Being a writer isn’t always the most dramatic kind of life. Unless you’re out researching in the field, most of the drama takes place inside your head, and most of your day is spent looking at a computer. This is pretty much how it was for me until the last day of the Tory party conference in Birmingham. It would be something of an understatement to say that I had’t really enjoyed the proceedings. Most of the time I tried to ignore them, but this became increasingly difficult, as politician after politician stepped forward with a series of jaw-droppingly spiteful policies that really made my skin crawl. .
Foreign doctors? No thanks. Foreign students? Get rid. Name and shame employers who employ foreign workers – even though employer after employer insists that the British economy needs foreign workers? Bring it on. Depict people who call themselves ‘citizens of the world’ as unpatriotic and rootless outsiders? Icing on the cake.
In a famous essay on the origins of World War I, Freud once argued that barbarism is kept in check by a certain set of moral standards that society establishes to control its worst instincts. Individuals might feel certain destructive impulses, he suggested, but most people won’t give into them because they don’t want to be censured or criticized by the community they belong to.
This risk of censure, he insisted, is precisely what holds a civilised society together. But these standards can also change – in wartime for example – and then primitive and destructive instincts that have previously been kept in check can explode into the open and create a new normality.
Here in the UK, Brexit has shattered many of the standards that many of us previously thought were taken for granted. It wasn’t that people didn’t rip the hijabs off Muslim women in the street or screech at foreigners to speak English before the referendum – they did. But since the referendum large numbers of people – larger than we are prepared to admit – now feel entitled to do these things. They now think it’s ok to tell foreign doctors that they only want a British doctor, to rant at strangers to go home, and recycle old racist taunts that many people had not heard since the 70s.
Rather than combat these tendencies, the cascade of xenophobic proposals oozing out of Birmingham seemed explicitly designed to pander to them. This was not dog-whistle politics. It was out-in-the open nastiness, a post-referendum nativist walpurgisnacht in which it was painfully and shockingly clear that the government is now prepared to pander to the worst instincts in the British population in order to manage the UK’s exit from the European Union.
In normal circumstances I might have expressed these opinions in a blog or ranted at the tv, but this time I did something different. I wrote a brief Facebook post in which I asked what people thought of the idea of staging a mass day of action on the lines of the 2006 ‘One Day Without Immigrants’ protest in the US and a similar protest in Italy in 2010. The essential idea of both protests was a 24-hour boycott, by immigrants and their supporters.
Some downed tools. Some closed their restaurants and businesses. Others took their kids out of school and didn’t spend money or go shopping. The two protests took place in very different contexts, but their aims were broadly similar – to demonstrate the contribution that immigrants made in societies that were increasingly hostile to their presence, and which often marginalized or ignored their contributions.
It seemed to me that this would be a good idea right now, at a time when similar sentiments were running rampant in the Uk both on the street and also at the political level. Within a few hours of my post, it became clear that many people felt the same way. The post went quickly viral, and within a few days a group was formed with over two thousand members, and a broader discussion about the protest was unfolding across the Internet.
By the following Monday, One Day Without Us was firmly established. It had a date – February 20 next year – and the nucleus of an organization. It was receiving offers of help from individuals and organizations across the country, from a range of nationalities and political persuasions. It had become the subject of national and international media attention. By the end of the week at least fifteen groups were formed or in the process of forming in various towns and cities.
The idea of a mass protest has clearly caught a wider mood of indignation, despair and concern, following the national tragedy that has unfolded as a result of the referendum campaign. Today some three million EU nationals, many of whom have lived here for decades and thought this country was their home, are now undergoing the painful experience of being described as ‘migrants’ – a word that has acquired almost entirely negative connotations in British vocabulary through decades of tabloid usage. Some have already begun the extraordinarily convoluted process of applying to become naturalised British citizens. Others are preparing to abandon the country they thought was their home.
Many feel insecure and even despairing about their legal status and vulnerable in the face of the increasingly vicious mood of the British public, and a post-Brexit racism that makes no distinctions between EU national, between ‘migrant’ and ‘immigrant’, and which doesn’t care if you come from Poland or Pakistan. Whether the xenophobes and racists see difference in skin colour, your language, your nationality or your religion – they have only one message for foreigners and people who look like foreigners – get out. This is what happened in a London street only two days, when a gang of racists chased a young Portuguese woman down the street and told her to get back to ‘whatever hellhole you came from.’
Millions of British-born citizens – both Leavers and Remainers – are appalled and shamed by the alarming transformation of Brexit Britain into a xenophobic dystopia. And that is why this emerging movement has taken off. Its members all share the same common goals. We want to remind the British public and politicians that immigrants have a past, a present and a future in this country, and celebrate that presence.
We don’t want to do this with a march. These are extraordinary times, and we wanted to do something extraordinary to get our message out there. Everybody involved in this project is conscious that more dramatic, wide-ranging and inclusive was required than a single march or mass rally. We wanted something entirely different; a peaceful mass protest, unfolding simultaneously in towns, cities, communities and workplaces across the country. We wanted a demonstration of solidarity and unity that no one will be able to ignore, which might help burst the poisonous bubble that Brexit has created.
We know that some opinions will never be changed, but we also know that there are millions of people who are shocked and disturbed by the divisive and dangerous politics that are leading us all to disaster, and we urge them to join us on February 20 and make make One Day Without Us a day to remember.