The most unpopular speech I ever made as President of Leeds University Student’s Union was one in favour of immigration controls. I remember being roundly booed by the far Left. I believed then and still believe it now, immigration needs to be fair.
However, in the days that have followed the referendum result we have seen a steady rises in racist abuse and violence. Fascists and neo-fascists have been emboldened, their views apparently legitimized and they have taken to the streets. At the foot of Grey’s Monument the National Front stand with banners saying, ‘Stop immigration Start repatriation’ and ‘Enoch Powell was right’.
As Billy Bragg succinctly said in a tweet in the run up to polling day, “Not every leave voter is a racist, but every racist will vote leave”. It is not a good time to speak a different language or have a skin colour other than white in the UK now.
Those who do not understand their history are doomed to repeat it, so the saying goes. There were many times during the referendum campaign when you could have replaced the word ‘immigrant’ with the word ‘Jew’ and you would have been back in the 1930s. And, just like in the 1930s, the church – apart from a few individuals – was silent. The Church of England synod never even discussed the referendum despite dark forces being stoked and released. 'I tell you naught for your comfort, Yea, naught for your desire, Save that the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher.'
Doubt me? Look at how pleased the neo-Fascist French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has been at the success of UKIP and the Leave campaign.
Despite the region having some of the lowest levels of immigration anywhere in the UK we have disproportionality high level of ‘complaints’ about immigrants. Total net migration to the North East, which has a population of 2.6 million, was 6,361 in the 12 months to June 2015, which at 0.2% this is pretty close to being zero. We also know that immigration is a two way street and that people from the North East work across the EU or are retired in France and Spain.
Yet concerns over access to social housing and benefits are real and passionately aired. As too are worries about availability of jobs for children and grandchildren, in a region blighted by high levels of unemployment, where we have swathes of older men still of working age but essentially on the scrap heap. Raising the perfectly valid question; is the system fair?
What is to be done? We could simply accept reality but then, as Martin Luther King famously pointed out, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter”.
So silence is not an option, I hope we can all agree. As a former campaigner for the Anti-Apartheid Movement my experience of racism is that in most cases, though not all, it’s down to ignorance hence education has a key role to play.
The British are a mongrel race, formed as a result of wave after wave of immigration, with the Irish being one of the largest and one of the most recent, as my surname testifies to. We have to remember that the very word England itself comes from ‘land of the Angles’ who were Germanic peoples that invaded Britain in the 5th century.
In Gordon Brown’s latest book, Leading Not Leaving, in which he made the patriotic case for staying in the EU the final chapter reveals that he recently had a DNA test. He had presumed, given conversations about the family’s past, that he was 100% Scottish. Not so, the test showed his family also had strong Scandinavian roots.
So maybe one small way forward would be for all school children as part of learning the history of Great Britain to under go a DNA test so that individually and collectively they can learn from an early age that we are indeed a nation of immigrants and that incomers are not people to fear and scapegoat but rather part of the never ending gene pool that makes us all, in a kind of way, cousins.