As I was walking into my local post office to send off assorted parcels to my extended family around the country, I was confronted with angry headlines on tabloid newspapers. They were urging the Prime Minister to adopt a hard line on immigration, using language like “Draw a red line!” that implied we were facing the greatest threat to our way of life since William the Conqueror beat Harold’s rag-tag army in 1066.
I surely cannot be the only person who thinks “hang on a minute, that’s just not right.” I’ve grown up in West London, one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the capital – and possibly the country. I’ve lived and worked in the Hounslow area for most of that time, seeing different waves of immigration from around the world over the last thirty-forty years and the ways that life has changed – and here’s a really strange thing: the world didn’t end, the jobs were no more or less difficult to get, crime fluctuated about as much as it normally does and at no point did I feel like a stranger in my own country.
As an island nation, we’ve always been more than a little sceptical of the outside world. It could be argued that it was part of our drive to spread out and conquer most of it over the years. At the same time, history and archaeology demonstrates time and time again that the British Isles have seen wave after wave of settlement, each one leaving a lasting mark on our inherited melting pot culture.
A big part of that culture, and one you can easily see becoming embedded in even our most recent additions, is the concept of fairness. The power of the Right’s narrative is how unfair it is that these people are coming over and taking our jobs. My experience is that for the most part people come to the UK to work. The big complaint about migrants taking British jobs is that they are willing to work for less – how then does this square with the narrative of lazy people on the take? The fault doesn’t lie with people coming to the UK, the problem lies with employers who flaunt minimum wage standards to take advantage of people who are desperate for work.
The problem across the board seems to be that the loudest comments in the media are coming from the true believers on either extreme of the political divide. The Right has a narrative of millions of work shy criminals about to stream across the borders to steal benefits and leech off our wealth. The Left meanwhile turns a blind eye to people’s anxieties and the institutional problems both within the EU and back here, closer to home. As ever, it seems to be that leaves an awful lot of people in the middle who mostly haven’t really made up their minds. A recent poll puts 24% of British voters wanting to leave the EU at all costs, and 13% who want to stay – but that leaves an awfully large middle ground of people who either are undecided, or have a preference but would really rather know more about what is going on and what the details of any move would be.
Most people seem to have grasped that free movement is part of the rules that we signed up to, that also allow us to travel and work freely elsewhere. In effect they are the rules of the club we’ve joined, and while that acknowledgement is sometimes a bit grudging among the public, it seems to be being largely ignored by politicians looking for cheap points. No, the club is not without inequalities – as Marcus Brigstocke puts it, it’s like a nightclub where the Germans are the DJs – and they have only two speeds: Oompa band or Techno – but it’s still better than being on the outside, isolated because we can’t play well with others.