“Not my circus, not my monkeys”.
That’s what I mostly say these days when asked about British politics. Up to about a year ago, I was an active member of a political party and involved in a fair amount of volunteering. I saw myself as being part of things, an enthusiastic party to the social contract. Those days are done.
I’ve been an immigrant in four different countries, and in only one of them did I ever feel at home. I used to tell this story about being a civil liberties lobbyist in the UK in the early 2000s. I’d go and do a briefing over tea and biscuits with some member of the House of Lords. They’d start a little in surprise at my accent, and then the meeting would go on as normal, with me offering talking points about the surveillance and police state as counter-productive in fighting terrorism. Then at the end, when the business of the meeting was finished and everyone relaxed and munched the biscuits, the peer would make a point of telling me how much they liked Ireland, had relatives there, had visited or wanted to, some day. As if they were saying “It’s ok for Irish people to lecture us on human rights and terrorism, now.” My story was about tolerance and civility, and how no way could an Arab have a similar meeting in Paris or Washington D.C.
Maybe it’s just as well we white, well-to-do professionals are getting the same stick other immigrants or minorities always have. The gloves are off. An Italian friend was accosted by two men in the cinema queue in Oxford and told to “go home”, for the crime of speaking Italian. (Because she’s a badass, she bought them popcorn and they didn’t know what to do with themselves.) A woman I met last week was abused in the street for speaking Polish on her phone. I can pass until I open my mouth, and if I try I can sound fairly British. But I don’t want to.
Perhaps the UK only feels significantly nastier because it now treats white, middle class EU people more like how it treats the brown-skinned, less connected, less wealthy, or less likely to be able to kick up a stink people. My kind can still get a Guardian sad-face piece if the Home Office messes us around. We have our liberty and our voice. But can any of us say we know what is going on in, say, Yarl’s Wood detention centre, or that its secrecy, authoritarianism and arms-length contractual deniability are not the perfect conditions for institutional abuse? We’ve all heard that kind of story a dozen times, but can no longer even be arsed to say “never again”.
I live in Theresa May’s “hostile environment” for immigrants, seeded several years ago, and bearing poisonus fruit just this morning as the first day when foreign-seeming people can be stopped from using the NHS. EU citizens are still a lot more equal than other immigrants. (And Irish people more equal again, in terms of our legal status, because of history.) I’m extremely lucky. All I have to worry about are the value of my home slipping (frightening for us, but a property crash would help more people than it hurts, generationally), my ability to find work (most of mine comes from outside the UK, anyway), and the rather bad luck that every time I try to send money to my under-water Irish mortgage, the prime minister opens her mouth and the pound plummets, again. My concerns are incredibly minor and show just how privileged I am.
I’m not getting letters from the Home Office, telling me to leave, or bills from my local NHS’s fraud department, insisting my newborn had no right to treatment. I have no relatives caught up in the grey netherworld of the asylum system, being told they weren’t actually raped and they’re not actually gay, and will therefore be detained without time-limit. I don’t have to prove to a sociopathic immigration regime that, although I spend my time caring for children or ill family members now, I will in the future earn enough money to not be a “burden”. I don’t need to fear that calling the police to protect my children from domestic violence will result in the Home Office being alerted to our presence, and the whole family being deported.
The UK has become a nasty little country. It sticks out a bit less in a neighbourhood with Austria, Hungary, Poland and Turkey nearby. But as a country, the UK is working hard to make itself objectively nastier, and to suppress the voices of those in British society who could curb its sharpest, most small-minded insecurities. Charities here are gagged from speaking about poverty, church-leaders and protesters go unreported and ignored. Xenophobic attacks are up by almost a third, since the Brexit vote. The government and media thinks it’s unremarkable for people on benefits – and their children – to go without a penny of income for two or three months at a time. (And when they eventually get paid, to go without when there’s a fifth Monday in the month.) Women inmates in the prison system have a lower chance of survival than did British soldiers in Afghanistan. The education system is expressly designed to herd the 93% with rote-learning, box-ticking and arbitrary discipline into a life of menial under-employment, while the 7% enjoy Olympic-sized swimming pools and theatres better equipped than most professional ones. And when privatized state school “academy” chains go tits-up, the funds raised by their Christmas fairs and sponsored runs are asset-stripped by company directors, but private schools for the wealthiest are officially charities, with £100 million in tax benefits a year. The country’s flagship news programme thinks “balance” is pitting a soft versus a hard brexiteer, and the millionaire-funded Leave campaign admits using botnets to spread its lies, but no one even shrugs.
But there you go. That’s how I would see things, wouldn’t I? What with being a saboteur and enemy of the state, and a foreigner, to boot.
Anyone who thinks being an immigrant, even a deluxe EU three million-type immigrant, is easy, should try it. We compete on equal terms with all comers, but with no social or economic safety net and, for many, hustling like mad in second and third languages. No dole, no network of couches to sleep on, no contacts and no introductions; qualifications from institutions you’ve never heard of, references from employers you aren’t sure are real but can’t be bothered to check, acting as daily fodder for stereotypical jokes we laugh off to show we’re one of you. You don’t hear us complaining about it because it’s just part of the deal. But when the terms of the deal change, and you tell us we’re social welfare parasites who are also, somehow, taking all the jobs and are the reason the country is failing, then the deal is probably dead.
The government and brexiteers’ empty claims that “it’ll be fine” are not reassuring. They unwittingly communicate the contempt we are held in, the manifest unimportance of our plight. I don’t see acres of think-pieces on why the government and the Labour party should ‘reach out’ to economic migrants and try to understand us. Ironically, we’re the ones keeping the stiff upper lip because we know we’re not allowed the luxury of an epic, country-wide tantrum.
Right after the brexit result, I felt sorriest for my British friends who were having part of their identity yanked away. I’ve even been told once or twice in the last year that it was worse for them, because at least I could move away. And I agreed. But I don’t any more. Their lives are going on as before, albeit in a poisonous political atmosphere. But ours have changed. EU citizens in the UK worry about their ability to stay employed, are being refused mortgages and rental contracts, are shouted at in the street, don’t know what will become of their pension contributions and fear they could be just one family crisis away from losing their “right to remain”.
I thought I would feel better over time. That the sorrow and fear at being in a country turning its back on internationalism at the precise historic moment when our biggest problems are cross-border would be replaced by something less painful and more constructive. After the referendum I went to a few more meetings. Over the winter I made signs for protest marches. After the women’s march last January, I felt I could almost breathe again. But since then it’s just gotten worse. A couple of times this year, I’ve been on the phone to my mother in Ireland and she’s repeatedly asked “But don’t they know…” about certain pertinent economic facts or how treaties work or what happens when the peace process collapses. And I have to answer that no, honestly, a lot of people don’t know the basic facts of their own existence, and it is no longer politically feasible for politicians to mention these facts. And that most newspapers do not report these facts because these facts have become unpatriotic. And that there is no opposition. And that lies, repeated often and brazenly enough, are pretty much all that is left of British politics.
I suppose part of my feeling worse over time is that Britain is actively choosing to be this way. The liars lie and you pretend to give them a hearing. The poor suffer, and sometimes burn, but can’t be saved or housed. The immigrants take their lumps, and plan, and quietly disappear. And the politicians give a week and more to standing around, whining about a fucking clock, and pronounce any work on fixing the mess they’ve made impossible until a farcically bad election campaign has been fought, or party conference season is over or whatever the next Conservative psycho-drama is going to be has played out, while the country stumbles over the cliff because democracy, it now appears, was a one-shot deal.
In all that mess, here’s one thing among the many that seems to have gone unnoticed. When you reduce all your dealings with a group of people to the purely transactional, you may think you are being very clever and forcing a better deal, but you have changed the way those people will interact with you, and also whether they will trust you in future. I used to be an immigrant who, for all the UK’s shortcomings, felt loyalty to my chosen home. And gratitude, though it’s embarrassing to admit that, now. I knew there were certain ways of acting and being the UK had developed for itself – to do with tolerance, civility, self-deprecation, humour, curiosity, a general broad-mindedness and the underlying cultural confidence of a country that knows cooperation isn’t a zero-sum game – that meant there was room for people like me to belong.
(That same expansiveness could be seen in how this country treated its poor, less educated, chronically ill, disabled people, to mention just a few groups. Britain has never had much of a political culture of solidarity or shared purpose, whatever World War II fantasies claim, but it wasn’t vindictive. Now it is. Turn on the television. “Factual television” doesn’t inform or entertain; it pits people against each other in artificial competitions with ever more theatrical ways to tell the losers exactly what they are.)
By reducing the British state’s relationship with the three million EU citizens who live here to a single cost-benefit analysis (calculated with striking actuarial incompetence), the UK has made the mistake so many employers make when they put the bean-counters in charge. They have failed to account for the value of good will. Good will of a company’s suppliers and customers – analogous to a countries’s partners and allies – has a value and can be destroyed. Similarly, working to rule is often one of the first steps employees – in this analogy, immigrants – take towards industrial action. Working to rule demonstrates that for all the Taylorist calculation of what a job entails, it’s the extra 15-20% we do that makes the world go round. The government seems to think it is grown-up and serious to treat us like economic widgets that can be ordered when needed and discarded when not. It’s wrong. It will lose out, too, from making citizenship and belonging purely transactional.
Many immigrants who had felt loyalty, affection and feelings of grateful belonging are now emotionally working to rule. We will go through the motions, paying our taxes and being decent neighbours, perhaps even wearing a poppy, as that ever-lengthening season draws near. But we know our place, now. We get it. We’re not proper citizens, just “economic migrants” or “citizens of nowhere”; assets to be sorted, milked of taxes and then disposed of when no longer revenue-positive. The loyalty that makes people stick around when you’re going through a tough time, as the UK is clearly about to, has gone. The soft power it yielded, by way of people who moved here and, when the time came, moved on with deep ties and happy memories, has gone. This isn’t about revenge, it’s just how the human heart works.
Because it hurts, for me at least. I believed all that inclusive, expansive, tolerance stuff in the first place. Never, in my couple of years as an army wife, did anyone grimace or hesitate or show hostility or even surprise at me being a non-national. There were lots of us amongst the spouses and soldiers; Irish, South Africans, Fijians and more. I baked, fund-raised, spent half a year in the permanent nausea of low-level fear while he was on tour, sat uncomfortably near the front of the church by a coffin with the Union Jack draped over it, comforted – insofar as anyone can – a grieving father, wrote letters of condolence, stood for hours on parade grounds and performed dozens (hundreds?) of the little tasks and favours that just make things go round when you live inside an institution that can ask you for almost anything.
And now I feel like a stupid, naive little fool. I look back on that time and think what baseless, idiotic, pathetic faith I had in something it turns out didn’t exist. Or if it did, it’s gone, so it all meant nothing, anyway.
Whatever the UK does now, the trust, loyalty and affection are gone, and they won’t come back. We know we can’t plan our lives with any certainty. We know we are despised by a large amount of the country, including the government itself. We know the majority of people voted to make our lives unmanageable because they didn’t want to know or just didn’t care. We have all the hurt feelings of kids who used to be in the clique and got kicked out for some unknown slight, but still have to go to school every day anyway. And I use that metaphor advisedly, because I understand that there is something slightly child-like in this feeling of rejection.
But, well, tough luck. It’s a fall from grace but it could be much worse. It has opened our eyes to the truth of the UK’s narrow and punitive social contract. I hope that many of us make common cause with people in the detention centres or at the mercy those who exploit May’s “hostile environment” for their own ends. I hope privileged immigrants join the dots and do what that calls for. God knows I hope the vast number of EU citizens staffing the NHS do all they can to subvert the myth of expensive “health tourism” (a phenomenon I suspect is as rare as false claims of sexual assault and rape, not that you’d know either from reading a British newspaper).
We have a place to live, for now, though it isn’t home, and will never feel like it again. I used to say “we” when I talked about politics in the UK. Now I say “you”, or better, nothing at all.