Listening to the fevered rhetoric about immigration during Britain’s recent referendum you would think that a tsunami of starving dark-skinned people from the nether regions of the world was about to engulf England’s ‘green and pleasant land.’
Hyperventilating opponents of the European Union left the impression that the village greens and quaint little tea houses were about to be over-run with Romanian camper vans and swarthy Bulgarians barbecuing God-knows-what on their handy grills. Barefoot, somewhat grimy children would swarm over the once-pristine cricket pitches gobbling up the tea and crust-less watercress sandwiches so carefully set aside for the players.
|Is this at risk of being over-run by Eastern European immigrants?|
Unfortunately, facts in highly emotional referendum votes are thin on the ground. What may have begun as principled opposition to the European Union easily morphs into tribal fears of anything different. Since the referendum these tribal fears have led to several very ugly racial attacks in various parts of the country as the UK’s version of the Klu Klux Clan gets going. We were in Southampton last week-end when a peaceful Moslem commemoration of the end of Ramadan had to be cancelled because of fears of racist attacks. The very next day there was a demonstration of people loudly opposed to any and all refugees.
Britain’s political classes should be ashamed of themselves for failing to confront the issue of immigration head-on long before the vote. I cannot recall one single rational debate on the issue. The stage was left to those who could only express their inchoate outrage at the mere thought of freedom of movement with the European Union. All this anger at the imagined dire state of affairs in the United Kingdom, this frustration at failing to fit in to a globalized world had found its source – the hapless Eastern European immigrant willing to work at jobs no Brit would consider.
Even now, almost two weeks after the vote, there is no thoughtful discussion of the issue, no debate on real issues. For example,
1. Exactly how many immigrants from the EU are now the Britain?
2. What percentage of the total British population do they make up? Is a big percentage, small percentage, or completely statistically insignificant?
3. How would Britain’s health care service work without these recent arrivals? When my wife was in hospital the wonderful, caring nurses and staff were from all over the world. There was not one native Brit among them.
4. How would London’s booming (until the referendum anyway) construction business thrive without the thousands of Polish workers?
5. How would Britain’s service industry – hotels, restaurants, shops -- function without the immigrants?
Also, how much investigation has there been into the dark side of immigration – the exploitation of illegal immigrants?
None of this has been openly discussed, and irrational fears have replaced facts. Many people are now calling for a so-called points system – similar to what Australia uses – to match would-be immigrants to skills required in Britain. Ah yes, but there’s a catch. You might allow in a highly skilled computer expert, but what about his family? Do they get to join him, or do they go to the back of the queue? And then there is there is the bureaucracy. Right now, the UK has absolutely no idea how many people overstay their visa, the border agency is overwhelmed, and tracking people once inside the country is impossible. When informed about someone overstaying their visa the police just laugh and say it is not their problem. And UK officials are supposed to set up something as sophisticated as a point-scoring system!? A daunting task for a country whose rail service would embarrass moderately prosperous Third World countries.
Furthermore, there’s a potential immigration nightmare if the UK leaves the EU in a huff. Right now there are thousands of refugees living in squalid conditions near Calais. Without a border agreement, what would keep the French from solving that problem by shipping them all to the UK? Why should the French cooperate by keeping them in France rather than shipping them to the green fields of Kent just across the water?
|Is Sangatte coming to Kent?|
There are perhaps legitimate reasons to believe the UK was never going to be a good fit into the European Union. Given its long history of parliamentary democracy and a globally respected legal system it is easy to see how UK politicians would reject the very idea of that system being subordinated to the recent, untested EU system of governance. Unfortunately, the EU leaders are tone-deaf to the rising complaints of EU over-reach and are threatening the entire structure. And here we are now at a major cross-roads. Will grown ups or sulky children take us forward?
I have no idea who the next leader of the Conservative Party will be or just how successful he or she will be in the endless rounds of exit negotiations. I only hope they remember that Britain is a parliamentary democracy, and that parliament should not abdicate its responsibilities to a referendum.
If the difficult question of immigration is to be part of those negotiations let us at least have some facts instead of raw emotion. Is immigration really a problem, or is it a solution to Britain’s manpower and brain-drain problems? The time for a serious discussion on immigration is long overdue.