Immigration – A Divisive Issue by Nature


The last few months in British politics have proven to be nought but a stagnant and shambolic mess. Many of us watched the events unfold over the summer in a state of sheer angst and frustration as the political parties of Westminster re-shuffled the decks and aired all their dirty laundry in the public domain.

Now the end of the recess is long gone, but the new Prime Minister continues to be equivocal and vague regarding the direction of Brexit. Nonetheless, she has been clear on one thing – freedom of movement will end soon.

This shift in the political tide has been largely brought on by the issue of immigration, which has continued to surface across the country as a point of conflict and controversy. In 2013, the NatCen British Social Attitude Survey found that 56% of Brits were of the opinion that immigration ‘should be reduced a lot’ and that a further 21% of Brits believed it ‘should be reduced a little’. The popular belief is that the EU referendum was won on the issue of immigration, as that became the primary focus of the Leave campaign. As is often the case with referendums, a fissure of bitterness was opened in the wake of the result. The background of the debate saw a series of serious incidents and attacks on vulnerable and valued members of our society who have come here from overseas, or, in many cases, are British citizens who were born here and have lived here all their lives. According to the National Police Chief’s Council, racially motivated hate crime in the UK surged by 41% in the weeks following the referendum and peaked at a 58% rise, compared with the previous year.

There is a particular brand of British nationalism that has covered the country in a shroud of bigotry in recent months and the way the Leave campaign was conducted has clearly struck fear into the hearts of many people who have come to this country and contributed so much to our society. This kind of British nationalism is nothing new. We have seen it before with Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s and also more contemporary organisations such as the English Defence League and the British Nationalist Party. What is the cause of this unrest in our society?

The fact that racially motivated hate crime has become particularly prevalent in areas that have experienced high levels of immigration reveals an uncomfortable truth, in that these two issues are intrinsically linked. There are, however, many other cause of this epidemic. Years of underinvestment and the destruction of industry in many areas of the UK, particularly in the North of England, has led to tough competition for jobs. The housing crisis, sparked by the ‘right to buy’ policy and perpetuated by lack of investment in social housing stock, means that many people are wasting away on the waiting lists for homes. Access to higher education is prohibited by draconian tuition fees. Why are immigrants being used as a scapegoat when poor government is the main source of the problem? The British tabloids must take a big portion of the blame here. The Sun and the Daily Mail still boast the two largest newspaper circulations in the UK. In the eyes of many, Rupert Murdoch (incidentally, not a UK citizen) and Paul Dacre have been throwing oil on the fire of xenophobia for years now and we can see the crippling effect this has had in our society.

Regarding the Brexit vote, it has now become commonplace for Leave voters to be branded as racist and regressive by many on the Remain side. However, this misunderstanding should not be entertained. Those of us who voted to remain in the European Union must recognise that there was a vast multitude of legitimate reasons to leave. In so many areas, the debate surrounding the EU was truly Byzantine in its complexity and immigration was but one issue in many. I have many friends and relatives who voted to leave for valid and often left wing reasons – not one of them is a racist. Furthermore, it is important to recognise that calling for more control on immigration does not make someone a racist by proxy. An objection to high levels of immigration can be raised on purely pragmatic grounds – for some it is simply a question of numbers and infrastructure.

Nonetheless, the recent rise in threatening rhetoric is wholly unacceptable. We must all work together – Remain and Leave – to heal the divide the referendum has caused and continue to challenge this vile behaviour in the way that many British people have done throughout the course of recent history. For to be British is about tolerance, acceptance and multi-culturalism.

[Euan McIlvanney]

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