Brexit, intolerance and Effie Deans; lessons in strawman building.

Brexit may not have made Britain a more intolerant country, but it has certainly made expressing intolerance easier, as the shameful spike in reported in hate crimes in England and Wales has amply demonstrated. Closing the door to further immigration as a way of promoting further integration and helping us “get on better than before”, even if it could be achieved without harming future economic prospects, looks a lot like special pleading to me. If you dislike multi-cultural societies then reducing or severely limiting immigration is obviously an appealing policy. Whether people who have this view would be quite as keen where such a policy had a negative impact on their economic well-being and provision of services is another matter.

EU immigrants make up 10% of the NHS’s doctors and 4% of registered nurses. They constitute 5% of overall NHS staff, the last figure being the same percentage as they make up of the English population as a whole (figures from the independent charity Full Fact). 24% of doctors in the UK are foreign nationals; 36% of all doctors and 23% of GP’s qualified abroad. There is general agreement that immigrants contribute more to our economy than they take in benefits, so if ones concern is not financial or economic, presumably it relates either to issues of social cohesion or  a belief that the country is “full”? Some people genuinely don’t want immigration and fear multiculturalism. Such fears can of course be attributed to bigotry, lack of education or concerns (whether realistic or not) that mass immigration places intolerable strains on our public services and/or risks “swamping” the host culture.

I agree that one shouldn’t sneer at people who see uncontrolled immigration as something that changed their world and removed their “control”. It is of course easy for people with no direct experience of the pressures caused by a sudden influx of immigrants (whether on housing, schools, health services or jobs) to sneer at those complaining about such pressures, pace Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” debacle, BUT (…and yes, it is a big but!) it is also incumbent on those of us who support immigration and a multi-cultural society, especially one which welcomes refugees from war-torn areas of the world, to point out the positive aspects of immigration, and educate the public about many of the misperceptions surrounding the issue.

It has long been acknowledged that people in the UK routinely over-estimate the % of the population who are immigrants, often grotesquely so. The Guardian published an IPSOS-Mori poll in 2014 showing people thought 21% of the UK population were muslim, whereas the true number is 5%. Similarly people thought 24% of the population were immigrants when the true figure in 2011 census was 13%.

Such overestimation of the scale of the problem is if anything compounded by the fact that it is generally areas which are least diverse and least subject to immigration which are most strongly anti-immigration. People do perhaps fear what they don’t know, but given the widespread misapprehension about the scale of the problem, the financial impact and the role of immigrants (both EU and non-EU) in important public services, it is important to point out that Brexit isn’t the magic bullet that many of those who supported it primarily as a route to reducing immigration suppose. Brett will of course do nothing to reduce non-EU immigration, and of course we do not even know if May’s government will be able to negotiate a deal which squares the circle of reducing EU immigration by limiting the free movement of labour whilst retaining access to the single market. Noises from the EU don’t look encouraging so far, and it will be a brave government which accepts “hard” Brexit with no access to the free market if (when?) the EU tell them free movement of labour is non-negotiable.

The way to tackle the actual and perceived problems of large-scale immigration is by promoting equality, multiculturalism, the integration of the basic values underpinning a 21st century secular liberal democracy, education and toleration. Seeking to place stringent limits on immigration in general, and the specific Brexit “cure” prescribed to achieve this, look about as useful as King Cnut’s attempts to stop the tide from coming in.

Effie Deans in her recent blog (“Brexit Has Not Made Britain a More Intolerant Country” from 29th July 2016) as so often in the past assiduously builds straw men in an attempt to bolster her case. On closer inspection however, her examples don’t support the argument; her superficial understanding of the historical background exposes them for the tendentious misrepresentations they are. Many Latvians (and other Balts) have pretty good reason to be wary of the attempted Russification (and later “Sovietization”) of their countries. Their experience of being dominated by Russia in the 19th century, cycles of violence throughout the early 20th century, being subject to huge deportations of their own populations and introduction of huge numbers of mainly ethnic Russians post 1945, are hardly analogous to experience in Western Europe.

Similarly the unwillingness of countries like Poland and Hungary to countenance large-scale immigration (although in truth relatively few of the recent influx of immigrants show any desire to settle there) has much to do with their own recent histories of ethnic conflict, their relative poverty in comparison with the “old” EU, and their perception that they don’t want to see the kind of problems happening in their own countries that they see in places with large immigrant communities like France, Germany, the UK and others. It’s one thing to assert that Latvians who speak Russian aren’t considered to be Latvians, but quite another to draw from that assertion the conclusion that Pakistanis or Syrians or Poles in the UK won’t be considered British or Scottish. Large Russian minorities implanted in the Baltic states represented (and were positively conceived as) an existential threat to the nationalities they were implanted amongst. It is surely to the credit of such countries that they have offered such minorities full citizenship.

In the end Effie’s conception of preserving “the unique character” of her country, whether Scotland, the UK or anywhere else, looks a lot less like King Cnut trying to turn back the tide and rather more like the “no dogs, no blacks, no Irish” signs of yore. You don’t have to put the sign in your window to be recognised for sharing the same values.