How the UK Government Uses Communities to Scapegoat Responsibility

On a gradient background, turning from red to yellow and then green, is a photo of someone holding a protest sign reading "provide safe routes to people seeking asylum." There is a purple shape behind the photo. Another photo is of Rishi Sunak announcing the new Illegal Migration Bill. He's at a stand which reads 'stop the boats'. There is a orange half moon behind the photo, at the top.

From the meaning of scapegoating to its impacts on people experiencing marginalisation, we break down what this tactic is and how governments use it to avoid responsibility.

What is scapegoating?

Scapegoating is a tactic that targets people experiencing marginalisation. It’s used as a way to accuse people, usually from communities who are marginalised, for problems in society. 

A lot of the time this blame is levelled at the same community who are experiencing harm from government policies. Examples of this can include anti-immigration rhetoric, the rising attacks on trans rights and punishing striking workers

“It is part of the nature of scapegoating, as the late French theorist of mythology René Girard argued, that the target is not chosen because it is in any way responsible for society’s woes. If the target does happen to be at all responsible, that is an accident. The scapegoat is instead chosen because it is easy to victimise without fear of retaliation", reports The Conversation. 

It is not a one-party focused approach, either. Scapegoating happens across the political spectrum.

Why does scapegoating happen?

In short, scapegoating is a tool that’s used so government's and policy makers can push through harmful legislation and avoid their responsibility. They know that people power has, and can, win us our rights.

By putting the onus on people impacted by marginalisation, the focus moves to communities who aren’t the cause behind the injustice many are facing. As the Morning Star states, “the scapegoating of the ‘other’ has always been a tactic to sow division in working-class communities — to keep us disunited so we cannot engender social change.”

iNews, when reporting on how the government are scapegoating LGBTQ+ communities, said: "History tells us there are two options in the playbook of desperate politicians. The first is to start a war. The second is to distract and scapegoat by inventing a problem, always based around a minority, and then offering a solution that aims to eradicate either it or them." 

This tactic also goes against public opinion. The majority are in favour of strikes, support people seeking asylum and refuge and don’t have an issue with trans people. All of these communities are regularly targeted in the media. In 2020, trust in the British media was reportedly the lowest in Europe. 

How does scapegoating affect people experiencing marginalisation?

In the last ten years, using communities to scapegoat from real issues has greatly affected people experiencing marginalisation.  There has been an unprecedented rise in hate crimes and violent attacks against a number of communities. 

Since 2014-2015, hate crime statistics have almost tripled. The Guardian reported racist hate crimes passed over 100,000 in 2022 alone. This rise also includes disability, sexuality and religion-targeted attacks.

This doesn’t include all the crimes that go unreported, either. We know that people who experience marginalisation aren’t trusting of  systems to protect and support them. For example, racialised people are less likely to trust the police than white people according to YouGov. 

These are some of the communities that have been significantly affected by scapegoating tactics:

Trans people

Hate crimes against trans communities rose by 156% in four years. This was the highest increase of hate crimes recorded amongst communities experiencing marginalisation.

In the UK, anti-trans rhetoric has swept mainstream media. Mermaids, a charity who support transgender young people, published research in 2019 on media coverage around trans people. They found that, “trans people generally are increasingly written about in negative ways.” One of their findings stated “[trans people] are described in the context of crime [either as criminals or victims of crime] 608 times in 2018-19, as opposed to 3 times in 2012.”

According to Novara Media, “The Daily Mail published 115 articles on trans people in January [2023]”. They continued that “100 of [the articles] 87% could reasonably be categorised as negative, in comparison to zero negative articles in January 2013.”

Most recently, the UK’s Conservative government has blocked Scotland’s Gender Recognition Act. This is despite many activists and organisations stating how this will negatively affect trans people. 

People seeking asylum and refuge 

During the campaign to leave the EU, the government consistently used talking points around immigration as the reason for the lack of funding for the NHS. This has been counteracted with reports since that state “the average use of health services by [people seeking refuge or asylum] and visitors appears to be lower than that of people born in the United Kingdom” 

Years later, anti-immigration policies continue to be at the top of the government’s agenda. 

The Nationality and Borders Bill, which passed in 2022, is one of the many bills being passed into law. Refugee Council said claims by the government that this bill would save lives “were not supported by evidence, nor did they properly take into account key context and detail about the asylum system.”

Another bill, dubbed the ‘Illegal Migration Bill’, targets people seeking asylum via small boats across the Channel. At the time of writing, it is being debated in Parliament. 

Similarly to other groups who are/ experiencing marginalisation, people seeking asylum have faced violent attacks - from a far-right terrorist firebombing a migration centre in Dover, to attacks on hotels in Liverpool

The lack of support from the government for people seeking asylum, and having safe routes to do so, has reportedly led to hundreds of deaths.

Workers on strike

The cost of living crisis has affected millions of people in the UK. And as ever, working people are facing the brunt of it. This is particularly impacting workers who experience marginalisation in multiple ways, like racialised women.

Now, workers across the country are demanding their basic rights. 

In the last year, hundreds of thousands of people in the public sector have gone on strike - from Train Drivers, to Teachers and Healthcare Workers. The biggest strike in the NHS’ history happened in 2022.

As the strikes continue, the government and organisations in power - like National Rail - have passed the blame on workers. 

The argument has been levelled against workers that the general public are angry and don’t support strikes. Coverage from the media has continued to demonise people on strike, too. 

Multiple polls have shown that public opinion doesn’t match up with what the Conservative government and media say. “There is little correlation between support for striking and the disruption it has personally caused people,” a YouGov poll stated. In fact, people in the UK think that the government is responsible for the strikes.

RMT General Secretary, Mick Lynch, reminded people that many of the issues the Conservative government is blaming strikers for - like lack of funding and limited staff - are problems that existed long before the strikes

To counteract the strikes, the government is attempting to pass anti-strike legislation. This new law will impact not only striking workers, but the unions that are supporting them. 

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This piece was written by Spark & Co.’s Digital Marketing and Website Support Lead, Cherokee Seebalack (They/Them).