the first tactical gambits of the EU battle royale. The press is ratcheting up language to intensify antipathy to migrants and their plight knowing that it’s the best bet for pushing the population to vote Out. Silly season not so silly after all.

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