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Britain's immigration debate has taken a turn for the toxic

Whether it is the attacks on migrants crossing the Mediterranean or questions about Nick Clegg's heritage, our national debate on immigration has taken a nasty turn.

The immigration debate has been spiraling into a toxic swamp propelled by cross-party consensus to "control immigration". While a coherent argument on immigration is decades overdue, the current anti-immigrant debate has slipped into a new realm, targeting second generation immigrants. The Daily Express has already attempted to classify the British born BME community as "hidden migrants". With this context, Evan Davis's interview with Nick Clegg was difficult to watch.

Nick Clegg proudly spoke of his European heritage, his Dutch mother, and his grasp of five languages. In an attempt to point out Clegg's elitist upbringing, Davis questioned if Clegg's multicultural upbringing has put him out of touch with the British working class. Davis had a number of examples of elitism to choose: his gap year, his time at Oxbridge, or his public school education. The choice to fixate upon Clegg's multicultural upbringing, suggesting it to be out of touch with "British" people, made for uncomfortable viewing. For centuries immigrants have been an integral part of the British working class. Within the context of the current immigration climate, it feels like further demonisation of BME people.

Davis's intention was unlikely to be intentional racial discomfort, but Clegg's furious reaction mirrored that of many children of migrants. Our Britishness is consistently questioned despite having lived in the UK for our entire lives. Casual racism is on the rise, particularly within politics. On the doorstep a BME canvasser is increasingly likely to hear "I don't want your people here", and worse. These experiences lead to racial sensitivity and passing comments questioning multiculturalism vs Britishness can be interpreted as a personal attack when coupled with modern attitudes to race in Britain.

For the British Asian community, the Ugandan exile was only one generation ago. The discussions of identity, culture, and language are still quite raw for many British migrant communities. Fueled by the rising anti immigrant sentiment, communities are continuously feeling unwanted. This is leading to a rise in extremism, as well as record levels of BME voter apathy. A BBC news personality should understand the effects of language within such a climate and should be able to recognise why using such an argument is harmful towards people already at risk of social exclusion.

Davis's unwillingness to comprehend the harm to BME communities demonstrates a lack of compassion, as well as a lack of cultural awareness at the BBC. His intentions may not have been malicious, but seeing such comparisons on prime time BBC One make the children of migrants feel like they must justify their heritage and language to all of the people they meet on a regular basis who question their identity. Davis does not have to regularly prove his 'Britishness' and therefore he is unable to comprehend his statement for people who have to regularly prove their British identity.

The immigration debate has taken a drastic turn if journalists are so desensitised to such cultural comparisons possibly causing harm. Britain has thrived on multiculturalism, yet if the "British working class" see multiculturalism as an elitist concept, we have serious problems with integration. Politicians need to prioritise multicultural integration within these communities if Davis's statement is true. The curriculum must be reformed to ensure young people are taking up languages. Our cultural divisions are being exploited by politicians and communities are falling behind. Integration can only go hand in hand with an acceptance of multiculturalism and diverse communities. For immigrants and their children, political discourse is attempting to create divisions within society. We constantly feel like we must prove our value and it is not helped by journalists inadvertently contributing to these divisions. We need to seriously look into why multiculturalism is regarded as an elitist concept, despite the "British working class" being extremely multicultural. Most of all, we need to acknowledge when the immigration debate creates sensitivity and unease within BME communities.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”