Finding new villains has been a favourite pastime for the British media
The caller to Sky News was increasingly belligerent. You felt a new political party was about to be formed, the Bulgar-Bashing Brigade. “They're the most vicious people in Europe; the KGB used them as assassins. We're going to be importing a nation of hit men! At least the Poles were on our side during the war.” The presenter berated the caller for “crude national stereotyping” and ended the exchange.
The programme, featuring viewers' reactions to the latest round of EU expansion, was just another slap in the face for Bulgarians. But Mr Angry Caller epitomised two attitudes embedded in the British mentality. Firstly, the image of the Bulgarian, or East European in general, as a Cold War assassin, ready to liquidate the enemy with clinical precision. Joe Public doesn't distinguish between ex-members of the Warsaw Pact. To him they are all the same ilk, the former “Iron Curtain lot”, all inherently suspect. Even before Putin's behaviour became increasingly eccentric, commentators had remarked that he had the demeanour of a KGB interrogator.
The incident also highlights the British attitude to war, one of the favourite subjects for the pub bore who perceives the world is against him. We are loyal to those countries that supported us in battle, especially in World War Two, irrespective of their other vices. Naturally, the more praiseworthy features of Bulgaria during the conflict, its initial determination to stay neutral, refusal to declare war on the Soviet Union and unwillingness to sacrifice its Jewish population, eluded Mr Angry Caller.
You're either with us or against us. Hence, the more extreme members of Britain's blue-rinse brigade were prepared to forgive the Chilean torturer and mass murderer Augosto Pinochet (what's a few thousand disappearances between friends?) on the back of his support for Britain during the 1982 Falklands War. The so-called other 9/11, Pinochet's overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in September 1973, left Thatcher and her supporters unmoved. It was solidarity with Britain that counted.
We need an enemy almost as much as we need friends. The Germans filled that role admirably for years. We ridiculed them in comedies like Fawlty Towers and cheerfully loathed them in innumerable war dramas – Colditz, Enemy at the Door and Secret Army – until we descended into the parody of 'Allo ‘Allo!. By then the familiar target had become a stale cliché. So much so that when the tabloids resurrected the war and engaged in another round of German-baiting, at the time of Euro 1996, it was universally condemned.
Of course, the Soviet Union was also a prominent bête noire, but perhaps more so in the United States than in Britain. It was scary but oddly comforting to know that a clear division existed between East and West. And when, suddenly, the Evil Empire was no more there was palpable insecurity in London and Washington. Who were we to fear now? Ideological conflict was replaced by competing nationalisms that left us confused and even a little nostalgic for old certainties.
Sometimes politicians located enemies already among us. Conservative MP Enoch Powell tried to stir the mob against black and Asian immigrants. But this proved to be merely a temporary vogue. His infamous Rivers-of-Blood prophesy failed to materialise. Britain, despite riots that scarred some of our inner cities, did not descend into civil war. Powell simply overlooked the fact that black and Asian citizens would become individuals with names – neighbours, friends and work colleagues. Instead, his xenophobia triggered a backlash against anti-black and anti-Asian discrimination, which eventually developed into political correctness, a phenomenon that now draws as many detractors as racism.
In the 1970s and early 1980s the press railed against union militancy. The National Union of Miners was crushed and the power of organised labour to dictate to governments evaporated. So the Conservative government looked for a new foe and found it in the European Union. But the public wouldn't really buy it and those political parties favouring withdrawal, the British National Party and the UK Independence Party, remained sidelined.
In the 21st century we found a new enemy we could really fear, militant Islamic fundamentalism. Lest we deemed the likes of Omar Bakri and Abu Hamza to be harmless, cartoon villains, the 7/7 bombings proved that the threat to London was as real as the threat to New York. Brave British journalists such as Melanie Phillips and Nick Cohen, as well as the Conservative MP Michael Gove, wrote detailed exposés of the growing threat posed by Islamic fanatics in Britain. But the opponents of Islamic fascism met resistance from two powerful non-aligned constituencies. The Left claimed Islamic extremism was an offshoot of the West's “imperialist” foreign policy and, in particular, support for Israel. British Moslems claimed there was a campaign of vilification against them. The two groups combined forces and soon Blair and Bush-bashing became the preferred national sport.
In effect, a battle was being fought to decide the identity of the real victims in the post-9/11 West, the indigenous white majority who feared terrorism or the Moslems who resented racial stereotyping. The British press now began to tread carefully for fear of inflaming already delicate sensitivities. They refused to publish the Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad and reacted cautiously when former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw opened Pandora's Box by criticising the veil.
The media now needed to find a new scapegoat, preferably one unable to retaliate. The criteria were simple – it had to be a small, defenceless nation lacking influence or representation. The “shock” over the Polish “invasion” handed the press two gifts on a silver platter; it exposed the ineptitude of the Home Office in underestimating the numbers of new arrivals as well as the appeal of Britain as a “soft touch” for migrant workers. But the size of the new Polish constituency in Britain was a mixed blessing for the tabloids' attack dogs. Soon, the Poles (God forbid!) had their own food on supermarket shelves and their own newspapers. Besides, the Polish community proved to be generally law-abiding and popular. And we rather liked seeing the pretty blonde girl with high cheekbones cleaning the platform at underground stations. So the papers backed off.
But the reality on the streets pointed to a city bulging at the seams. Doctors' surgeries and schools were overcrowded and the commute to and from work was increasingly unbearable. The proverbial horse had already fled from the stable - probably years earlier - but the press demanded that the door be slammed anyway. So Romania and Bulgaria became ideal whipping boys as the January 2007 deadline approached. Both countries ranked among the poorest in the EU, making it easy for the press to conjure up an image of Romanians and Bulgarians as thieving Gypsies and organised criminals. Most Britons knew little about the countries concerned, except for the few who had holidayed or bought properties on the Black Sea, or adopted a Romanian child. But most knew of the notorious Romanian butcher Ceausescu. His barbarity became a symbol for both countries and soon Romania and Bulgaria dissolved into an amorphous mass, mutually interchangeable in the minds of bigoted bullies armed with poisonous pens.
Bulgaria was the smaller nation of the two and so it was easier to bash. Until, that is, the number of Bulgarians in Britain grows and we start to actually like the pretty raven-haired girl with high cheekbones cleaning the platform on the underground.