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.
Then came an apparently-xenophobic attack on two Poles in Harlow and Theresa May’s assertion that curbing immigration will take priority over access to the single market in Brexit talks. She must know this is unrealistic: freedom of movement is one of the pillars of the single market and Switzerland’s access to EU programmes was curtailed after they sought to restrict migration.
The sense of farce is heightened by a survey from British Future saying that only a third of people think the government will meet its immigration targets over the next five years and a claim from Boris Johnson that people didn’t vote Leave because of immigration.
Economic reality is that Migration addresses skill shortages and builds connection that stabilises peace. In taking two million Syrian refugees, Angela Merkel was shrewdly addressing the problem, which we share, of an ageing population. Immigrants pay taxes and boost economic activity, creating jobs as well as taking them.
Stoking people’s fears makes it harder to name and address our real problems.
I had a chilling illustration canvassing in the General Election campaign when someone told me they were worried about the effects of austerity on their friends and family. Without pausing for breath, they blamed immigrants, so were going to vote for the Conservatives because they are tough on immigration, overlooking the fact that this meant they were voting for the party ideologically-committed to the austerity that was hurting them. The Tories and brilliantly exported the blame for the effects of their policies onto immigrants. This was in a constituency where 95% of the population are white British, so its hard to see that there were enough immigrants to have the effect attributed to them.
Blaming immigrants has become a way to duck responsibility for under-investment in the NHS, failure to build housing and for the effects of austerity. It’s grossly irresponsible, both for future relations with our European neighbours, and for the fabric of British society. It’s not worked in the past, and there is no reason to believe it will work now.
The people happy to sign a petition to help protect EU nationals working in the UK point in an open and positive direction. It might not be a coincidence that these people reacted well when I said I would be the Liberal Democrat candidate if there is a snap election, and standing on a pro-EU ticket.
Originally published on Liberal Democrat Voice