David Cameron recently described migrants as ‘a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean’. The context was events in Calais, otherwise known as the ‘Calais migrant crisis’, a ‘crisis’ that owes much to an inventive construction by media and politicians: the attempts by a few hundred desperate individuals to enter Britain has been turned into apocalyptic warnings of a ‘flood’, ‘migrant madness’ and an ‘invasion’. The Prime Minister’s own linguistic contribution to the issue has been condemned by the Refugee Council and others as ‘awful [and] dehumanising’.
The best defence of Cameron’s phrase is that it was an uncharacteristic ‘slip’. But there was no subsequent apology from the Prime Minister or his office, no acknowledgement that this was careless language he would now like to retract. It is more likely that his choice of words was deliberate. Cameron’s tendency to cloak himself in a few garments of the far right has developed into a habit. In particular, over Scotland, immigration and the EU he has not been shy to sprinkle among his more apparently rational pronouncements the scaremongering, divisive and xenophobic language and ideas normally associated only with extremists. It is, one can only assume, a deliberate but risky strategy to encroach on the ground of the far right as a matter of political and electoral calculation: an occasional raid on the far right may keep the extremists in his own party in check as well as adding a few more Tory voters to the cause. A strategy as fast and loose as this is bound to have unpredictable consequences. But feeding a few more hostilities between England and Scotland and between England and Europe, and prompting an increase in racist abuse and attacks, are probably deemed an acceptable price to pay for the wider political gains Cameron hopes to make.
Another defence of Cameron’s reference to ‘swarms’ is the attempt to suggest that criticism of the Prime Minister is simply contrived fuss over language that is innocently appropriate. This tactic is generally adopted not by professional commentators but by the anonymous keyboard warriors writing below the line on media articles; it’s the defence of the ‘I’m not racist but…’ brigade. Surely, they argue, ‘swarm’ is simply an objectively accurate description of the behaviour of these migrants. Swarming is an observable characteristic throughout the natural world: it is exhibited by numerous species of insect, bird, bat and fish, and applies merely to any dense, mass, aggregate behaviour. Set aside the fact that the primary dictionary definition of the noun ‘swarm’ refers explicitly to insects, and that the word is used only transfiguratively of any other type of multitude, then it might be supposed that to liken migrants to a swarm is to use language entirely neutrally. Are such commentators right? Or do they have an extremely dull and simple-minded conception of language? Or is this the disingenuous argument of the subtle racist?
In the early seventeenth century the migrant issue of the day was the prospect, upon the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England, of Scots seeking their fortune south of the border. The Scots were likened to a swarm—and the comparison was hardly a detached, neutral, objective observation. Mark Kishlansky relates how the ‘English élites feared “swarms of tawny Scots” who, locust-like, would devour office and wealth’ (Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 (London: Penguin, 1996), p. 78); the brilliant puritan author Lucy Hutchinson, wife of one of the regicides of Charles I, numbered among the ills that arrived in England with the accession of James I ‘the swarms of needy Scots the King had brought in to devour like locusts the plenty of this land’ (Hutchinson, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson (London: Everyman, 1995), p. 64). Indeed, the word ‘swarm’, whether applied of insects or humans is invariably used in a hostile, fearful, disparaging and negative way. In the Book of Exodus in the King James Bible God, through Moses, threatens Pharaoh with ‘swarms of flies’ (Exodus 8.21), and the Bible is replete with nightmarish visions of divine retribution taking the form of ‘swarms of locusts’. A ‘swarm of flies’ which descended upon London in 1675 was not met with equanimity but ‘wonder’—in the sense of something so removed from human experience that it elicits incomprehension—and ‘consternation’ (Relation of the most miraculous swarm of flies, 1675). A seventeenth-century mayor of London alarmingly described the prisons as full of ‘swarms of loose and idle vagrants’. In Macbeth, the treacherous rebellion of Macdonwald which begins the play grows from the way ‘The multiplying villainies of nature / Do swarm upon him’ (Macbeth, I.2).
The fear of swarms has provided an interesting sub-genre of horror movie that plays on the terror of killer bees, wasps, ants and other insects. Several films have ‘swarm’ in their title; not one of these films portrays the swarm in question as something to be embraced with stoic calm or affectionate interest. Irwin Allen’s 1978 killer-bee film The Swarm, starring Michael Caine and described by the Sunday Times as ‘simply the worst film ever made’, has a typical template: the swarm has to be stopped, the bees exterminated, since it’s kill or be killed. Deadly Swarm (2003), Swarmed (2005) and Black Swarm (2007) explore the same sophisticated ideas. In reality there have been occasional human deaths from killer bee attacks, although they are extremely rare. The bee colloquially termed as ‘killer’ resulted from American cross-breeding of European and African honey bees; interestingly the subspecies has been given the name ‘Africanized honey bee’ (not, of course, that we should imagine scientific nomenclature ever contributes to racially pejorative thinking and language…).
The right-wing media and politicians are not slow to point out the African origin of the Calais migrants (even if they have yet to describe them as ‘Africanized migrants’). That the Prime Minister should describe these migrants as a ‘swarm’ fits neatly with the broader agenda of de-individualization and dehumanization. When Katie Hopkins likened migrants to ‘cockroaches’, the similarity with the language of genocide-justification was obvious. (Hopkins has subsequently, and laughably, implied that her use of the term was a compliment—another example of the disingenuous faux-naiveté of the extreme right.) Cameron’s use of the term ‘swarm’ amounts to the same adoption of pro-genocide language. He may not want genocide, but he’s happy to stoke up a little genocidal emotion for his own political ends. Either that or he is a clumsy, thick-headed user of language. Historically and culturally swarming is distinctly non-human, alien behaviour; a swarm has almost always been something to be feared for its propensity to kill and devour; a swarm is something to be exterminated and can be done so with a clean conscience, since the constituents of a swarm are not individuals in any human sense. But my guess is that Cameron’s Eton and Oxford education has equipped him to understand the historical and cultural resonances of such language.
‘Fear travels in packs’ states the poster for the 2008 film Shark Swarm. It is this natural fear of the swarm, which goes back to the locusts and flies of the Old Testament and which has become a cultural topos, that Cameron and the media want to play on. The nightmarish image they want to conjure up—however deliberately fanciful and without any grounding in reality it is—is not far removed from the conclusion of the greatest of all ‘swarm’ films, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Melanie Daniels and the Brenners, having barely survived the final attack by the swarm of birds, abandon their once-idyllic community which has now been completely taken over by the swarm. It is surely no coincidence that alongside their coverage of the events in Calais, and their eager description of it as a ‘migrant crisis’ demanding tough measures such as the use of the army, the media have also been devoting much space and comment to ‘killer gulls’ blighting Britain’s coastal towns and the need for a cull. The language of ‘swarms’, invasions and culls is attempting to prepare the ground for even nastier rhetoric, and its consequences, ahead. Cameron knows that and, even if he does not genuinely want it, he is cynically prepared to play with the nastiness.