Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Referendum on Race

The dust is beginning to settle on the Brexit referendum. The pound is beginning to settle on the seabed of the financial world. The Leave campaigners who won the day have
settled into plush jobs to oversee our disentanglement from the EUscarpered. The Brexit campaigners
are settling on the finer details of how to put their promises into actionhave disowned all their key promises. But the debate continues and the matter of, or at least manner of, our EU exit is far from settled.

I am, if I am going to be honest, still rather pissed at the result. More so now that the day after the vote. I feel it was obvious before June 23rd what this referendum was really about. But an awful lot of people still don’t seem to get it. Some Leavers argue that we need to take control of our own laws, and return sovereignty to the UK. But when pushed on exactly what laws in particular are the problem, they are often stumped. At best, most will reel off a very short list of Euromyths. Yes, the bananas argument. It’s laughable, but it’s as prevalent as venereal disease in a 19th century brothel.

Other Leavers will argue that our economy will be all the better with our new found freedom to negotiate trade deals independently, and will cite a short list of countries that have expressed interest in doing a deal and that the short term pain will be worth it in the long run. What they can’t tell you is how good these new trade deals will be, how painful will the short term be and when will we actually be better off. The argument comes down to jumping off a cliff and crossing ones fingers.

But these reasons aren’t why we left the EU. You don’t need to spend long talking to the ‘man (or woman) in the street’ to understand why we left the EU. They might mention sovereignty and economics, but it’ll be a short 30 second conversation devoid of substance. On the subject of immigration, however, they can go on for 30 minutes. And they’re barely started then, even if they are beginning to repeat themselves.

Let’s look at immigration in this country. The best estimate puts the number of non UK citizens living in the UK at about 7.5 million. Which is a lot. However, there’s a figure that’s often omitted from the Leave leaflets. The number of UK citizens living abroad, which is currently estimated to be about 5.5 million. This provides a net gain of 2 million. Of the 7.5 million immigrants coming in, about 3 million are from the EU, with about 1.5 million of the outgoing immigrants settling within the borders of the EU. On this basis, how do the Leave arguments stack up?

We’re being swamped. Immigration is out of control. The net immigration figure is well within the control of the government. Thanks to the high level of migrants on the way out (only Mexico has a higher number of citizens living outside it’s own borders), all it needed to do was cut the non-EU level of immigration from 4.5 million to 2.5 million and we’d have had no net increase. However, it suits the UK to have a higher level of net migration in. They fill essential jobs, they are students contributing to our educational system, they are investors bringing in cash and they make up for the fact that the UK has a low birth rate.

The immigrants put pressures on the NHS that it cannot withstand. Whilst a third of our outgoing immigrants are pensioners who are typically high users of the NHS, the incoming immigrants are younger, less frequent users of the NHS. The NHS is creaking because of under funding and poor management. Immigration is helping to reduce the average age of the UK citizenry and relieve pressure on the NHS and the pension pots of the retired. Ironically.

Terrorism! I have had a dozen different conversations with people who have linked leaving the EU to safeguarding ourselves against terrorism. I’ve asked which EU terrorist group they are particularly concerned about. ETA? The IRA? They are of course, talking about Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other associated terrorist. Despite the fact that every terrorist act so far committed in the name of Islam in the UK were by UK born citizens. I then try to explain the geography of the situation, and their eyes glaze over.

Illegal Immigrants. It’s another chestnut of the average man in the street. Doesn’t like niqabs, feels we’re being flooded by Syrians and Iraqis, London feels like Africa, jobs are being stolen by illegal immigrants. You should not think that this is an opinion isolated in small pockets of ignorance here and there. These are widespread beliefs. They are comments spoken on the street. They are comments I read from friends in my Facebook feed. They are comments I hear from colleagues. Not everyone is so geographically ignorant. But it is shocking how many are.

The fact of the matter is that we already have full control of our borders with regards non EU citizens and cannot be told who to take in. We have taken in a token handful of Syrian refugees. Arguably, given that we have contributed more to making a complete mess of the Middle East than any other EU nation, we should be taking the lion’s share of refugees. Leaving the EU will not make illegal refugees even more illegal.

We can debate the merits of bringing some of our sovereignty back from Europe. We can argue over the economic future of the UK. We may have a difference of opinion and either of us may eventually be proven right or wrong. But I will stand by my analysis of what has happened. The EU referendum was called by the Conservatives in an (misguided and failed) effort to heal party divisions. But it was chiefly fought and won on the issue of race and xenophobia. This is what mattered.

In the months leading up to the vote this message was hammered home by the tabloids, printing front page pictures of immigrants tumbling out of the back of lorries with headlines associating them with our membership of the EU. Posters like the one at the top, released by UKIP, showing massed ranks of refugees somewhere in Europe, with the implicit suggestion that they are on their way here because we are members of the EU. It was, quite rightly, criticised for being all too similar to old Nazi propoganda.

These are the most awful lies to be peddling, because they deliberately stoke up prejudice within the population. That is it’s sole intention. And that was the sole focus of several tabloids and of UKIP throughout the campaign. And it worked. And I am utterly convinced that this campaign of hate, run by right wing nationals, was the deciding factor in which side won the EU referendum.

So of course I feel pissed at the result. What decent person wouldn’t feel pissed if a key vote on the future of the country was won by prejudice? It wasn’t really about how many people are in this country. It was about what type of person. And by type, we mean skin colour, religion, nationality. We now have a presumed Prime Minister-to be who has clearly stated that she believes we should exit the European Court of Human Rights.

Worse, she has implicitly threatened to deport 3 million EU citizens. She may well be bluffing and you may well think (as do I) that it will never happen. But the fact of the matter is that we now live in a society where a senior politician within the government feels comfortable with making such a threat and sticking to it even when criticised. Ponder that, just for a moment. That Nazi inspired poster of UKIP’s suddenly seems more appropriate. It’s just got things the wrong way round.