What Kind of Country?

Every society, no matter how sophisticated or ‘modern’ it thinks it has become,  contains within itself the ability to go forward and backwards.  All societies contain the potential for tolerance and intolerance; for generosity, openness, and empathy and also for mean-spirited callousness, arrogance,selfishness and cruelty.  Every society includes people and communities that are open to the outside world and those that are fearful, resentful and bitter about their proximity to people who look and sound different to themselves,  and who regard the presence of immigrants and foreigners as usurpers and intruders in ‘their’ country.

There is no doubt which forces are now dominant in British society – and English society in particular.  This has been obvious for some time, long before last year’s referendum. It was evident not only in the sour national ‘debate’ about immigration and the ‘concerns’ which so many politicians have fallen over themselves to acknowledge.  What were these concerns?  That the UK was ‘full’ and was being ‘flooded’.   That immigrants were taking ‘our’ jobs and also taking ‘our’ benefits, which meant that if they came here to work they were thieves and if they didn’t then they were parasites.

For years we have told ourselves that immigrants were stealing ‘our’ houses, even when most of them were paying rent to private landlords.  We imagined that devious foreigners all over the world were coolly scanning a list of the countries with the best health service before coming here to have their babies and and steal ‘our’ beds, because they wanted to take advantage of our generosity.   We knew this must be true because that is what foreigners are like.  We understood that the reason we couldn’t get an appointment with our GP was not because there weren’t enough GPs but because there were too many immigrants.

We knew – we just knew it – that the foreigners who came here contributed nothing, nothing at all to ‘our’ society.  Our newspapers told us day after day that they were only here to take from us.  We heard that ‘mass immigration’ was an ‘invasion’ secretly unleashed by the Labour Party and the European Union in order to ‘rub our noses in diversity’.    Even when we heard that ‘our’ national health service was crucially dependent on foreigners, we still wanted them to go home, because we wanted English nurses and doctors to treat us when we were sick or even when we were dying, even though there weren’t enough of ‘our’ nurses and doctors available.

All that was bad enough, but we also heard that immigrants were coming here who didn’t share ‘our’ values.  Like the aliens in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, they wanted to steal our identities and turn us into hollowed-out and watered-down husks of our ancient selves.  We wondered what had happened to Christmas lights and Easter eggs, to ring-around-the-roses, hopscotch and Hovis bread, to village fetes and classic cars, and what on earth had we been thinking of when we allowed Muslim grooming gangs to turn our cities into no go zones which no cops ever dared enter and every councillor was engaged in a cover-up.

We saw women in burkhas and niqabs and we felt contempt for them because we knew that they wanted to impose ‘Sharia law’ upon us.  At the same time we wanted to save these women, because, like Paul Nuttall, we feared that they weren’t ‘economically active’ and because we believed in tolerance and equality.

We heard Poles speaking their language in public in ‘our’ streets and on the underground, and like Nigel Farage we resented this, because it was obvious that foreigners who spoke to each other in their own language were deliberately refusing to integrate with us,  and because the sound of their foreign accents or the sight of a Polish delicatessen made us feel like strangers in our own land.

So we elected governments that told foreigners they must speak English, even as they were cutting ESOL provision that might have helped them to do this.   We liked that authoritarian and dictatorial tone because it was our voice, not the voice of the metropolitan, latte-drinking elites who had inflicted this disaster upon us and transformed our country in some PC-speaking multicultural nation-of-people-from-nowhere.

We heard that our classrooms were overcrowded, not because our education system was underfunded, or because teachers were dropping out of the profession in droves, but because there were too many immigrant children in our schools who were holding our children back and forcing our sons and daughters to learn their languages and sing their songs and bake silly foreign cakes.

Even when there were no immigrants living anywhere near us we didn’t want them any closer because we knew what they were like.   We knew that most refugees were not ‘genuine’ refugee, but ‘economic migrants’ who were so desperate to get ‘our’ benefits that were willing to get into leaky boats and die in the process, because we knew that foreigners who come from poor countries think like this.

Even when there was no doubt whatsoever that these refugees were ‘genuine’ – and that some of them were in fact children – we didn’t want to help them, because we suspected that they were too old to be ‘genuine’ children, and it didn’t seem right to us that we should have to help poor people from around the world when we needed to look after our ‘own people.’

Of course we weren’t really looking after ‘our own people’ either.  When the numbers of homeless people rose, we put spikes in doorways or fined them for begging.  When we heard that ‘our own people’ were being made to work even though they were sick and dying, we voted back in the government that made this happen.   We had no problem with the bedroom tax, with ‘socially cleansing’ poor people out of London because we knew that poor people were not really ‘our own people’ who shouldn’t live in a city that was meant for rich people.

We supported punitive benefit sanctions, because we always assumed that we would never find ourselves living on benefits, and because we suspected that poor people – even ‘our’ poor people were not that different from immigrants in that respect.

So let’s not pretend that we really cared anymore about the people from ‘somewhere’, as David Goodhart put it, than we do about the people who come from ‘anywhere’. But let no one say that we are ‘racist’.    When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU we feared and resented them too, not because of their skin colour, but because we knew that both countries were largely filled with thieves, poor people and criminals who were about to flood  ‘our’ country.

We knew that, because ideas like this have coursing freely and largely uncontested through English society for so many years now that they have begun to seem like common sense.   This isn’t entirely new.   There is a brilliant passage from JB Priestley’s English Journey, in which he talks of the German Jewish merchants who settled in his native Bradford before World War I.  Returning to Bradford in 1933, Priestley noted that ‘there is hardly a trace now in the city of that German-Jewish invasion’ and that many of these merchants had left the city or gone out of business:

I like the city better as it was before, and most of my fellow-Bradfordians agree with me. It seems smaller and duller now.  I am not suggesting that these German-Jews are better men than we are.  The point is that they were different, and brought more to the city than bank drafts and lists of customers.  They acted as a leaven, just as a colony of typical West Riding folk would act as a leaven in Munich or Moscow.  These exchanges are good for everybody.

Priestley also noted a transformation that had taken place since the war that made these exchanges unlikely:

Just lately, when we offered hospitality to some distinguished German-Jews who had been exiled by the Nazis, the leader-writers in the cheap Press began yelping again about Keeping the Foreigner Out.  Apart from the miserable meanness of the attitude itself – for the great England, the England admired throughout the world, is the England that keeps open house, the refuge of Mazzini, Marx, Lenin – history shows us that the countries that have opened their doors have gained, just as the countries that have driven out large numbers of their citizens, for racial, religious, or political reasons, have always paid dearly for their intolerance.

Today, the same ‘cheap Press’ disseminates the same message and the same ‘miserable meanness.’  There were certainly caveats and contradictions in Priestley’s evocation of ‘the great England’, but the country that we are now creating could not be much further removed from Priestley’s vision.

Priestley also observed that:

It is one of the innumerable disadvantages of this present age of idiotic nationalism, political and economic, this age of passports and visas and quotas, when every country is as difficult to enter or leave as was the Czar’s Russia or the Sultan’s Turkey before the war, that it is no longer possible for this leavening process to continue.  Bradford is really more provincial now than it was twenty years ago.  But so, I suspect, is the whole world.  It must be when there is less and less tolerance in it, less free speech, less liberalism.  Behind all the new movements of this age, nationalistic, fascistic, communistic, has been more than a suspicion of the mental attitude of a gang of small town louts ready to throw a brick at the nearest stranger.

Ten months after the referendum, that ‘mental attitude’ is the dominant attitude in English politics in regard to the European Union and to immigrants and immigration, and a new and equally rancid expression of ‘idiotic nationalism’ is driving our steep moral descent into a country defined by the ‘cheap Press’ and the equally cheap politicians who have failed to oppose it.

This possibility should be at the centre of the debate about Brexit, and should not be marginalised by a conversation about the customs union or the single market.   As Priestley warned,  societies that behave like this will pay a high price for it, in ways that cannot always be measured in straightforward economic terms.

That is one reason, amongst many others, why the millions of people who don’t want to see the UK become a xenophobic backwater should make their voices heard as the Tory power-grab unfolds over the next six weeks, and elect politicians who can stand up for a different first person plural that includes migrants and foreigners instead of excluding them and blaming them for things they don’t do and for problems that they did not cause.

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.

Knuckle-dragger Nation

I’ve been very lucky these last few days.  On Thursday I was part of a panel at the Royal College of Art in London discussing culture, cultural identity and political crisis in a ‘borderless world.’  I was blown away by the passion, eloquence and thoughtfulness of my fellow panel members and so many of the students who participated in the talk back.  It was inspiring and uplifting to be amongst young people who were willing to grapple with the dire political predicament in which we all find ourselves, and so determined to find creative responses to it.

On Friday I took part in a discussion on ‘Paper Borders’ at my old university SOAS. Once again I found myself surrounded by men and women with a moral conscience, who were disturbed and alarmed by the humanitarian consequences of Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ and trying to think their way towards alternatives to the dystopian nightmare unfolding across the European border regime.

These debates and discussions were as far removed from the surface of British national politics as it is possible to be.   Look at the newspapers over the last fortnight and you will see tabloids working themselves into a lather of righteous indignation at the possibility that 14 teenage refugees might not be teenagers.  Fourteen people.   And still these paragons of journalistic integrity think they are justified in going into attack dog mode, insinuating – yet again – that our noble generosity is being taken advantage of by devious pseudo-refugees and NGOs colluding in our national destruction.

Make no mistake about it, these claims were intended to make people hate, and they immediately produced the usual spittle-filled outpourings that we have come to expect, from knuckle-dragging trolls who seem incapable of understanding that if you are under eighteen you are still a minor even if you look older – or that fourteen refugees is a less than impressive act of national generosity.

Much of this vitriol was directed against Gary Lineker, who had the temerity to suggest that the attacks on these fourteen refugee kids was not that generous at all.  Lily Allen also got some of the same for apologizing on behalf of the UK for its treatment of refugees at Calais.  One London taxi-driver refused to pick her up and told her to ‘find an immigrant to drive you’.

Then there was parliament refusing to uphold the legal rights of EU nationals – proving that the majority of its MPs shared Liam Fox’s description of EU citizens – that is living men, women and children – as ‘bargaining counters’.   And more than 100 Labour backbenchers who preferred to let Saudi Arabia go on bombing Yemen with British weapons because undermining their own elected party leader was a higher priority.

And then on Friday, we had British newspapers calling three British judges traitors and ‘enemies of the people’ because they ruled that – who would have thought it in a parliamentary democracy? – parliament should be able to oversee the UK’s exit from the European Union.  We learned from the Daily Mail – a newspaper that seems to be moving closer towards its pro-fascist past with each passing day – that one of these judges was ‘openly gay’ – a fact that has no relevance at all except as an invitation to homophobic hatred.

Such hatred was not lacking, because hell hath no fury like a certain kind of Brexiter for whom ‘sovereignty’ is only significant if it means that they can do exactly what they want without any scrutiny or legal brakes of any kind.  Naturally there were calls for the judges should be hanged.  From the Ukip Society Facebook page we learned that most leading opponents of Brexit were Jews or influenced by Jews.  We could read charming recommendations such as ‘ Open Hitler’s gas chambers: Jews know the way in‘ and ‘ Rothschild. Soros. Rockefeller. Warburg. Du Pont. Morgan.  ALL JEWS.  It isn’t a coincidence they run the world.’

Oddly,  such observations received little attention from the British media or the MPs who had previously been so concerned about Labour’s ‘antisemitism crisis’.   The vile racist and sexist abuse directed at Gina Miller – the Guyana-born British citizen who had the immense courage to remind the country that its elected representatives should have a say in how the country exits the EU – was impossible even for the Sun to ignore.

Miller was brutally trolled, with all the licence that Twitter and social media have given to the knuckle-dragging troglodytes who are determined to transform the UK into a racist swamp.  She was threatened with rape of course – de rigeur for these brave keyboard patriots whenever any woman sticks her head above the parapet.  One Facebook user declared  ‘Who’s going to help me rape this b****? Sign up here’ – a post that even offended the Sun, regardless of the malignant role played by this newspaper in whipping up the hatred against Miller and the three judges.

As always, much of these venom emanated from Ukipland.   One post on the Facebook page, Ukip – The Peoples Forum 2020, read: “Kill her! 2 behind the ear. Throw her in the garbage. Dustbin, whatever…” and “I hope she gets f*****g killed”.

Another observed that ‘Miller should be hung as a traitor.  Crazy total s**m. ‘

Weird how these would-be executioners get so hung up about swear words isn’t it? But let no one say that knuckle-draggers don’t have a sense of propriety.   And before you accuse me of snobbery towards the ‘white working class’, let me say that knuckle-dragging is not a class pursuit.

A posh accent and an Eton education don’t make you intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive or moral, as Boris Johnson continues to demonstrate almost every time he opens his mouth.  The hapless Lord Chancellor Liz Truss has not even had the guts to criticize the newspapers that depicted High Court judges as traitors.   Liam Fox continues to shamble around from one conference to the next with his fists very close to the ground without any indication that he actually understands the rules and obligations that he is trying to tear apart.

The great tragedy of our country is that it is not only responding to knuckle-draggers.  It is actually being led by them and no one can say they are leading us to a good place. So we can only hope that there are enough men and women of good will out there, like those I had the privilege to spend time with over the last few days, who can stop them and remind the nation that it still has a brain, and that it would a really good idea to use it soon.

Murder in Farageland

The brutal murder of Jo Cox has added a seemingly random note of tragedy and horror to this appalling, dispiriting and utterly venal Referendum campaign.  And the brave and dignified words of Cox’s husband and sister have only shown us how low we have allowed ourselves to sink during this wretched process.

Anti-intellectualism; complete disregard for evidence; hyperbolic denunciations of the EU coupled with an almost nihilistic indifference to the consequences of leaving; lies, prejudice; whining ‘ We want our country back narratives’ of national victimhood; the most rancid xenophobia, fear and racism – all these tendencies that were once considered un-British have become part of the poisonous and bitter debate that our feckless politicians have foisted upon us.

Now a promising young politician and the mother of two children had been murdered by a man who gave his name in court as ‘ death to traitors – freedom for Britain.’   No one can be surprised that the media and many politicians and political parties have focused on Thomas Mair’s abnormal personality rather than his politics.  We have heard, ad infinitum, that he was ‘mentally ill’ and ‘ a loner’ – as if ‘loners’ are somehow naturally inclined to kill MPs.

Of course this is what always happens when a white man carries out an act of political murder.  We don’t like to call them terrorists, because words like terrorist and terrorism are intended to construct and convey an image of politically-motivated violence as something utterly alien to us.

This otherness might stem from religion, from ‘extremism’ or ‘radicalization’.  We might imagine that it has something to do with race, culture or ideology or a combination of all these factors.  But what is always clear is that the terrorist has nothing in common with us and we cannot recognize anything of ourselves in their actions.  Even when the crimes of the terrorists are ‘rational’,  in the sense that they may have a political motivation or particular strategic or tactical aims, we like to imagine them as crimes aimed at ‘our way of life’, ‘our values’ or ‘our freedoms.’

The anathema heaped on the terrorist also helps create an imagined ‘us’.  It binds the state, government and population into a first person plural based on the assumption of our common decency, even as the Otherness of the terrorist enables us to torture, extradite and imprison ‘enemy combatants’, wage wars ‘to keep us safe’, or pore over Muslim toddlers in search of signs of incipient radicalization..

This is what terrorism discourse does, and this is what it’s intended to achieve.   But faced with men like Thomas Mair, Anders Breivik or Timothy McVeigh, we instinctively seek explanations in psychopathology, because we can’t believe that men who appear to be ‘like us’ can kill with the same merciless cruelty as people we know aren’t ‘like us.’

We can’t comprehend that an all-American boy and a Gulf War ‘hero’ like McVeigh would regard children that he kills in a kindergarden as ‘collateral damage.’  Or why Anders Breivik would gleefully massacre teenagers for political reasons.   We can’t imagine why a ‘quiet’ and ‘timid’ man like Mair would shoot a female politician and the mother of two children – unless we assume that he’s mad.

Mair may well have had mental health issues, but then so did Michael Adebowale, the killer of Lee Rigby and the fact that Adebowale was a borderline schizophrenic did not receive nearly the same level of scrutiny as Mair’s psychological condition.  Mental illness covers a very wide spectrum of conditions, and  however ill Mair was, he was also a fascist and a white supremacist, who was associated with an organization, Britain First, that has advocated the execution of ‘traitors’ guilty of ‘crimes against the country.’   He chose his target – an MP with a track record of defending the EU and refugees – for clearly political reasons.

So the killing of Jo Cox was an act of political murder, and responsibility for it – as far as we know – belongs entirely to Mair, but that doesn’t mean that his crime took place in a vacuum.   It took place during the extraordinarily febrile atmosphere of the referendum, when the nation is positively seething with fear and hatred towards the EU, towards foreigners, and towards refugees.

At its most extreme manifestation, this hatred emanates from the fascist and Nazi troglodytes on Twitter, who celebrated the death of a woman they called a ‘traitorous whore’ and many other things. Naturally Cox has to be a ‘whore’, because any politically-active woman will always be called such things by these Internet warriors.

It would be comforting to think that such hatred stops there, somewhere on the lunatic fringe where decent people would never tread.  But let’s not deceive ourselves.   In the wake of the murder there has been a lot of cuddly talk about how politicians should be kinder and more respectful to each other, but there has been a lot less said about the very unkind and disrespectful way in which politicians and the media treat the immigrants and foreigners who Jo Cox supported and publicly associated herself.

However ‘mad’ Mair may have been, that’s why he called her a traitor and that’s why he killed her, and the fear and hatred that made such an atrocious act possible extends far beyond the denizens of the fascist netherworld in their blood and honour t-shirts and their violent ‘self-defence’ knife classes in the Welsh hills.

You can find it emanating in more subtle and insidious ways from the political mainstream, whether from politicians or from the newspapers that millions read every day, that spew out  anii-immigrant and anti-refugee propaganda on an almost daily basis.  More than anyone else, it emanates from the Brexiters, and in the last two weeks these sentiments have reached a horrifying crescendo.

Recognizing that it was losing the economic arguments, the Leave campaign stepped up its anti-immigrant rhetoric within the last two weeks. To them,  ‘take back control’ meant taking control of our ‘broken’ borders.  We learned that refugees were rapists who endangered the security of British women.  We heard that 76 million Turks will soon be joining the EU.   In the same week that Jo Cox was shot,  Nigel Farage stood in front of a Nazi-like poster depicting an invading army of refugees – refugees he insisted were not ‘genuine.’

Farage also warned of ‘violence on the streets‘ if immigration is not controlled. Please don’t ask me to be kind and respectful to a politician who talks like that.  But instead of damaging the Leave campaign, arguments like this boosted its standing in the polls and gave it new momentum.    In effect, a large swathe of the public made it clear that it accepted and shared Farage’s views – or at the very least was not bothered by them.

That’s bad enough, but it is even more disturbing to consider that many of our fellow-citizens also share Mair’s fear and loathing of the foreign ‘invasion’ – even if they are horrified that someone would take such prejudices so far as to actually murder a politician.

But even though no one could have predicted such a thing could happen, it doesn’t seem entirely surprising now that it has.  Because we have allowed the likes of Farage to turn us into a morally shrunken nation from which the kind of courage and decency that Jo Cox demonstrated in her short career is becoming increasingly absent from our public life.

We have allowed ourselves to become fearful and hateful.   And we might not like to admit it, but both Farage and the ‘timid gardener’ Thomas Mair are symptoms of that transformation.

It’s not too late – yet – to become something else.   But we really ought to start soon.