Not all Brexiteers are anti-immigrant racists; just a third of them. Well a third actually admitted it, I suspect many more just didn’t want to be so blatant. 18% of Remainers also admitted to racial prejudice. But the problem is deeper than ‘just’ racism. It is about the UK’s relationship with the rest of the world. We used to have an Empire don’t you know; and we are still in denial about its loss.
Don’t worry, we cheerfully lectured a third of the world’s populations as they toiled to make Britain rich, you are part of the British Empire, as British as tea and toast. This wealth is yours too; sort of. Actually come to think of it tea isn’t British, it grows in Asia and has been imported to the UK for hundreds of years but let’s not split hairs about that, after all there’s a brand called “Yorkshire Tea”, what could be more British than that?
This is what I mean by the schizophrenia. We love cake and we love eating it and we see no contradiction in having Schrodingers cake. We like the fruits of immigration we just don’t want the immigrants themselves; we want the tea but we’ll pretend it came from Yorkshire.
We wanted (and the majority still want) a National Health Service and we pretended that we could set it up in under five years when it takes seven years (at least) to train a doctor, because we’re plucky can-do Brits. We glossed over the fact that the only way to do it was to ‘borrow’ already qualified doctors and nurses from the former Empire.
Black nurse were shunted into the newly created lower status, and lower paid, positions of SEN (State Enrolled Nurse – previously Assistant Nurses) rather than SRN’s (State Registered Nurses) so as to avoid their having to give orders to white nurses. My sister fought a long legal battle to get SRN status, in the end she had to train again from scratch.
It’s ironic that Enoch Powell (of the anti-immigration rivers of Blood speech) was the Secretary of State for Health who advertised throughout the empire for Nurses and Doctors to come and work in the NHS.
Factually, we know that if all the migrant staff stopped work tomorrow the NHS would collapse like a pack of cards, yet we continue to berate them for “coming ‘ere and taking our jobs”. It’s like the drunk in A&E abusing the black nurse tending to his self-inflicted wounds. We hate immigrants precisely because we are dependent on them, because we can’t actually function as a country without them.
(My sister again, was hit more than once when treating racist drunks whilst working in A&E, but perhaps worse was being ordered to clean up blood by her (white) superiors without gloves and only being informed afterwards that the patient was HIV positive. These experiences by Black health workers are commonplace.)
There are simply not enough young people to pay taxes from which to extract the pensions of the old. In a society with an ageing population like ours immigrants plug that gap. They are a godsend. You see we don’t have to pay to educate them, they arrive on our shores fully grown and trained and able to start work immediately and contribute taxes to the exchequer.
If only we could adopt a ‘guest worker’ system like the Swiss, we could pack them off back to their country of origin when they are no longer useful, so we don’t have to pay them pensions.
The fact that at least nine separate studies have shown that immigrants do not negatively impact jobs and wages does not stop the ‘spongers’ rhetoric in much of the mainstream media. So how can they be essential workers and spongers at the same time?
There’s the schizophrenia again. They’re essential because who else is going to wipe the bottoms of our elderly in care homes (as well as provide a good chunk of the tax to pay their pensions), or pick our fruit, or risk their lives to pick cockles at low tide, or clean our offices, or work in our restaurants cafes and hotels for (often less than) minimum wage?
They’re spongers because…. Well because we need someone to blame. We need someone to blame for no longer having an Empire, for not being able to walk from Cairo to the Cape on land colour pink on the map, because our national anthem has become a lie. Britannia doesn’t rule the waves any more. We’re left with pomp and circumstance but no substance.
We do ceremony like no other nation; you want a Royal wedding to be pulled off with aplomb – we’re your man. But what’s it all for, if our standards of living are plummeting and wealth becomes more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and most Britons could only dream of having the means to buy a studio flat, never mind a house in our capital city. What’s it all for?
We can still wave our pretty little flags at the Last Night of the Proms and sing that we “never, never, never shall be slaves”. But you can’t celebrate your superiority if there is no one inferior to you. We need the immigrants to be the ‘slaves’ to be the thing we never shall be.
So we have a kleptocracy ruling us; (don’t tell me the cut price privatization of much of our national assets isn’t basically theft). Yet we believe our democracy is the envy of the world.
But they do have a difficult job the 1%. They have to walk a fine line between blaming immigrants for just about every problem besetting our society but at the same time seeming not to condone the random acts of violence against immigrants that their rhetoric generates.
Well it’s not that difficult, they don’t mind too much if a few immigrants are killed or maimed as long as the fabric of their society remains largely intact. The worse case scenario for them would be for the working classes to actually turn on them and blame them for the things they have actually done (Financial Crash of 2008 anybody), are doing and plan to do.
The NHS (again) is not at breaking point because it is underfunded and being privatised in whopping great chunks, transferring money from patient care to private companies, via PFI contracts. It is at breaking point because all these pesky immigrants with their tendency to breed like rabbits are overloading the service.
So it follows that we should charge Johnny (and Jenny) Foreigner if they use the service. The fact that chasing them for the money costs way more than any money we recover is beside the propaganda point. (Same as the fact that benefit sanctions cost more to administer than they save).
The point is not to save money, the point is to demonise a section of the population to keep the attention of Daily Mail readers off the real culprits.
The fact that the owners of the Daily Mail et al are non-dom billionaires who pay no tax in the UK is the point that we are being distracted from.
Murdoch isn’t British, doesn’t live here and doesn’t pay tax here but he can tell Theresa May who to put in her Cabinet and she’s on it like, yesterday.
So back to our dysfunctional relationship with migrants, (Oh and by the way they’re only migrants if they’re coming here; if we go there we’re ‘Expats’ much posher eh?) We hate them because we need them and we don’t want to ‘need’ anyone. It contradicts our view of ourselves as a plucky Island Nation, self sufficient in our splendid isolation, make do and mend and all that.
I was so relieved to hear Jeremy Corbyn actually come out and say it at this year’s Labour Party Conference – his government will stop blaming migrants for problems they have not caused.
Why do you think all those period dramas are so ridiculously popular? They hark back to a more glorious time when we didn’t have immigrants, or if we did they knew their place. Remember the one black character in Downton Abbey a musician who had the temerity to get romantically involved with cousin Rose? Lady Mary sent him packing and no mistake.
Now you may wonder why I keep talking about ‘we’ when I am a black woman. Well if you did wonder that, shame on you. I was born in Britain and have lived all my life here. I’m a British citizen, Yorkshire born and bred to be specific (although an immigrant to Lancashire I will confess). Just because some white people don’t consider me British doesn’t mean that I accept their myopic views (“Yes but where are you really from” – if I had a pound for every time I got that rejoinder to; “Bradford”.)
Being British I grew up hearing all that stuff and at some level believing it. I think I realised that some people didn’t see me as British gradually. When I first saw the film “Zulu” with Michael Caine – “don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes”; and realised that the ‘savages’ were me. At some level we know that our treatment of the natives of the countries we colonised was wrong, just a post hoc justification for theft.
But we, really, really don’t like to feel bad about ourselves. So we rationalise it by claiming to have civilized them. Boris is so clueless that he had to be stopped by the British Ambassador from reciting a colonialist poem in Myanmar. But we brought railways to India! Yes we did, primarily to transport goods to the coast to export them to the UK.
In fact making white people feel bad about racism really is worse than racism itself. Witness the vitriol directed at Diane Abbott when she recently repeated on air some of the abuse she has suffered online. “The “n” word with my cornflakes – outrageous!”
As a country we have to start being honest about migration; and no that doesn’t mean the “are you thinking what we’re thinking” posters from Michael Howard’s disastrous time leading the Tories; it means accepting that we are no longer a global superpower. James Bond isn’t real, we don’t save the world and then get the girl whilst pausing only to adjust our cufflinks.
No matter how much some of us want to, we can’t tow ourselves to just of the Eastern Seaboard of the USA. Although you’d never know from the column inches that London is closer to Morocco than New York.
We are a middling nation with delusions of grandeur. We have an aging population being kept alive by an NHS staffed in large part by people who were not born here (and their children). Our cuisine, our economy our sport, our music; our very culture has been revitalised by migration.
Mo Farah is actually called Mohamad not Maurice. The British 4 x 4 100m men’s relay team who won this year’s World Championship were three black British guys (and a Persian). Chicken Tikka masala is more popular than fish and chips. Accept this, be proud of it. This is the real legacy of Empire, a mix of cultures that has enriched our own.
Marcia Hutchinson MBE is a former lawyer and publisher of culturally diverse educational resources.