The referendum campaign, the attitudes it unleashed, and the horrifying language reported from the 2016 Conservative Party Conference have been horrifying.
In the run-up to the referendum, on immigration immigration seemed key to the Leave campaign, who pushed in an irrational and emotional way. They correctly identified that people were sensitive to this.
There were scare stories that Turkey was about to be rushed into the EU and posters with an arrow from Turkey to the UK and the number “76 million”, strongly implying that vast numbers were queuing up to come to the UK. All that was missing was evidence.
Recently [September 2016] I was out with some Bishop’s Stortford Liberal Democrats, gathering signatures on a petition for citizens of other EU nations currently in the UK to be allowed to remain in the UK.
In a few hours we gathered just over 250 signatures on a not-that-busy street. Some were delighted to sign. Some were relieved that we were not taking the opposite position. Some said their businesses would struggle without people from other parts of the EU.
More worrying was the small minority who disagreed, loudly wanting foreigners to “go home”. A prize for confusion goes to the person who said that, and then added that she wanted to retire to France.
Concern over migration is shaping up to be a EU-wide issue — it is frustrating that it is an issue in the referendum debate as if this is not something we share with our EU partners.
Last weekend’s elections in Germany have sent shockwaves because of the progress of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Writing in The Guardian, Philip Oltermann also points out the success of some pro-refugee candidates as an illustration of the increasingly complex and fractured nature of the argument.
It sounds very familiar: in the UK the proponents of Brexit are pushing an anti-immigration case to “take back control of our borders” while Liberal Democrats are tending to point out the value of immigrants. In narrowly-financial terms, the awkward reality is that immigrants to the UK contribute substantially more in taxes than they take out of the system in benefits. Even the argument to restrict benefits to new arrivals is questionable: if someone comes to the UK, claims benefits while they settle, starts earning and starts paying tax and more-than pays back what they received, then the “benefit” payments look like a prudent investment. The idea’s been pithily summed up in the idea of Schrödinger’s immigrant: simultaneously stealing our jobs and too lazy to work.