An academic who has lived and worked in the UK for the past 18 years, originally from an EU country (possibly Germany) published this in the Guardian yesterday. It deserves to be read.
But the signs are ominous. The referendum campaign has created an atmosphere of hostility towards immigrants, in ways I have never experienced in my 18 years in this country. We are being blamed for the state of public services such as health, housing and education, and for undercutting wages, even though the real culprits – chronic underinvestment, poor planning, ineffective governance and watered-down labour laws – are entirely homemade.
The tales of intimidation and threats against pro-Remain campaigners, immigrants and their supporters are a cause for serious concern. There is no doubt that many Leave proponents are decent, thoughtful people, but there is also no doubt that parts of the campaign have played on xenophobia and emboldened nasty, violent racists.
In large part, I agree with the author’s assessment. In living here over 12 years, I’ve never seen anything quite like this, the unreserved rhetoric, the unabashed racism, the pride in ignorance. Michael Gove has a lot to be infamous for to future generations, but if he’s remembered at all, it will be this quote: “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” (This piece that ran in the Telegraph in the wake of that quote a couple weeks ago, “Michael Gove’s guide to Britain’s greatest enemy . . . the experts” has flashes of hilarity.)
The author faces an uncertain future should the UK vote to leave the EU tomorrow. Ironically, it does not directly affect my status as an American. I didn’t have a right to be here, the author does. Of course, I also didn’t necessarily seek out living in Britain; I’m an academic, and we go where the job is. The university had to sponsor my visa and work permit, and when my FLR expired after five years, I had to apply for my Indefinite Leave to Remain, which if I recall cost somewhere around £850. I had to take that hilarious test, Life in the UK, which most Brits couldn’t pass (a real question I had on mine: how many members are there in the Welsh Assembly?). However, with the ILR, EU or no EU, I’m not going anywhere. If Brexit were to win, the same can no longer be certain for citizens of EU countries. What makes this doubly ironic is that a greater proportion of immigration to the UK is from outside the EU, which can be directly controlled (i.e. made more difficult) by the government of the day.
I have been told: “It’s not about people like you, it’s the others.” I am, apparently, a “useful” foreigner. So who are the others they are talking about? The Polish plumbers? The Lithuanian fruit pickers? The Spanish nurses? The Greek doctors? Or is it the benefit tourists, those mythical creatures that, like the Loch Ness monster, have never actually been spotted, but that surely must exist, given the amount of conversation about them?
This resonates. I have lost count of the number of conversations ‘on the doorstep’ while campaigning for the Labour Party in the past three elections where I’ve had discussions with UKIP supporters, and it’s usually straight from that script. Romanians this, Bulgarians that, and the Poles are everywhere . . . (and it gets worse, of course). When I’d point out my obvious immigrant status (my accent has barely changed from the west coast US I grew up with), it was always “oh, not you.”
It obviously helps that I’m white.
Even in the event of a vote to Remain, it will be difficult to control the forces that have been unleashed in this campaign. And it is difficult to imagine what the UK would turn into after a Brexit, possibly under the leadership of Messrs Johnson, Gove and Farage. What is certain, however, is that it will no longer be the country that embraced me – and that I fell in love with – all those years ago.
I don’t know whether I would be allowed to stay, but, like many others, I am beginning to wonder why I would want to. I would hate to leave the country that has been my home for almost 20 years and that has been so good to me – but if it comes to that, the real loser will be Britain.
I admitted this morning, if this campaign was my introduction to English (not British per se, but explicitly English) culture, I would not have come here. As it is, I’m not going anywhere (unless they decide to further clamp down on immigration by changing the rights associated with the ILR). Which makes me wonder, of course, how much damage this poisonous rhetoric has caused, even in the event of a remain victory?
UPDATE: This, by German-born historian Tanja Bueltmann, published in the Times Higher on 16 June:
Such behaviour is not characteristic of the UK I love. But the UK I love, an open and tolerant country, seems to be vanishing. I see a “Trumpification”, and look in horror at clear parallels in early 20th-century German history.
I have absolutely no idea what is happening here in the UK right now. But what I do know is that it keeps me up at night.