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.

The Ministry of Fear

It isn’t often that I find myself agreeing with John Major, but in the post-Brexit era you often find allies in places where you would expect to find enemies – and vice versa. Certainly I can’t find much to quibble with about Major’s comments yesterday regarding the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe:

‘I caution everyone to be wary of this kind of populism. It seems to be a mixture of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. It scapegoats minorities. It is a poison in any political system – destroying civility and decency and understanding. Here in the UK we should give it short shrift, for it is not the people we are – nor the country we are.’

Major is absolutely right, and it says something about the UK’s political class that it should take a former Tory prime minister to say this when there are so many other politicians who should have been have been saying what ought to be obvious to anyone not mesmerised by Ukip and the spectre of the ‘white working class voter.’  One thing is clear though – the British government is most definitely not giving these tendencies ‘short thrift’.

Quite the contrary, and there is no clearer barometer of the government’s willingness to pander to precisely the sentiments that Major denounces than that the British Home Office.   On Saturday the Home Office deportated Irene Clennel, a Singapore-born woman who has been living in the UK for 29 years and married to a British man for 27 of them.

Clennel has two grown-up children and one grandchild, and her husband is ill and needs a carer. But Clennel’s leave to remain had lapsed because of extended visits to Singapore to visit her sick mother, and because her husband’s income doesn’t reach the £18,000 threshold that allows foreign spouses to remain in the country.  So last month Clennel was detained at Dungavel,  and on Saturday she was driven to the airport with £12 in her pocket and no extra clothes,  without even being given the chance to speak to her husband and flown back to Singapore.

The Home Office justified this incredible act of cruelty with the morally inane bureaucratese that it always uses in such cases, that ‘ All applications for leave to remain in the UK are considered on their individual merits and in line with the immigration rules. We expect those with no legal right to remain in the country to leave.’

When the Home Office behaves like this, and it often does, it tends to be criticised for its ‘insensitivity’ as though such things happen only through some misplaced bureaucratic overzealousness.   It would be interesting, but impossible, to study the individual psychology and motivations of the officials who make such decisions.  And to some extent it would be irrelevant, because such cases are not aberrations, but products of official policy.

No one would expect a government minister or Her Majesty’s officials to clap their hands and say ‘hurrah! One less immigrant!’ about Irene Clennel – not when the English language provides them with so much evasive verbiage about ‘individual merits’ and ‘immigration rules’ to disguise the malignant brutality of such decisions.

But the Clennel deportation is one more consequence of a political agenda whose single overrriding and obsessive objective when it comes to immigration is to remove as many people as possible – whoever they are and wherever they come from – so that the government of the day can boast how ‘tough’ it can be and add another statistic to reassure the public that its ‘concerns’ are being taken seriously.

This is how it’s been for years, but now it’s getting a lot worse, as anti-immigrant phobia rises to a new pitch of strident hysteria.  Already the Home Office has been sending out messages to EU nationals who have been here for decades that they should ‘make preparations to leave’.   Last month the Home Office was granted new powers that enable it to call into question the right of residence of EU nationals who don’t have comprehensive sickness insurance.  And yesterday Amber Rudd – yet another of the seemingly endless hard-faced gargoyles that Tory governments never seem to run out of – declared that ‘freedom of movement as we know it’ is now over.

The full implications of these developments are yet to become clear, but already they have struck fear and confusion into millions of people who now have no idea what is going to happen to them or to their family members, and are now expected to pass through the Home Office’s narrowing portal.   Let no one think that the Home Office does this because it is ‘insensitive’.  It does it because it is told to, by an arrogant, callous, and cynical government that simply does not give a damn about the human consequences of its decisions.

And the government does this in the knowledge that there are people up and down the country who actually want it to behave like this and will reward it with votes when it does.   So in this sense I have to disagree with John Major.  When it comes to ‘destroying civility and decency and understanding’ that is exactly what this monstrous government is doing, with the complicity of the British public.

We have allowed this government to pander to bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. We have allowed it to scapegoat minorities. We have allowed these tendencies to poison our political system to the point when we are increasingly incapable of seeing the men and women who come here as anything more than parasites seeking ‘our benefits.’

Until these attitudes change, we can expect a lot more cases like Irene Clennel in the coming months and years.  Because contrary to what John Major has said, that is the country we are,  and the Home Office is the mirror of who we are.

2016: The Year of Living Fearfully

There was a time – it seems many years ago now – when governments in the Western world told their populations that things were getting better, and that they were helping them to get better.   In those days voters by and large believed them, and made their political choices from amongst a cluster of political parties who they were familiar with and who mostly sounded and looked the same.

Voters may not have liked or trusted politicians individually but they recognized the parameters they were operating in.  They knew that they were right-of-centre or left-of-centre or somewhere in between. Anything further out than that and the majority of voters would usually say no.

For some time now these assumptions have been crumbling in different countries and at different speeds.  It’s difficult to put a particular date on when this disintegration started.  Some might trace it to the 2008/09 financial crisis and the grotesque fraud known as ‘austerity’ which followed.

But you could go further back, to the rampant ‘end of history’ arrogance that provided accompanied the shift towards globalisation at the end of the Cold War; when a capitalism that believed itself to be victorious and unchallenged believed that it could do anything it wanted; when even liberal governments adopted conservative nostrums and regarded the whole notion of an enabling state as a historical anachronism.

Or perhaps we could see the origins of our current predicament in the Reagan/Thatcher years, when the exaltation of ‘the market’ and the glorification of wealth came to trump (pardon the pun) any other social considerations.

Whatever the timetable,  2016 will go down in history as a watershed year when the old political establishment that had largely accepted this consensus was rejected by an  unprecedented electoral insurgency that was dominated by the right and extreme right. This was the year in which millions of people in the UK voted for perhaps the greatest  assembly of snake oil salesmen in the history of British politics, largely on the basis of post-imperial fantasies and pipe-dreams.

Given the positions taken by Tony Blair and George Bush over Iraq – to name but two examples – we can all take the notion of ‘post-truth politics’ with more than a pinch of salt.   Lying didn’t begin in 2016, after all.  But what is alarming about 2016 was the fact that politicians could lie through their teeth, and people would often know or sense that they were lying, and they would still vote for them if only because they weren’t the liars they were used to.

This was a year when emotion and magical thinking triumphed over rationality, common sense and even material self-interest; when millionaires and billionaires presented themselves as the voice of the common people and anti-establishment rebels; when millions of people voted for giant walls, imaginary jobs, ‘control’ and other things that were difficult if not impossible to achieve, and which the ‘rebels’ who were offering them never really intended to achieve.

It was also a year in which you could be a racist, sexist, misogynist braggart and people were still prepared to make you president of the United States; when voters in the UK opted to leave the European Union largely because of ‘concerns’ about immigration that were steeped in misinformation, and xenophobic and racist assumptions that Leave politicians cynically manipulated and played on.

All this should be deeply alarming to anyone on the left/liberal spectrum who doesn’t believe that these developments were some kind anti-establishment rebellion or a revolt against neoliberalism.  Revolts they may have been, but electoral insurgencies against the ‘establishment’ don’t necessarily benefit the left and may in fact contribute to its destruction – or at the very least, its irrelevance.

Many factors contributed to making 2016 such a weirdly morbid and demoralising political year, but its consequences are now glaringly clear to anyone who wants to look: that the Western world is now in the throes of a reactionary nativist/hyper-nationalist ‘counter-revolution’ with a distinctly rank odour of white privilege and white supremacism wafting into the mainstream from its fringes.

To point this out doesn’t mean that all the voters who voted for the grotesque political monster that is Donald Trump were racists, bigots or white supremacists, but millions of voters were prepared to ignore the racist and bigoted sentiments that Trump mobilised so brazenly,  because they didn’t care about them or because other things mattered to them more.

The same in the UK.  It’s rather pointless – and tedious – to have to refute the Leave argument that ‘not everyone who voted for Brexit is racist or a xenophobe.’ Obviously not, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that the Leave vote would have triumphed without the barrage of dog whistle messages about immigration that accompanied the campaign.

These alarming and disturbing tendencies are not likely to abate anytime soon, and further shocks may follow in the coming year, so it is incumbent upon us to face up to them and not take refuge in ‘the revolution is just around the corner’ or ‘first the liberals then us’ utopianism – or is it just opportunism?

One of the main reasons why the right triumphed in 2016 is because it was able to mobilise fears and anxieties that the old political order has not bothered to address or has not known how to address.   For some years now fear has become the dominant political emotion of the 21st century, which politicians of various persuasions have sought to mobilise.   The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has coined the term ‘liquid fear’ to describe the anxieties that he believes underpin the current ‘crisis of humanity’ in the Western world.

For Bauman, the crisis is driven by a ‘tangible feeling of anxiety that has only vague contours but is still acutely present everywhere.’  These fears are manifold.  Fear of terrorism – often translated into fear of Muslims or simply fear of ‘the Other’.   Fear of immigrants and refugees. Fear of war, violence and political instability.  Fear of open borders.

Today, as Adam Curtis has often pointed out, politicians have largely abandoned the notion of a better future, and like to present themselves as managers of risk, preventing the bad from becoming even worse and promising to  ‘keep you safe’ even when their decisions are clearly not making anyone safe.

On the contrary we live in an age of persistent and constant insecurity, which our rulers often seem determined to encourage.  Whether we are beneficiaries or victims of globalisation, we all inhabit an economic system that is inherently unstable, chaotic and prone to shocks and tremors such as the 2008 crisis, that can capsize the futures of millions of people in an instant.

Having largely abandoned the notion of an enabling state, governments and political and financial institutions from the IMF to the EU have adopted and accepted policies that appear to be intent on reducing more and more people to a state of permanent insecurity and precariousness.  Since 2008 austerity has pushed more and more people – except the rich and powerful – towards a common precipice where they are told that they will have to work longer, for less, or try and find some tenuous foothold in an economy based on ‘flexibility’ while the struts and safety nets that still pay lip service to the common good are systematically pared back and dismantled.

In these circumstances, no one should be surprised that millions of people have rejected what they see as the politicians who have presided over these developments – or at least been unable to prevent them.

The tragedy is that they have chosen politicians who are unlikely to bring them anything better and are more likely to make things even worse.  There are many things that will have to happen to turn back the nativist tide, but one of them must surely be to reduce the fear and insecurity that has led so many people to turn to the pseudo-solutions offered by this dangerous new generation of chancers, demagogues and charlatans.

This shouldn’t mean emollient talk of ‘hope’ – let alone fantasy revolutions and utopias. Utopia is not a solution to the dystopian present that is now unfolding before our eyes. To my mind the left needs to think outside the usual channels if it is not to vanish into irrelevance.   We need practical and viable polices and solutions; a new notion of the common good; broader coalitions, alliances and discussions that do not simply involve the left talking to itself.

This doesn’t mean aping the right.  You don’t have to fight reaction by becoming reactionary yourselves.  You don’t right racism and anti-immigrant scapegoating by pandering to it.

Nationally, and internationally, the crises and problems that confront us in the 21st century require collective solutions, not walls and even harder borders – whether mental or physical.

Trump, Farage, Johnson and so many of the ‘populists’ who have made 2016 such a grim year are offering a kind of certainty and security.  They won’t succeed, even on their own terms, because they are liars, frauds and demagogues, and because their ‘solutions’ are unrealisable.

But already they have made the world a nastier and more evil place.  ‘Their world is crumbling, ours is being built, ‘ crowed the Front National in celebration of Trump’s victory in November.

That is one possibility, and you would have to be naive and cynical to discount it.   To prevent this outcome, it must surely be our task in 2017 to combat the forces they have helped unleash,  and reduce the toxic political emotions that are leading us towards a disaster that we may not recover from.

 

 

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.