Twilight in Brexitland

Yesterday evening I shared a horrific post on Facebook about a tetraplegic woman whose disability benefits have just been cancelled, and has just been summoned to a job interview by her local job centre.  As shocking as it was, this dreadful decision was a fairly typical example of the cruelty and incompetence that has been repeated again and again under the brutal sanctions regime introduced by successive Coalition and Tory governments.  Most of the commenters were as outraged as I was, but there were also messages like this:

No shame when it comes to the white British benefits office. Maybe if she was immigrant that’s might of made a differance (sic).

It’s deeply depressing to know that someone took advantage of such an awful tragedy to express such thoughts.    Once upon a time I might have written off such comments as a occasional freak intervention from some semi-literate racist nurturing their Nazi memorabilia in some dank basement somewhere.   But such interventions are not occasional and they are not from the fringes.

They are all over the place.  You can find them, in below-the-line comments sections on any online forum that has anything to do with immigration – or not.  When a Frenchwoman living in Kent announced last week that she was leaving the UK because of racism and xenophobia, her comments section was sprinkled with racist and xenophobic comments and jeering invitations to go back home if she didn’t like it.

There is a lot more where that came from, and a lot worse too.  Twitter is seething with hatred of this kind, whether directed at foreigners. immigrants, Muslims or people of colour.   Diane Abbott gets hundreds if not thousands of such messages everyday. Gina Miller has been threatened with gang rape, lynching and acid attacks simply because she tried to ensure that Parliament had a say in the Brexit negotiations.

What’s happening on social media is also happening on the streets.  In July this year the Independent reported that incidents of race and faith-based attacks rose by  23 percent in the eleven months since the referendum –  from 40,741 to 49,921.    These incidents included acts of physical violence, acid attacks and verbal insults.  There are undoubtedly many more, since many victims of verbal attacks don’t go to the police.

What is striking about so many of the incidents that are recorded is that – like the comments and tweets on social media – many of their perpetrators clearly feel emboldened, empowered and legitimized by the referendum result.   They feel their time has come, and some of them are clearly dreaming of some kind of ethno-nationalist reckoning in which all the people they don’t like ‘go home’ – even if this country is their home.

Once upon a time some of these people might have felt ashamed to say what they’re thinking; now they don’t.  And why should they?  When Gina Miller said she might have to leave the country, Arron Banks’s Leave.EU – a mainstream lobbying group – merely laughed and tweeted that it hoped other ‘liberals’ would go with her.  Why would people feel any reservation about expressing hostility to immigrants when politicians boast of their ability to turn the UK into a hostile environment?  When ‘commentators’ can tweet about ‘final solutions’ and call refugees ‘cockroaches’ and still get a slot on the Jeremy Vine Show?  Isn’t it all just free speech?

Every week and sometimes everyday, the Home Office – an institution which currently embodies everything that is most malignant about the British state and society – displays how hostile it is by deporting or threatening to deport another immigrant or group of immigrants.

Meanwhile politicians um and ah, or shake their heads about the public’s ‘concerns’.   Some, like the iniquitous and loathsome fraud Boris Johnson, mutter darkly about ‘dual allegiances’.  When they’re caught out deporting tens of thousands of students using false language tests, they don’t bat an eyelid.   When it’s found that their own estimates of students who ‘overstayed’ their visas are wildly over the mark, they just change the conversation and boast of their ability to keep more people out.

Left-of-centre politicians aren’t always much better.   Some talk of the need to exclude immigrants in order to win votes in their constituencies or prevent exploitation or the undercutting of British workers by migrant workers.  Others, like the dreadful Frank Field, celebrate the draconian proposals in the Home Office’s outline document for a post-Brexit immigration policy.

Few pause to wonder where all this is leading us.  It’s a truism to observe that you only stand a chance of curing yourself of an illness if your illness is actually diagnosed and recognised, and right now we are becoming  a sick society – sick with xenophobia, anti-migrant paranoia and unacknowledged racism hidden behind discussions about ‘culture’ and ‘numbers’ and ‘social cohesion.’  We slowly but inexorably poisoning our society with our own fears, prejudices and hatreds.   We are becoming mean, vindictive, callous, bitter and aggressive, constantly whining about what immigrants have supposedly done to us without thinking through what we are doing to them – or to ourselves.

Not only are our politicians ignoring and even pandering to these sentiments, but the government is actually instrumentalising the Home Office to act on them and turn them into policy.   We didn’t get to this situation overnight, and the referendum is by no means uniquely responsible for it.    But there is no doubt that in the last eighteen months, the UK has become a deeply unpleasant and threatening place for many foreigners and immigrants – and for many who simply look or sound foreign – and it may get a lot worse unless we can stop it.

So we need to recognize how serious this is, and we need to act.  The tendencies that have been unleashed these last eighteen months do not express the majority sentiments of the population, but too many of those who don’t share them have not condemned them – or have not argued forcefully against the arguments that foreigners and immigrants are responsible for the social problems of 21st century Britain.  Such arguments aren’t even restricted to the right – I’m constantly coming across them from sections of the left – albeit wrapped up in a veneer of progressive politics and concern for the working class.

We need really major mobilisations to counter these developments.   We need to make the positive case for immigration and diversity and we need to make it loudly.   We can’t pretend that we are too British and too intrinsically decent to descend into a racist and xenophobic swamp.  We can, because any society can.

We need the famous silent majority to stand up for the kind of society we have begun to build –  a society that is comfortable with diversity and open to the world, where foreigners are welcomed, not considered the enemy.  We need to push the xenophobes and racists back to the fringes and restore the shame that once forced them to keep their bitterness and rage to themselves.

Because if we can’t do this, then we will be complicit, and we will also be trapped perhaps for decades, by the dangerous forces that have been unleashed, and which will leave few people unscathed if things proceed along their present course.

 

One Day Without Us 2018

It’s just under a year since I was part of  a Facebook discussion about the alarmingly xenophobic drift of post-referendum UK society.  We were people from many different nationalities, backgrounds and political persuasions.  Some of us were migrants, others the descendants of migrants or British nationals who know migrants as our friends, colleagues, partners, carers, workmates and classmates.

All of us were appalled by the dangerous convergence of  street-level violence towards migrants with the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by too many politicians.  We were disgusted with the cynical references to  3 million EU citizens as bargaining chips, and the persistent denigration and stigmatisation of migrants in sections of the British press.  We did not see migrants as intruders, outsiders or interlopers, but as valuable and valued members of British society and our local communities.

So on 20th February we invited migrants and their supporters to take part in a national day of action celebrating the presence of migrants and the contributions they have made to British society.  For 24 hours, we asked the British public to imagine what a ‘day without immigrants’ might be like.

We were bowled over by the response. Tens of thousands of people held protests, rallies and other events up and down the country.  There were One Day Without Us events in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; fetes in tiny villages, rallies in city centres, stalls in town markets. Members of the public, businesses, trade unions, NGOs, charities, and universities all supported what was in effect the first-ever national day of solidarity with migrants in British history.

It was a fantastic experience for everyone involved.  In providing a platform for migrants and their supporters to make their voices heard,  One Day Without Us presented the UK with a very different vision of migrants and migration to the one that has been presented to the public for too long by politicians and the media alike.   Eleven months later the need for this vision remains as urgent as it was then.  And so next year, on 17th February, we’re planning another national day of action.   For twenty-four hours we’re inviting migrants and their supporters to take part, and organise events in their local communities, under the slogan ‘Proud to be a migrant/Proud to stand with migrants.’  We’ve chosen that date to coincide with the week of UN World Day of Social Justice, but this time we’ve chosen to stage it on a weekend, so that everyone can get involved.

Our message is simple: we refuse to accept the divisive ‘us versus them’ political rhetoric that presents migrants as interlopers and outsiders and immigration as a burden.  We believe that migration had been broadly positive both for migrants and for UK society, and we want to celebrate that.   We think it is shameful and disturbing that the word migrant has become a dirty word in British politics; that EU citizens living in Britain are still living in limbo or leaving the country because of the hostility directed towards them; that families with non-EU migrant spouses remain permanently separated because they can’t meet arbitrary income thresholds; that migrant workers are described as if they were nothing but economic commodities.

We want to change that.    We do not believe that migrants are intrinsically better or worse than anyone else, but no one should ever have to feel ashamed, vulnerable or under threat because of who they are or where they came from.   It should not even need saying that migrants have the same hopes, dreams, aspirations as  British citizens, but the debased debate about migration too easily ignores this simple truth and prefers to scapegoat migrants and blame them for problems that they did not cause.  Too often migrants are described as if they were nothing but takers and migration is depicted as something unnatural and even sordid.

We want to restore the courage, heroism and dignity, the adventure and discovery that is part of the experience of migration.  As migrants and non-migrants, we want to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions that migrants have made to our country in the past and continue to make today.

We are proud that the UK is a country that people want to come to in order to live, work, study, or seek safety and protection.  We do not want a ‘hostile environment’ that turns doctors and nurses into immigration police and presents deportations of tens of thousands of foreign students on the basis of flawed or inadequate evidence as a badge of honour.  We want a UK that is welcoming, open, and inclusive in its attitude towards migration.

In celebrating migrants and migration we do not only refer to EU nationals.   Though we recognize that migrants who have come to the UK fall under many different legal categories, we do not recognize hierarchical distinctions between worthy and unworthy migrants, between EU citizens and non-EU nationals, between refugees and asylum seekers, between migrants past and presents.

The hostility directed towards migrants in post-referendum UK does not confine itself to any single target. It  can equally be directed against Polish schoolgirls, Muslims of Pakistani heritage, Bulgarians, Romanians, refugees or ‘failed asylum seekers’ .  It might be aimed at EU citizens or it might be directed against people who were born here who simply look or sound like foreigners.

Once confined to the extremist fringe, such hostility has begun to permeate the mainstream to the point when it threatens the very foundations and the character of our society, and drives government policy in ways that are harmful to migrants and to our common future.  One of the reasons why this has happened is because millions of people with a very different view of what UK society could be like have not made their voices heard.

On 17th February this is your opportunity.  We invite migrants and their supporters to join us in a positive affirmation of migrants and migration.  We invite you, whoever you are and whatever your race, religion or nationality, to take part in a day of unity, celebration and protest.  We invite you to join with us and say it loudly ‘ Proud to be a migrant.  Proud to stand with migrants’.

For further information about events and volunteering possibilities, see our website at: http://1daywithoutus.org/

And @1daywithoutus

Defending Free Movement

Last night I spoke at the launch meeting of the Alliance for Free Movement, hosted by Caroline Lucas at the Houses of Parliament.   The alliance is a broad-based movement of organisations, politicians, unions and NGOS, whose aim is to defend, uphold and extend the EU’s free movement rules at a time when the concept of free movement tends to be depicted more often than not as another of the many evils inflicted on the nation by the ‘dictatorship of Brussels.’

The initiative came out of a joint letter to the Guardian last month, of which I was one of the co-signatories.  Its stated aim is ‘to champion the right to live, work, study and retire abroad.  We want to defend and extend the freedom to move.  Migrants have not run down our public services, failed to build proper housing or caused a race to the bottom on wages or conditions.  These are results of political choices made by governments and corporations.’

Last night’s panel made these points in various ways.  Caroline Lucas spoke with her usual lucid eloquence about the importance of migration to the UK.  The barrister Colin Yeo spoke about the legal nightmare that is likely to unfold post-Brexit regarding EU nationals.   A Spanish nurse who has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years spoke movingly about  the insecurity which he and so many other EU nationals have felt since the referendum.  A speaker from Unison spelt out the dire consequences that are already unfolding for the NHS as European nurses, radiographers and other staff continue to leave the country in droves because of the poisoned post-referendum atmosphere – and all this at a time when British applications for nursing training places have dropped by 20 percent.

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Alliance for Free Movement launch meeting

These panel speeches were followed by sometimes abrasive but mostly thoughtful, passionate and considered contributions from the attendees.  Some had voted Leave and argued that the ‘hard Brexit’ that is now unfolding was not what they voted for. Some made the often-repeated point that ‘not all Leavers are racist.’  Others declared unequivocally that Brext was a racist vote and must be stopped.

These differences were not resolved – and could not be, in the time available – but they made very clear the political faultlines that left/progressive forces in this country will have to negotiate their way round if we are to find a way out of the dismal trajectory in which the country is currently trapped.

On the issue of free movement however, there should be no doubts or ambiguities. This is a principle that the left – in the broadest sense of the term – must fight for, even in its limited European form.  To abandon it would inflict enormous damage on British society – not to mention the millions of people whose lives are likely to be disrupted if Amber Rudd’s pledge to ‘end freedom of movement as we know it’ is realised.  It would be a giant step backwards and inwards and a capitulation to xenophobic reaction, fear and misinformation.

This is a campaign that can be won.  It has the potential to develop into a really broad coalition of unions, organisations and campaigners.  It can include employers and workers and can reach out across party lines.   Defending freedom of movement means rejecting the politics of scapegoating and fear.  It means recognizing the positive contribution that migrants make to the UK in many different ways.  It means upholding the right of workers to seek work in other countries and to have rights when they do so. It means giving our children and grandchildren the same opportunities that we now have to work, study and retire in Europe.

If we reject even the limited version of free movement enshrined in the EU’s four freedoms then we have very little chance of extending the same principle beyond the EU, and we are likely to entrench ourselves even deeper in our ongoing Trumpish dystopia of walls, fences and militarised borders.

That’s why I went to the meeting last night.   To sign up and find out more, visit www.forfreemovement.org

Imagine a Country Without Migrants

It’s nearly three months since the idea of a national protest by and in support of migrants in the UK on Feb 20 next year went viral on social media. In that time what began as a Facebook discussion has morphed into the national campaign One Day Without Us. We now have more than two dozen groups across the country. We have received support from various organisations, including Hope Not Hate, War on Want, and the Migrants Rights Network.

When I first suggested this possibility back in early October, I asked what people would think of a national migrant strike/boycott on the lines of two similar protests in the US in 2006 and in Italy in 2010. In the course of the many discussions that have taken place since then, this concept has evolved into a National Day of Action to highlight the contribution that migrants make to British society, in which taking time off work is one of a wide spectrum of actions that people can take to highlight the contribution that migrants make to British society and show solidarity with them.

Launching an organic grassroots campaign without any financial support or the backing of any political party has not been easy. Throughout this process I have been inspired by the many people who have rallied to this idea, and by the courage and commitment shown by migrants and British citizens across the country who have given their time entirely voluntarily to help organise what is an unprecedented protest in the history of the UK.

Along the way I have constantly been reminded of why an event like this necessary: the Belgian told to ‘go home’ when walking his dogs on the beach; a Greek who has had his windows broken; a Portuguese woman chased down a London street by a racist gang; a British Asian woman racially abused with her mum and two cousins on a bus; the desperation and insecurity of men and women who have lived in this country for decades and are told that their right to remain is in jeopardy.

This has been a year in which the national ‘debate’ about immigration has more than ever been saturated with hatred, fear and anti-migrant hostility; when migrants are blamed for problems they didn’t cause; when politicians too often lack the courage to speak out against these tendencies and prefer to pander to them instead.

In this climate it has been heartening and deeply moving to be reminded of the many people in this country – both migrants and British citizens – who do not accept the alarming victimisation and scapegoating of migrants, and are determined to try and counter it with a more positive and inclusive vision of what British society could be.

Many people have given not just their time, but their creativity to our campaign. This week we have launched a remarkable campaign video, that was shot and produced by Emigrant Beard productions, a Bristol-based company of mostly Spanish nationals which specialises in internet documentaries on ’emigration in the UK from the emigrant perspective.’

Emigrant Beard approached us at a very early stage in the campaign and offered to make the video for free. We asked the company to come up with a concept based on the idea of disappearing people – and particularly disappearing workers – that would invite people to imagine what the UK would be like if there were no migrants in the country for one day.

Having agreed on this basic concept, Emigrant Beard asked us to give them a script that would be poetic and evocative. We then approached the playwright Steve Waters, author of Temple and the forthcoming Limehouse. Waters welcomed the opportunity to participate in what he calls ‘ a wake-up to all of us to celebrate the diversity of our country and the vital role people of all nations play in the way we live and work.’

In little more than a day,Waters came up with a beautifully-turned rhymed script written as a short question and answer dialogue, in which migrants from various professions – baristas, surgeons, teachers, cleaners – tell their interlocutors that Feb 20 will be ‘ a day without us.’ The ‘questions’ are spoken by the professional actors Linus Roache and Lee Ross, who generously – and in the current climate – courageously – offered their services for free.

For Roache, this was a philosophical decision, in keeping with his belief that ‘we are living in a globalizing world. There is no going back, we need to be fearless in our embrace of diversity. This is the march of human evolution toward greater unity.’

The rest of the script was spoken by migrant ‘actors’ from Bristol. Carlos Blanco, who is also one of the cameramen and editors,appears in the film because ‘ I felt it was important first of all because I am a migrant and I don’t feel that bad about it. I think all of us should be proud of it; to be a migrant is to be brave. I hope people realize that.’

For Nadia Castilla, the video was an opportunity ‘ to be part of a project that includes everyone and that sends such a positive message’. To Emigrant Beard’s sound engineer Gerardo Pastor Ruiz, even the sound was part of the film’s attempt to give ‘ a voice to people who needed to be heard.’

What gives the video its power and its visual poetry are the close-up shots of eyes, mouths and parts of faces, which powerfully highlight the humanity of people who too often are not regarded as people at all, but as intruders, usurpers and outsider.

The result is a not just a campaign video, but a short film of real beauty and emotional power, which we are proud to associate with our campaign. For the film’s director Jacobo GF, the message of this video is: ‘Lets make the United Kingdom an amazing place to live, a paradise for everyone who really appreciates it. It does not matter where are you from or what is your background as long as you contribute to the cause of making this place better day after day.’

This is not a perspective we are used to hearing in these bleak times, but we feel that nowadays it needs to be heard more than ever. As the film reminds us, migrants are not invaders and strangers, but part of society in which all have a place:

We live with you and work with you
We’re part of this place we’ve travelled to
We’re part of your today and your tomorrow too

February 20 is an opportunity to recognize that reality – and also to celebrate it, anyway you can.