Flats in the Hovsjoe district in south-western Soedertaelje, where many Syrian refugees in Sweden live. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
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I’ve changed my mind about the Swedes. They took in 40,000 Syrian refugees last year: Britain took 24

One thing the Swedes definitely do better than we do, and where we ought really to look a bit sheepish, is in the welcome they give to immigrants.

Everyone keeps asking me what I think about Craig Raine’s poem about a young Gatwick border controller’s embonpoint. I reply that if “She is maybe 22,/like a snake in the zoo” is not poetry, I don’t know what is, and then leave the country until it all blows over.

When I get to Gothenburg something seems different. I notice there are a lot more cool vintage American cars on the road than I recall from previous visits. Have I landed in Cuba by mistake? I also start noticing – it’s hard not to, really – groups of young girls wearing very short, floaty white dresses and, honest to God, little yachting caps. They conform far more closely to the Scandinavian template of womanhood than the Latin, so no, I’m probably not in Cuba.

I wonder what Craig Raine would make of them. “They are maybe 16,/like girls in a . . .” But no, I’ve no idea how to finish that line, which is why Raine is a published poet of international reputation and I am not. Anyway, many of these girls are hanging out of the vintage cars and screaming with wild abandon, behaviour guaranteed to lift all but the heaviest hearts and of which I thoroughly approve.

It turns out these young ladies are celebrating the end of their A-levels, or the Swedish equivalent thereof. Also, it is Sweden’s national day the next day, so the whole country apparently has gone a little crazy and decided to let its hair down. I mention this later to an English friend who used to work there.

“It really got on my tits,” he says. “What I wish they’d do is spread it out a bit more, instead of going mental for a week and then reverting to type for the rest of the year.” (“Type” here means “extraordinarily reserved, to the point where they make the English look like Italians, and they’re more likely to levitate than invite you back to theirs for a few after the bars shut”.)

One thing the Swedes definitely do better than we do, and where we ought really to look a bit sheepish, is in the welcome they give to immigrants. Doubtless there are plenty of occasions of xenophobic thuggery but the official line is humanitarian, which isn’t exactly how you’d describe that of, say, the Labour Party – from which, had I been a member, I’d have resigned instantly when I saw its “Controls on immigration” mug. (And a fat lot of good that did, eh?) Anyway, to offer one example: the Swedes took in about 40,000 Syrians alone last year, and to date about three-quarters have become Swedish citizens (many cases pending). Britain, on the other hand, could find room by last June for only 24 of those displaced. In case you think that’s a misprint, I’ll put it another way: that’s enough Syrians to organise a football tournament between them of two teams, with one substitute each.

H—, whom I am visiting, and who has been working on a rather big music project involving refugees, takes me to an asylum-seekers’ residence, a repurposed youth hostel about five miles from the city centre, whose British equivalent would almost certainly have bars on the window and be surrounded by razor wire. And in a room containing, by a strange coincidence, roughly 24 of them, we are treated like royalty, as they give us chocolate cake and sing Kurdish love songs to the accompaniment of the oud, or Arabian lute. We invite a couple of them she’s become friends with back for dinner and get a lot more oud action, although by about midnight, when there’s still light in the sky, H— begins to worry about the neighbours. (But if there’s been a complaint from them since then, she has yet to hear it.) Our guests also insist on bringing food because they don’t wish to impose on us, but I buy the wine, which, as it turns out, is not a negligible expense, because these Syrians can certainly knock it back; but when you consider the journey they’ve had to undertake to get from their ravaged homeland to Sweden, you can appreciate that they feel they’ve earned the odd snifter.

So, while it’s not exactly a sobering experience, it is certainly a thought-provoking one. On the flight back, I get chatting to a friendly, garrulous Swedish woman, off with her third husband and extended family to a holiday in America, and I think: “These people are not knobs. Will wonders never cease?” And then the first thing I see in the copy of this magazine that I buy on landing at Heathrow is a piece by Craig Raine. But I don’t have the money to flee the country again for a while. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.