The venerable Dr Johnson described patriotism as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’.
In our times, political scoundrels use nationalism as their last refuge, spiked with bitter xenophobia, and throw in some handy cynicism. They impugn migrants, refugees, immigrants, and people of colour. They upbraid powerless outsiders for the ills of this splintered, ungovernable nation.
The returns are high for this nasty blackballing. Think of the saviour Nigel Farage, chauvinistic Tory and Labour Hard Brexiters who won the referendum, and Theresa May who – as Home Secretary – refused to accept Syrian child refugees, channelled Norman Tebbit, sent out vans telling migrants to go home and became PM.
During PMQs last week, this leaderene grudgingly accepted the contribution of migrants to the economy and then claimed they had depressed workers’ wages. A big fat lie. I threw my muffin at the radio in disgust. Recently, Vince Cable, Lib Dem leader, revealed that when he was in the coalition government May suppressed nine studies which found that incomers did not negatively hit the earnings of native Brits. (So, Mr Cable, why do you only disclose this information so many years after you knew the facts?). The slanders continue.
Now, out of the rotting woodwork slithers Tony Blair. After so many years in the darkness, festering in irrelevance and (hopefully) guilt, he has grabbed the headlines by, yes, turning against EU migrants. He welcomed them in once with open arms, phoney smiles and selfish intent. They would, he believed, boost the economy, sustain public expenditure and raise living standards. They did all that and more. Now Blair wants to deny European workers welfare and health services, to impose ‘discriminatory’ policies on people who buoyed up his government. Much of what he recommends would be unlawful. All of it is treacherous and contemptible. His big idea is this: placate mean little Britons and they will happily agree to stay in the EU! These frenetic, feverish recommendations were put forward in a ‘pioneering’ policy paper from his very own Institute for Global Change.
I went to a Polish festival near where I live just after this miserable intervention. A young fashion designer, Monika, was furious: ‘Some Polish people give the name Blair to their sons. They should change it. He thinks we are rubbish? To be thrown away? We are not his slaves. We are not stupid. Not lazy. We have dreams. Why do these political people not talk about our dreams? Only their economy? My young brother has really good friends, English friends. You know they are now deporting him? And many of us. They are not Christian. They think we are machines. We are not machines.’
There were 26% more enforced deportations of EU nationals in the first three months of this year than the same period last year. The government’s equality office is looking into new evidence showing Europeans in Britain are now being illegally prevented from renting or buying homes, booking holidays or applying for jobs.
In some ways anti-foreigner hostility is a recurrent part of British history. Look back at the various waves of Jewish immigration and you find they were harried, hounded, often killed. Huguenots, Protestants escaping Catholic persecution, were highly skilled. They made good and so had their businesses and homes set alight. A satirist in 1691 wrote:
‘The Nation it is almost quite undone
By French men that doe it dayly overrunne
They have made our nation greiviously to groane
Under a burthen of great misery’
Ukipry goes back centuries.
Caribbeans, Asians, the Chinese, Arabs, now Eastern Europeans, have faced bigotry and racism. But hope survived. Through the bad times we were supported and loved by good British people. In the last 20 years, these small isles got closer to the bustling, multicultural, multilingual continent and the wider world. I grew to love London and, until recently, felt that I could belong in England.
The last year has shaken that tentative attachment. Few politicians now stand with us. Even Corbyn now slip-slides into the anti-migrant blame game.
Only the old Tory grandee Michael Heseltine defends us with integrity and honesty. He writes in the Mail on Sunday: ‘I fear the very fabric of our caring society, our health services and swathes of public sector which depend on immigrant support would be destroyed if [the proposed post-Brexit immigration clampdown] happens… The referendum result of 2016 was driven by frustration over the freeze in living standards since 2008. This fed the anger over immigration which has always been a ‘low-lying fruit’ for politicians: they can blame it for the pressure on public services, overcrowded estates – igniting prejudices in the process.’
Among new and old migrants and refugees anger is burning. Monika is right. Immigrants, migrants and refugees are not machines. We are not punchbags. We are not stooges. We are not worker bees to be fumigated at will. We have pride, skills, dignity, talents, resilience, pluck, spirit and humanity. How dare the powerful treat us as expendable things?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is an award-winning columnist, author and broadcaster