For those unawares, the United Kingdom voted narrowly in a June 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. According to the BBC, turnout was 72%, with 51.9% voting to leave and 48.1% choosing Remain. 17.4 million people voted Leave, mostly in England and Wales; Scotland voted heavily to remain, as did Greater London and most larger city centres. To those of us living in the UK as immigrants (EU or from another country), who pay our taxes, make our NHS contributions, and are just living our lives, this was devastating. Friends & colleagues, not to mention me, have likened it to a death or similar traumatic event.
At last week’s Conservative Party conference, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd,
unveiled plans to force companies to reveal how many foreign staff they employ, to a chorus of disapproval. She said foreign workers should not be able to “take the jobs that British people should do” and announced proposals to make companies publish the proportion of “international staff on their books. (link)
Although the government has backed off these proposals, there have been other, similar moves. The London School of Economics has been told by the Foreign Office that non-British citizens would no longer be allowed to work on academic research related to Brexit (link). Again, the government has claimed a ‘misunderstanding’ and that this is not policy, although I doubt many are reassured. For the first time since rankings began, Cambridge out of the top three universities in the world, a decline paralleled by most other British institutions and attributed largely to Brexit (link). And on, and on, and on.
I am an immigrant in Britain, funded by a European Union Initial Training Network and based at King’s College London. That grant scheme, and my position at King’s, are worth over 4 million Euros, with about £276,000 of that attached to my individual position. My Canadian/Irish partner works in academia as well, running a large digital project on British history. We are skilled workers, and I especially am explicitly being trained to take up a leading academic role. Britain has a wealth of these positions, in London and around the country, in and around academia. But I won’t be applying for any of them.
Why would I tie myself in knots to stay in a country in which 17.4 million people have made it clear that their country is better off without me, a (now) migrant, rather than permanent immigrant? I was born in the United States, earned two advanced degrees in Canada, and have lived since 2014 in London. Theresa May, the current Prime Minister of the Great Britain, had this to say about people like me:
“[I]f you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” May said in the hour-long speech on Oct. 5 to her Conservative party’s conference, “you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” (link to news story)
I understand quite well what citizenship means, thanks. I do have a PhD; thinking through literature, art, society, and culture is actually my job. Which means this type of comment is not new; it’s been made before, in Europe especially, to Jews, Roma, Armenians (in Turkey especially), in the Dutch far right, in Marine Le Pen’s France, to (invited) Turkish workers in Germany, to Syrian refugees, to French Muslims, and so on, ad nauseam, for centuries. The construction of the ‘other’ is hardly innovative, nor is the easy elision of ‘other’ with the cosmopolitan intellectual.
These is not empty rhetoric, and hate crimes have risen accordingly. Arkadiusz Jozwik, a Polish man living in Harlow, was beaten in late August and later died of his injuries (link). Five hours ago (9 October 2016) a woman walking down a Tottenham street was attacked by two men who pulled off her hijab before running away (link).
As The Guardian summarises:
The Guardian contacted the London embassies of all 27 EU member states. Of the 17 embassies that replied, almost half reported a rise in incidents of xenophobic abuse in the 12 weeks since the EU referendum. Between them, there were 60 incidents logged, including shots fired at a Lithuanian home in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, this month, an arson attack on a Romanian shop in Norwich in July and a break-in at a home in Nottingham in the immediate aftermath of the vote when a Latvian family were called “fucking immigrants” and told to leave the UK.
The bulk of the attacks were against Poles or people mistaken for Poles. A Finnish mother was told “Poles go home” when she was overheard talking to her children, according to the Finnish embassy in London. The embassies of western European countries that responded to the survey, including Spain, France and Germany, reported no post-referendum abuse against their citizens. (link)
The rhetoric of the Leave campaign, and its amplification by the May government and the Conservative party, has normalised and abetted these attacks, and they seem to me to emblematise the ugliness that has risen to the surface in Britain.
I am extraordinarily fortunate. I have an American passport and a partner who can sponsor me to live as a Permanent Resident (and eventual citizen) in Canada. I am not a refugee; I have options. Having these options, why would I choose the UK when it seems that this is the type of country it wants to become, or, perhaps, always was? Knowing every day could bring the announcement of a new list for ‘foreigners,’ or more reporting requirements for non British workers (already required of me as a visa holder), or funding restrictions, or, is it so incredible to imagine, a simple ban on hiring non British citizens at public institutions? Even though Britain has a strong job market for my specialties, my training, and my scholarship, I won’t be staying here. I am one of many, I have absolutely no doubt. I’m following others who already see the writing on the wall, and will be followed by others, I’m sure, both those who will leave and those who will never try and come.
Enjoy your Little England, which is all that will be left by the time the dust settles.