This could have been quite a different post. I started to write my thoughts about the EU referendum on the morning of the 24th of June just after I’d seen the results. It was a very raw and emotional post that I didn’t finish and won’t publish. I wished I’d never heard the word Brexit.
I’ve had a few days to let the result sink in and for my thoughts to develop. I’ve had a chance to see how post Brexit Britain is shaping up. I’m not sure that any of us could really have predicted where our country would be right now.
Explaining the referendum result to my 7 year old
On Friday morning Sofia’s first question when I told her the result of the referendum was “What happens next?” I had to tell her that nobody really knows (which is completely honest but made me feel sick to admit).
Sofia’s second question was what is going to happen to her non British friends and class mates. I explained that they would be completely fine and would still be okay to live here (for now at least).
The more difficult questions followed.
“Why do people think where you are born is so important?”
“If people are worried about foreigners coming to Britain does that mean they don’t want Papi here?”
These are tough questions to answer before my morning coffee!
Immigration is a subject that is very close to home for my family. Rolando came to the UK as an immigrant, he was born in Ecuador and only became a British citizen last year (I’ve written about his journey to citizenship , my experience is that despite what the tabloid papers may suggest it is not quick or easy to get a British passport). My children are mixed race, half British half Ecuadorian. I love that our family is a blend of two different cultures and that we speak two languages at home – I’ve blogged before about our mixed race family (My mixed race family – tea and salsa).
I can see how immigration became such a prominent issue in the referendum debate but at times I feel that it overshadowed other important issues. I think it is completely legitimate and necessary to have an informed debate about the benefits and costs of immigration to our country. To weigh up what people born overseas have contributed to Britain through the taxes paid and the type of work they have undertaken versus what they have cost the country in benefits and use of public services. I would be interested to see the detail of how an Australian points based immigration system could work for the UK (given that our countries have are very different demographics). However the tone of the discussion around immigration during the referendum campaign started to make me feel nervous.
Emotion trumps facts?
I didn’t see either side of the EU referendum campaigns present a balanced assessment of immigration. I had a leaflet through my letter box showing a map of Europe and the surrounding area with only Syria and Iraq were explicitly labelled. I heard a lot of people talking about an imminent invasion of Turkish migrants (without qualifying this with information about how likely/unlikely it is for Turkey to be approved as an EU member state).
I heard people talking about foreigners putting the NHS under pressure but did not see this quantified with any accurate information. It would have been helpful to understand what proportion of NHS spending in on non British people and how does this compare to UK nationals use of health provision overseas? I did not see the contribution of non British doctors, nurses and consultants working for our health service quantified. I understand that it is frustrating if you are on a long waiting list for treatment but it would be helpful to understand the range of factors that have contributed to this and to what extent treatment delays down to the nationality of NHS patients.
I feel that certain papers hyped up fear of immigration, emphasising difference rather than presenting evidence. The low point for me was when Nigel Farage was photographed in front of that poster of a crowd of refugees. It was finely tuned propaganda designed to be as emotive as possible and I think led the debate far away from factual information.
What does this all means for my family
The debate on immigration feels very personal to me. An attack on foreigners purely because of their nationality feels to me like an attack on my husband. It feels like an attack on my mixed race children. It makes me feel like our family is not considered British enough. I have felt that I need to repeatedly explain that my husband has never claimed benefits, committed a crime, pays his fair share of tax, runs his own business, employs British people and has only used NHS services a handful of times. He has plenty of conversations that start with “I’m not racist but…..(insert racist statement!)” or heard people criticise foreigners and then say “……oh don’t be offended you’re alright”
Post referendum reaction
I truly do not believe that everyone who voted leave is racist. People chose to vote leave for lots of different reasons – some related to immigration and some not. We will never know to what extent views of immigration informed peoples voting.
However I am certain though that people who hold racist views expressed them with a leave vote. There are some deeply hateful racist people in our county who feel that the leave vote has given their views legitimacy. It seems like the leave vote has given them confidence to act on their hate.
Less than a week on from the Brexit result we have reports of an increase in race related hate crimes. Polish families near to where I live have had offensive messages posted through their letter boxes calling them vermin and telling them to go home. Not scrawled in anger on a tatty bit of paper. These messages were printed in English and Polish and laminated the person/people responsible had put in some effort to present their hateful message to full effect. People are being verbally abused in the street and told “we voted leave now get out”.
Reasons for optimism
I am reassured that post referendum racist attacks are being highlighted and challenged. That people are outraged by hate that is being directed towards immigrants by the hateful minority. I don’t think these people represent the average leave voter. I think we have a responsibility to stand up to racism if we see it and it is heartening to see people stepping up to do this.
Cambridge, where I live, is a very international city. There are a lot of people who live here from all around the world. A lot of them work in the high tech companies here or are connected to Cambridge University. There are also a lot of international students. I hear different languages spoken everyday. I see people working here because they have specialist and sought after skills and the benefit they bring to our city. The remain vote in Cambridge was 73.8%, one of the highest in the country. In a way that it is reassuring that we have chosen to live in a part of the country that is diverse and where a lot of people hold similar views to us.
I realise that people in other parts of the UK probably have very different experiences of immigration that have informed their opinions. If you are competing for employment with people from outside the UK who are prepared to work for less money than you I can see how your reaction to immigrants is likely to be negative. In a way I think I was a bit arrogant to think that most people are likely to share my views or have the same personal experience of immigration. I guess everyone believes in their own version of reality.
We have always taught and shown our kids that difference is a good thing, that life would be boring if we were all the same and that people all have different things to contribute. I am proud that my daughter sees people as individuals and judges them by their actions not by their race, religion or skin colour. In a way it is quite reassuring that Sofia is questioning why people are focused on nationality.
I know that someday I will have to teach my 7 year old daughter that not everyone in our country thinks about difference like our family does. I hope that post Brexit Britain does not means that Sofia will have to learn this lesson way sooner than I want her to.