In Polska Dotty 2, I write how – perhaps surprisingly – Poles (and other recent EU migrants from Eastern Europe) were largely absent from the public debate during the 2015 General Election campaign in UK. Fast forward a mere 12 months, to the EU referendum campaign here, and things were very different. It happened like this…
In the latter stages of the referendum campaign, “Leavers” or “Brexiters” found themselves with a nagging, persistent deficit in the polls. And so, amongst many of them, at least – the Leave campaign was badly splintered – a decision was made to blow the immigration dog whistle. In the vanguard was marmite Nigel Farage, standing in front of a Nazi-like picture showing refugees in a snaking queue, all apparently just itching to enter the UK. Oh, and not to forget 70m Turks who were about to join the EU and then invade us. And innumerable other mistruths…
A whipped up Lumpenproletariat began spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric. The Poles, being by far the largest group of recent immigrants, took the brunt. I recall numerous voxpops from housing estates and deprived town centres around the UK about Poles “taking our jobs” and “taking our houses”, as well as our school places, and doctor’s appointments.
And, as we know, it worked. Poles to win polls. Only, by now, the Brexiters had unleashed a whirlwind they could not control (or, in the case of some, didn’t wish to?). The number of hate crimes went up hugely just before and after the Brexit vote (by 42%. A recent UN report blamed this on politicians’ rhetoric during the campaign). In two of the more infamous cases, just after the vote, a Polish family’s shed was burnt down, and an erudite note left imploring “Go back to your f****** country next be your family”. And anti-Polish graffiti was daubed on the long-established Polish Social and Cultural Centre (POSK) in Hammersmith, London.
Latterly, things have become even more serious. A Pole was murdered in Essex, and there have been numerous further vicious attacks on Poles, at the time of writing on a weekly basis. This all hit home to me when my own daughter asked my Polish wife Marzena not to speak Polish in public, for fear we might be attacked. It made me think, what kind of country have we become?
Nevertheless, a heartwarming show of support for the Poles followed. Thousands of Londoners went on a march of support in Hammersmith. Politicians were queuing up to visit POSK (and be photographed there). There was a general backlash against the racism and xenophobia.
And then, Brexit began somewhat to diminish in the public consciousness, as life went on…
Remainers (48% of the population) were left with an ongoing sense of confusion and unease: will we really, actually leave the EU, and if we do, how bad will it be?
For many Leavers (the other 52%) the scales are, I suspect, beginning to fall from their eyes. The latest myth to be busted is that we will control immigration by way of “an Australian style points system”. This has been the butt of many jokes, as no-one seems quite to know what that system is. But new Prime Minister Theresa May does, and she has ruled it out. Before that, the notion an additional £350m would be ploughed into the National Health Service (NHS) – the (tendentious) weekly saving the UK would make from quitting the EU – was quashed as the Government announced severe NHS cutbacks. For other Brexiters, the unbridled joy of “taking back control” (their strapline during the campaign) will be all they require, even as everything goes down the Swanee.
And this is, I suspect, the lasting legacy of a referendum campaign called in such foolhardy fashion by David Cameron. Not rampant racism and xenophobia – though it is evident we must keep a firm hand on this. Rather an uncomfortable frisson not only between rich and poor, the classes, and the like – but also between those who voted In and Out of the EU. I don’t, any longer, wish to delve deep into EU politics with a London cabbie, because it could end in acrimony. I daren’t even raise the subject with respected work colleagues, who may have voted the wrong way (as I see it). We are a nation divided, eyeing one another in deep suspicion. It’s almost Orwellian.
For example, recently a pleasant-sounding fella replied to one of my tweets. The tweet in question broadcast a recent announcement that Poles – at 831,000 – have just been officially classified the largest foreign-born group in the UK, overtaking Indians, Pakistanis, and the Irish. I described this as good news. But my newfound friend demurred, tweeting in response, simply: “Nothing good about it”.
I leave the last word to former senior Polish politician, Radek Sikorski. He spoke brilliantly at a recent Brexit debate I attended in the City of London. Whilst esteemed colleagues on the platform were hardly Brexiters, it was Sikorski who added perspective to the discussion – in particular how we have become rather tiresome to Europe, who are not feeling inclined to do us any favours in Brexit negotiations.
We have moved from the outer rim of the inner European circle, to the inner rim of the outer circle, he opined. Nicely put, I thought, whilst wondering if we are still in the European orbit at all. As for the future, Sikorski – who clearly loves the UK, having spent his formative years here – was blunt. “Go, you should go!” he said of the UK. “I mean, can you even imagine what it’d be like if you stayed?”