I thought I knew what we were dealing with. The British state in my lifetime has retained a privileged place for the few, lived off a centuries old legend of global reach and kept transformative powers locked in the Whitehall safe. But it could ratchet up the paternalism when things got too bad, it would worry about its fair-play reputation in the world and remained essentially permissive to social change.
What I didn’t expect and could never have imagined was the outpouring of brute xenophobia unleashed by a vote to leave the EU. Whatever private misgivings some politicians had about the numbers of foreign re-locators and workers arriving from Europe, the rhetoric for public consumption has been placatory, welcoming and inclusive. Anyone in the mainstream and especially those with ambition for high office knew the rules. All European arrivals were here by right, were our equals in every way, contributed to the economy and added flavour to white Britain. They were the symbol of a new, internationalist Britain and were happy to seek a new life in our society. Their presence made the reciprocal arrangement possible – of thrusting young UK citizens heading for jobs in Milan and Amsterdam and retirees opting for a life in the sun in Spain and France.
The baser motivation was that freedom of people underpinned Britain’s (and specifically Tory Britain’s) project of the Single Market. Goods, services and people interchanging seamlessly in the world’s biggest trading space.
Of course there were extremes which fostered racism. There was also the crime of omission. The Blair government ignored rising numbers and in his first four years in office net immigration quadrupled. At times Labour had no idea who was coming nor who was going. It was an error which led ultimately to Brexit as first the British National Party tuned in to dissent winning over half a million votes in 2010 and getting two MEPs elected. Migration Watch began appearing in the media and was treated as an impartial source of research and analysis instead of a right-wing anti immigration lobby group whose director is quoted today saying that naming and shaming companies with foreign workers brings ‘daylight’ to the issue and firms doing their best to hire UK workers, ominously, ‘ have nothing to fear’. This was all leapt upon by the vicious tabloids and turned into a long campaign to vilify incomers. With no pre-planned government message to the public to explain why foreigners were coming and how they contributed, the supporters of immigration were left defenceless. UKIP was the political wing of the xenophobes.
And they have won.
Imagine – David Coburn is right. He is on the winning side. He and Farage have beaten the left and the mainstream and they are turning Britain into an overtly anti-foreigner society with plans to restrict overseas staff from working in our hospitals, forcing landlords to check tenants’ papers, examining taxi drivers’ passports, singling out employers who don’t keep up their quotas of British staff and blocking students from studying here. Only it isn’t just Farage who is now saying this, it’s the mainstream Conservatives who are wallowing in bashing our European friends, using them as negotiating hostages over Brexit and employing language that plays into the hands of the ignorant.
Tory financiers are eyeing profits in an unregulated market. Without EU standards and protocols, the bankers and the Tories can change the rules on your pension, ending the need to balance deficits and reducing defined benefits. As one, Lord Flight, said: ‘My vision is for London to be what I call a super Singapore.’ (He also thinks if we cut benefits it will discourage claimants from breeding).
I say it’s the Tories who are doing it but what has been Labour’s response? The Labour Press Office put out a statement objecting that the Tories had failed to cut net migration. Words fail me. Where has Labour been over this British tragedy? Corbyn has been, like Blair, asleep at the wheel and Kezia…? She has been forced to denounce Labour’s press release but she has led nothing, challenged nothing and acquiesced as the Britain she swears to maintain undermines and threatens immigrants and promises to take Scotland out of Europe with them. Rachel Reeves, one of the most fearsomely right wing voices in politics, yet a Labour MP, has been warning of violence if immigration isn’t checked. She talked of an explosion over the issue, in a reference reminiscent of Enoch Powell.
It is difficult not to grow fearful of where this is all leading. The too-easy metaphor is 1930’s Germany and it is clearly absurd to seek comparisons between modern MPs and the Sturmabteilung. But…the world’s calamities all start somewhere and we already have a recorded rise in race crime as thugs read a green light in Brexit. Where did this intolerance in the British come from? What has happened? It’s only two years ago they were telling us we were the divisive ones, our driving force was hatred of England, we wanted to put up borders, we would be thrown out of Europe, be isolated. We were parochial and inward-looking. May was still doing it in her speech while she engineers a racist crackdown on European migrants and glories in small-minded English chauvinism.
Look, I’m a democrat. I know what the referendum decision was. And while I’m not part of an elite (another classic May irony there) I think we are making an egregious error both in coming out of the EU and in the approach taken. I’m not alone. I hear Tory MPs, Labour backbenchers, business people, all kinds of sane voices who are both disgusted at what this woman is doing without any parliamentary mandate – nor any plan to get one – and how Britain is now looking to the rest of the world.
We may be Scots and may be or not be nationalists but in the eyes of the world we are part of this revolting charade. This is beyond independence for Scotland, although that looms ever larger. This is something that must be repelled and reversed before we become not the buccaneering power of Brexiteers’ dreams but a shrunken, unwelcoming, xenophobic shadow of ourselves. I am reduced to wishing for an exit deal so bad and a ride so rough from the international markets and WTO that a re-run referendum is called. Once the detail emerges of the Brexit deal, it’s possible a general election could rid us of the anti-European zealots but Labour will need to up its game immeasurably for that to happen.
I am open to the accusation of anti-democrat but this is too important. We were told lies in the campaign. There was no detailed exposition of the case. The media was a disgrace and the entire process of democracy was abused. The views of the Leavers have changed since the vote. They are concentrating all on curbing immigration to the exclusion of single market access. A poll this week showed most people want to stay in the market even if that means compromising on immigration.
This is madness. I am ashamed. The treatment of democratic impulses in Scotland is bad enough but the racism and relish for severing our links of solidarity with Europe take this country into a different realm of intolerance. This is the age of the little Englander.by