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'We Are, by Nature, a Tolerant People’: Securitisation and Counter-Securitisation in UK Migration Politics

Elites
Migration
Security
Identity
Mixed Methods
Brexit
Theoretical
Georgios Karyotis
University of Glasgow
Georgios Karyotis
University of Glasgow
Ian Paterson
University of Glasgow
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Abstract

Migration, perhaps more than any other issue, captures the growing societal and political polarisation occurring throughout ‘the West’. From border walls and fences to the growth of far-Right and populist politics and political parties, there are a plethora of indicators that migration in the UK, Europe and beyond is principally viewed as a security threat – it has been securitised. What is less well understood, both theoretically and empirically, are strategies of contestation with regards to the securitisation of migration and of securitised issues more broadly. This article adopts an innovative mixed-methods research design, utilising both UK elite political and religious discourse between 2005-2015 and unique survey data tracing UK immigration attitudes. We draw upon and extend Stritzel and Chang’s notion of counter-securitisation – the strategy where actors challenge a securitisation by utilising their own securitisation in which core elements of the original formulation are reversed – to demonstrate that a crucial, overlooked dimension of UK migration politics and discourse centres on the battle to define what it means to be truly ‘British’, as this is pivotal regarding the way in which migration impacts upon the threatened referent object, British identity. The findings at the level of discourse – and reflected in public attitudes – demonstrate a crucial split: for some, migration is an existential threat to British identity; for others, securitising actors and the securitisation of migration itself constitutes an existential threat to British identity. These findings are significant in that they unpack the broad societal polarisation (Leave/Remain, Nationalist/Globalist), for which migration is a cornerstone issue, as well as highlighting the centrality of identity to both anti-immigration and pro-immigration discourses. Additionally, the article speaks to crucial debates in the securitisation literature and helps to refine the theorisation of counter-securitisation, a crucial component of contestation strategies.