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Friday, 7 October 2016

The Centre in Brexit Britain Shifts Dismayingly to the Right- and I don't Recognise it Any More

Nigel Farage and his notorious poster used by UKIP during the Brexit campaign  

We see no blackshirts marching in East London, the signs saying 'no Jews, blacks or Irish' have long gone from the windows of Birmingham bed and breakfast hotels, and there is little racist comedy on prime time TV. At least, not any more. But modern Britain is suddenly looking a distinctly unsettling place for people who look, sound or actually are, of foreign birth. Immigration has become the keynote for British, and perhaps world politics. Few in politics or the media are offering words of caution.

The recent Conservative party conference saw much playing to the anti-immigration gallery. The Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced that companies employing foreigners should be 'named and shamed' by publishing lists of their foreign employees, although the Government has belatedly claimed that the lists will not be published.

Prime Minister Teresa May seldom misses an opportunity to play up her anti-immigration credentials and has declined to deny that non-UK NHS staff might be deported if the UK can train enough local staff. May has made much political capital out of the rhetoric of 'crackdowns' on immigration, including repeatedly targeting foreign university students, in spite of the evidence that they bring huge economic benefits to the UK .  

Other recent announcements have included the news that non-white schoolchildren have been ordered to prove their nationality by some local authorities, while the Government has announced that non-UK academics are banned from working on its Brexit project with the LSE. 

This anti-foreigner climate has emerged on the back of a long standing campaign in some parts of the media. One typical story suggested that there is a crisis over national identity because some 14% of the UK population is now non-white. 

Anti-immigration rhetoric seems to meet with approval from a large chunk of the great British electorate. The Prime Minister set out her stall with a party conference speech full of anti-elite, anti-immigration, and pro-nationalism rhetoric. This has been characterised as a bid for the political centre. 

But I am the political centre, I think, and I don't recognise myself in this vision of Britain's centre ground.    

I am the son and husband of immigrants. I'm also liberal, I suppose, although unlike many of my university colleagues I'm certainly no lefty. I've voted Conservative. I've voted Labour. I think I even voted Liberal Democrat once. British values? Absolutely fine by me. Self-reliance? Individual freedom? Pro-business? I'm on board. Valuing enterprise, thrift, hard work? Being robust in the armed defence of our nation? Supporting the work of the police? Preserving a meritocracy? Valuing universal education and free health care? This is the kind of rhetoric I'm more used to from politicians, and I'm fine with it.

I'm fine, too, with the notions that the EU has many flaws, some of them possibly fatal to the project, and that there ought to be rational controls on who can enter and leave a country and benefit from, or contribute to, its economy and welfare system.     

But making pariahs of immigrants? Making children of foreign born UK residents feel defenceless and isolated? Making foreign workers feel fearful of public attacks? Making organisations review their investment and location decisions because the UK environment has suddenly become hostile to international trade and employment? I don't recognise any of this as the political centre ground.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric has an effect. There has been a reported spike in race hate incidents in the UK since the Brexit vote, including at least one race hate murder. The anti-immigration rhetoric played up by Leave campaigners such as Nigel Farage, and his lovely poster above, has given a sense of deep self righteousness to some very unlovely people.              

For some on the left, the Leave campaign was always about racism. There is little evidence that foreign workers take jobs that British nationals could do, or would wish to do. What evidence there is points to labour or skills shortages in some areas. Yet, many British people apparently feel discontented and resentful about their lot. Someone must be blamed. Politicians and media owners seem intent on pointing the finger at those with the initiative and energy to venture to a foreign land to make a new life.     

The attractiveness of Britain as a place to live and work is a huge compliment to the country, its history, it people, and its infrastructure. It is embarrassing and shameful that senior politicians are parlaying such inflammatory ideas as compulsory identification of foreigners without a blush, and seemingly without any sense of how intimidatory and discriminatory these ideas can be for ordinary people.

I see the British centre as a tolerant, wise and generous place, and the centre claimed by the current government isn't it. They're mistaking the spiteful right for the centre, and as a result they're pushing the right into the mainstream. What is more, the government is sacrificing the better interests of the country on the altar of electability. Those anti-immigration votes swung an ill-advised and inadequately thought-through referendum, and now every British politician is chasing them.      

The rhetoric seems to be about a struggle over identity. The politically disenfranchised victims of structural unemployment feel that the sense of identity they had invested in class, work, and region is weakened. The baby boomer middle class see the Britain they thought they knew fading under a supposed onslaught of immigration.

Of course, neither the EU nor immigrants are to blame for all Britain's ills. Besides, the Government has no idea how many people migrate to the UK each year. It certainly isn't the 300,000 or so that is bandied about because most of those are the international students Mrs May insists on including in the figures, in spite of the fact that most of them return home after their studies.

The mean spirited rhetoric of anti-immigration glosses over many nuances in the issue. The Home Office was declared unfit for purpose over a decade ago. It, and the Borders agency, have little idea how many undocumented immigrants are in the UK. The claim that we need greater control over our borders is redundant if we have neither the staff nor the technology to police them. Teresa May's five years as Home Secretary produced thousands of anti-immigration column inches in the press, and relentless increases in immigration. There is a refugee crisis in Europe with complex humanitarian and security issues to negotiate, yet in Britain our grasp on the issues seems to involve little more substance than another intellectually bankrupt, pandering speech from Mrs May.        

The British Empire earned some credit when it eventually acquiesced to calls for independence and/or autonomy from its colonies. Soft, post-colonial power and goodwill seemed abundant, and the meaner aspects of empire faded into history. But, a residue of benign hubris never completely evaporated. Now, Dad's Army is roused, ready to keep the world at bay with broomsticks and pitchforks.      

Brexit means Brexit, and we're going to make the best of it, says Teresa May. But the economic arguments are already lost, at least in the medium term. Making the best of it means spinning the outcome for a Tory election win. The only genuine argument left is, whose sense of British identity is to prevail? 

I'm sure that there's a large pot of goodwill and good nature that will remain. But the political climate is so febrile that there will probably be more outbreaks of nasty and futile othering and 'we'-ing. The social divisions seem stark, and too many politicians are fanning the flames. The battle over who owns our national identity seems irreconcilable. The centre hasn't swung to the right- the politicians have swung to the right to meet it.