Racism and xenophobia have infected British politics. The sight of politicians stoking up fear against immigrants no longer seems to shock us; quite frankly, it’s come to be expected. In the same way that hate crime increased in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, so too has hate-filled bigotry infected British politics. It is now considered appropriate for Theresa May to claim EU migrants have “jumped the queue”; charging them £65 for settled status after Brexit. It is now customary for Sajid Javid to deny asylum seekers refuge in the UK. The sight of Tommy Robinson (now an advisor for UKIP) spewing hate on our TV screens has become routine. Anti-immigration rhetoric has become normalised; the Far Right has desensitised us from their bigotry. Their brand of bitter, racist, ugly populism has invaded British politics.
By pandering to the Far Right, the Tories have failed to acknowledge the fact that immigration has been a force for good in this country. Their hard work has greatly contributed to the British economy; on average, contributing £78000 to the Exchequer. EU nationals make up 63000 of all NHS staff, 5000 of all teachers and 92000 of all care workers in our desperately underfunded social care system. Half a million are also employed in low-skilled work across the UK. In all cases, immigrants give more than they take. While the Right may claim that they undercut wages and overstretch our public services (even suggesting they deny the opportunity for young Brits to train as doctors), in reality, they spend money, pay taxes and tend to use the NHS less than most Britons.
However, the fact is many of these types of justifications of the value immigration miss the point entirely. Immigrants are all too often described in economic terms; as robots that work in the country, pay taxes and contribute to our economy. What is less often emphasised is their role as friends, neighbours, colleagues and classmates. By reducing their value solely to their economic output, we ignore the vast contributions made by immigrants in transforming Britain into a multicultural, diverse society. Growing up in East London, I was exposed to a vast array of different cultures and learnt so much from my continental peers whether it be how to say “hello” and “thank you” in Polish, or observing Jumu’ah on a Friday with my Muslim friends. They taught me what it meant to be British: tolerant, inclusive and accepting.
Immigration broadens the mind, much in the same way as travelling does; it is no coincidence that nearly all major cities in the UK with higher levels of immigration chose to back Remain in the EU referendum.
The de-humanisation of immigrants in this country has been shameful; seeing them scapegoated for the crimes of the rich has been heart-breaking. Immigration has not fuelled populism, austerity has. The backlash the political classes are now experiencing in response to austerity politics has been redirected towards immigrants; rather than the politicians who underfund our public services, cause stagnating wages and unemployment. The right-wing press has conned us into blaming immigrants for the plight of the working classes. By directing anger at immigrants and brainwashing society into fighting against the enemy within, the politicians are let off the hook.
Why have the ruling classes done this? The answer is simple: to protect their privileged status by segregating the working class; leaving them unable to organise coordinated opposition to this rigged economic system. The white working class and immigrants have much more in common than many Britons would care to admit. Immigrants and ethnic minorities are twice as likely to experience poverty as white groups. Both groups have suffered heavily under austerity. At a time of immense social upheaval and protest (Brexit), the ruling class has employed divide and conquer tactics to subdue the lower classes. Anti-immigration rhetoric has thus been allowed to run riot in our mainstream media.
The effects of this scape-goating have been hard to stomach. Hate crime has increased by 17% since the Brexit vote. The viral video of a Syrian refugee getting bullied in a school in Huddersfield is part of a much wider problem. What shocked me most about this video was the fact that not one child stepped in to defend the poor boy, showing the extent to which years of anti-immigration rhetoric had de-humanised him in the eyes of his peers.
The damning by-products of Boris Johnson’s burka comments and Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster have been made clear. The mainstream media were rightfully shocked and appalled at the depravity of these comments, however, the fact remains that they were given air-time and national coverage. All this does is normalise hatred, treating it as acceptable political jargon: if the politicians are doing it, why can’t everyone? Historians of the future will be damning in their judgements of these politicians and the role they played in transforming Britain from a safe place for migrants to one in which they face hostility.
There has been a political failure to champion immigration as a force for good in this country. As Sir Oliver Letwin rightfully claimed the main parties had “made a terrible mistake” in failing to argue, with commitment and resolve, “that properly controlled migration enriches the country in every sense”. It is the job of progressive politicians on the left to champion the case for immigration. Although this would likely prove electorally unpopular in the current climate, it is vital if we are to alter people’s perceptions and prejudices.
It may seem patronising to champion the contribution of immigrants to this country, but the truth is, many people simply have not experienced these benefits. Those of us that have grown up with immigrants have a duty to educate. Those who have limited experience of immigration are more susceptible to the lies and deception of the right-wing press. By failing to stand up to bigotry, we legitimise it. If we fail to do so, who is going to stand up and defend the rights of immigrants? Clearly, it won’t be our morally corrupt politicians.
There are, however, reasons to be optimistic. The future of British politics is looking bright for immigrants. 32% of MYPs in the UK Youth Parliament are from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. In time, British society will be governed by people who reflect our multicultural society. People who will stand up to bigotry in all its forms and reverse the worrying trends we see infecting British politics today. People who have grown up with immigrants, from a vast array of countries, who will treat them not just as humans but as friends.