Closed borders and closing minds?

I returned from a brief trip to Romania with distinctly mixed emotions. There was the pleasure of a great trip, seeing old friends, being treated with immense hospitality – and at the same time, as this was my first trip to Romania since the Brexit vote, a sense of profound sadness and what we, as a nation, have decided, and perhaps even more importantly why. I know the reasons for the referendum result are complex, and I know that my views will not be popular with some, but as I see it a very significant part of what lies behind the result is old-fashioned xenophobia. I mean that precisely: a fear or distrust of strangers or foreigners.

Romania is special…

I have a long connection with Romania. My wife is Romanian, and I’ve been visiting regularly for well over a decade. There are all kinds of things I love about the country. The food is generous and fascinating – things like the way they serve pickled chillies and their own special sour cream with their soups to the great cheeses and cakes. Their folk tales, with scary dragon-like ‘zmeu’ and their scarier mothers, and even worse, the wonderfully named witch-like ‘zgripțuroaică’, are excellent. They have great cats too. This is Miți (‘Mitzi’).

Version 2

As for Romanian people, they’re great too – or rather, they’re just people. That’s really the point. There’s nothing to be especially scared of about Romanians – and they certainly don’t deserve the demonisation that they’ve been subjected to over the last few years, particularly by Nigel Farage, who amongst other things suggested that people should be scared if Romanians moved into their street, and memorably told James O’Brien that ‘you know the difference’ between Romanians and Farage’s own German wife and children.  The suggestion that Romanians are essentially cheats and criminals, people to fear, people to worry about, people that we shouldn’t let into our country, is no more credible than the idea that Romanians are all vampires – and yes, I spent half my time on this trip in Transylvania.

Romania isn’t special..

I know Romania – which is why I know the good things about it. I’ve eaten the food, listened to the folk tales, stroked the cats, walked in the forests and mountains, and spent time with the people. This, however, is not a post about how wonderful Romania is. I’m sure the same is true of every country. When you spend time with people anywhere, when you open yourself to what they have to say, when you want to learn about them, you soon find that – if you don’t start from a position of distrust or fear.

That’s what saddens me so much about what seems to have happened in the UK. We seem to be going backwards, looking inwards, and doing so out of fear. Neville Chamberlain was referring to Czechoslovakia when he talked of ‘a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing’ – but that was back in 1938, and one of the great things that I thought had happened in the intervening years was that we had begun to learn a bit more about people from around the world – and from Eastern Europe in particular. Instead, it seems we don’t just know nothing about people from some of those countries – we know less than nothing, as what we ‘know’ is based on lies, exaggerations, small pieces of ‘information’ taken out of context and twisted into something that may be even worse than lies.

Closing borders and closing minds…

The thing is, by having more people from more places in the UK, we can start to learn more, to open more, and to benefit much more – it’s not a coincidence that there is more tolerance in places where there has been more immigration, and support for UKIP and Brexit is greatest in places with the least immigration. The converse, sadly, is also likely to be true. If we have less immigration, if indeed many of those who have come here decide to leave, then we all lose. We lose opportunities to learn, to broaden our horizons, to find something new.

‘But it’s not about xenophobia, we have legitimate concerns’ will be the response of many Brexiters, and in their own minds I’m sure that’s true – and there are huge concerns in the UK at the moment, from the huge levels of inequality and poverty, the creaking NHS, the strained and dysfunctional housing market, low wages and so forth. Blaming immigration – which easily mutates into blaming immigrants themselves – for these problems, however, is very revealing. The evidence, at least the academic evidence (I won’t use the unfashionable term ‘experts’) is generally against making such an association. Of course I am biased – but I am aware of my bias, at least of its existence. Academics refer to something called ‘confirmation bias’ – broadly speaking, that there is a tendency to seek out and to believe evidence that confirms your own theories, your beliefs (and indeed your prejudices), whilst downplaying or disparaging evidence that opposes it.

As someone in favour of immigration (for all the reasons mentioned above) I am naturally predisposed to evidence that makes immigration seem a positive. I do at least acknowledge that. Why, then, would somebody take the converse position: downplaying, denying or disparaging the evidence that suggests (for example) that ‘health tourism’ is minimal, that immigration does not impact upon employment rates, that has an infinitesimal effect on wages and so forth? That is where my biggest sadness comes. The main reason to choose to believe stories that blame immigration rather than those that point out the positives is that those stories confirm existing prejudices. Confirmation bias in practice… in this case confirming the xenophobia.

That’s where my sadness comes in. We’ll survive Brexit – if nothing else, spending time with Romanians provides a strong and healthy reminder that people can get through awful times, outlast awful governments, and find a way to make the best of it. Right now, Romanian people are protesting against a government that literally wants to stop corruption being a crime – but they’ve lived through dictatorship and come out the other side. We’ll do the same – ‘muddling through’ in British style perhaps. That we have to is sad – and that we’ve chosen to close our minds as well as our borders is even sadder.

12 thoughts on “Closed borders and closing minds?

  1. I too find the current situation depressing. I am of the ‘peace and love’ generation – yet these very people are the ones who overwhelmingly have blocked the next generation of opportunities to live, work and (like you) love in Europe. Sadder still are the interviews with these people who talk about ‘too many Chinese restaurants’, wanting to take control but they can’t say what of, and cite the tastiness of tomatoes or the bendiness of bananas – what they really mean is they don’t like foreigners. Of course if we are to maintain our health and public services we will need foreigners from the commonwealth to replace the Eastern Europeans and when they don’t like that they will blame the Remainers.

    • I’m not sure who you count as being part of the – ‘peace and love’ generation – but let’s take it that it applies to those of us who were born in the early to late-mid 1940s.
      Many of us had benefited from the relaxation of the previous tight controls on who was chosen to have grants to enter University to all those chosen by Universities would get grants.
      Election of President of University Unions and NUS moved from the
      traditional covert Tories = Captain of Rugby or Cricket, and vice President, Captain of Hockey or Lacrosse.
      to the overtly political – Broad Left / NOLS
      Kinnock, Straw, Clarke, and later, Slipman, Aaronovitch and Philips.
      How quickly they turned upon their younger selves.
      How quickly they discarded their political ladders to success such as CND.
      How quickly they pulled up the ladder of University Fees and Maintenance GRANTS and substituted the razor rope of Loans.
      Therefore, be not surprized at the retreat into petty nationalizm of so many of that ‘peace and love’ generation –
      “They were only playing leapfrog”
      and still are.

  2. I know that xenophobia lives, but I don’t see it as the main reason behind Brexit. If you care to take a look at some of those who want to change the democratic vote you may find the reason. Although it is probably not the case in such places as London, the majority of the people of this country are sick and tired of those who aspire to tell us what to think – they want a change.
    Am I the only one who remembers who it was who caused all of our present problems? How the bankers drained the real economy dry and how Tony Blair and Bush started a war that had nothing to do with us? These are the people who make the British sick and tired and also just happen to be the same ones who want to reverse the vote.

    • Excellent post and I agree with you. As to the bankers and wars, that was not the fault of the EU. If people really wanted change, they should engage. So many people moan about being left behind or ignored but do nothing about it. If those people feel they are being told what to think, why accept it? Challenge any such notion. I resent being referred to as a liberal elite because I voted remain and I make that point wherever I can. I worked hard to gain my qualifications and I have a good job and feel no need to apologise for that. Sadly so many people are xenophobic and just don’t want to realise or want to admit that this is the case. I am equally saddened over closed minds and closed borders.

    • Sadly all the vote has done (apart from impoverish us culturally, financially and so forth) is mean that another bunch of revolting people have more power over us – from Murdoch and Trump to Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling. I understand (and agree with) the frustration with Blair and the rest, but in practice they’re not the people who are being harmed by this.

      • @davidcoles99 February 20, 2017 at 5:26 pm

        ” … it is generally less fortunate people who will suffer most! ”
        “For whom the bell tolls”
        As austerity bites deeper and harder, as Our=NHS is Spiv-ed into Private hands and as the Private/Employment Pension funds are allowed to freeze their levels of increase to Zero, millions more of us will be pitchforked into that group of “less fortunate people”.
        In fact, we’ll be downright POOR!
        So, nix on your optimizm.

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