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’).

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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.

Welcome to ‘Great’ Britain?

I’ve just finished a visit to Burma – Myanmar – a place I last visited in 1991. That visit was one of the most important of my life – a truly cathartic experience, one from which I emerged in many ways transformed. Even now, more than twenty years later, it remains one of the most important times of my life.

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Many things have changed in Burma since 1991: the rapid political and economic changes in the last few years have seen to that. There was nothing like the high-rise buildings that are sprouting all around the centre of Yangon back then – nor the almost overwhelming levels of traffic. The stultifying bureaucracy and feeling that almost anything would be blocked or forbidden has also mostly gone – arriving at Yangon airport was just like arriving at almost any other international airport.

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Some things, thankfully, have not changed. The gorgeous light at dawn and dusk. That characteristic aroma, mixing spice and dried fish, salt and chilli. The shining golden pagodas poking up from between the buildings in town and the green forests and jungles in the countryside. The immense feeling of time – the lack of hurry, the lack of urgency. And, most importantly, the wonderful welcoming nature of the people. Even back in 1991, when Burma was in the grip of one of the most murderous and oppressive military dictatorships in the world, that was the thing that I noticed most about the country. Everywhere I went, people welcomed me with smiles and open, interested questions. With tea and tamarind, a seat and some shade. Not out of desperation, or a chance of relief from oppression – but a simple, honest, human welcome.

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The same was true this time. The people were without exception great – we travelled a fair bit, staying in a variety of places, and met a lot of people. The same (British) friend who I visited back in 1991 was again my host – now married to a Burmese artist, and with a half-Burmese daughter – and we met a wide variety of people, from former political prisoners to Buddhist monks and a Catholic nun who runs an hospital for women and children living with HIV. We went to local restaurants and bough food from street stalls. We visited pagodas and other sites. We took taxis – and in every case the people were friendly, open, and smiling. The day before we left, one old tax driver asked us where we were from, and when I said England he smiled even wider, and said ‘great country’.

That set me thinking – was the old taxi driver right? Is our country great? When we prepared to leave Burma, and I read that The Times had named Nigel Farage ‘Briton of the Year’, I really started to wonder. Coming up to the end of 2014, I think The Times may be right – Nigel Farage may well be the ‘best’ representative of what Britain has become. His party, UKIP, shows quite how far we’ve fallen – and quite how sad and desperate a state we are in. Where the Burmese show welcome, openness and happiness we display the opposite: hostility, xenophobia and closed-mindedness.

And there’s no reason for it. Britain isn’t ‘full’. Immigrants have next-to-nothing to do with all the various problems we face. They didn’t cause the financial crisis. They don’t impose upon our creaking health service – quite the opposite, they’re what keeps it alive. It’s not immigrants who keep rents high and wages low – or even contribute to those high rents and low wages. The exploitative economy and dysfunctional housing market are nothing to do with them. They don’t make our benefits bill higher – again, quite the opposite, they’re contributors, not a burden. .And yet, as Farage and UKIP’s ‘rise’ shows, we do our very best not to make them welcome. The reverse. We blame them for things we shouldn’t. We believe the lies we’re told and assume and expect the worst – all Romanians are thieves, all Muslims either terrorists or terrorist sympathisers and so on. We elect an MP who openly advocates forced repatriation. Our ‘major’ political parties play the same xenophobic tune, effectively accepting that immigration is a ‘problem’ and failing to challenge the lies and misinformation that underpin that belief. Rather, there’s a race to the bottom – let’s see who can be the most xenophobic, the most unpleasant, the most full of viciousness and scapegoating.

Seeing Burma again, meeting Burmese people again, reminded me how much we’ve lost. How much humanity we’ve lost. How much grace, how much humility, how much openness we’ve lost. We’ve forgotten how to make people welcome. I hope that in 2015 we can start to remember again. Sadly I doubt it very much.

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Photo of the author by Htein Lin.

#Establishment?

Two seemingly very different stories have been dominating the left-wing UK political scene on Twitter over the last week or two. The first is the remarkable success of the #CameronMustGo hashtag, the second the Trumpton UKIP saga. They’re very, very different things – and on the surface seem not to have very much in common – but there are strong connections between the two, connections that suggest some interesting things about how social media, and Twitter in particular, can work.

The #CameronMustGo hashtag is still trending (as I type this) after two weeks and more than a million tweets, in the face of a whole series of derogatory articles in the mainstream media (as I discussed here), and reactions from disdain to rage. To get a hashtag to trend isn’t easy at the best of times, and to get it to trend for this long is nothing short of remarkable – indeed, the disappointment last night when (seemingly briefly) the hashtag dropped off the trending list almost made me laugh, but had a serious point. Getting the hashtag to trend has given groups of people a sense of power – a sense that they can have at least some impact, albeit only in the virtual world of Twitter, when they otherwise feel so powerless in the face of a seemingly overwhelming establishment.

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The UKIP Trumpton phenomenon seems very different. The initial UKIP Trumpton account was a parody account, one of many such accounts on Twitter – I run a parody account myself, @KipperNick – but until a few days ago it had just a small following. It was funny, particularly for people of a certain generation (including myself) who grew up watching programmes like Trumpton, Camberwick Green and so forth – but it wasn’t earth-shattering, until it started to be attacked by UKIP MEP David Coburn for being ‘fake’. That started a twitter storm, one that has raged ever since. @Trumpton_UKIP now has 18.9 thousand followers, more than twice David Coburn’s number, and has spawned a whole range of related Trumpton accounts, as well as a wide range of attacks from UKIP supporters, some suggesting that it shouldn’t be allowed to use the word ‘UKIP’ in its name, others invoking (more than a touch dubiously) intellectual property law. The more the attacks come, the more the parody thrives – and the more attention it gets, from the mainstream press, and even from TV and radio.

So what’s the connection between the two, apart from being attacks on right wing politicians? Well, first of all, they both emerged from small, humble roots – the people behind the initial #CameronMustGo hashtag and the @Trumpton_UKIP account are ordinary Twitter users, not part of political parties or backed by the mainstream media. Both took root through the grassroots of twitter – yes, the #CameronMustGo hashtag was taken up by official Labour Party people, but the mainstay was (and remains) much more ordinary twitter users. Both thrive in the face of (at least partial) mainstream attacks – indeed, the attacks seem to make them stronger. Both use humour – even a brief look at the #CameronMustGo stream shows that a fair proportion of the tweets either are or use jokes as their basis, while the Trumpton accounts are based almost entirely on humour. And they’re funny. Very funny at times.

Both, too, seem to have caught the ‘establishment’ on the hop – and for all its protestations, UKIP is very much part of the establishment. Whether it’s UKIP or the Tories, the BBC or the mainstream press, the social media is something that they can’t quite get on top of. It’s not as controllable as they want it to be – and it challenges their control over the ‘message’. The Labour Party shouldn’t get complacent either – the wrath of Twitter is as likely to turn upon them as it has on the Tories and UKIP. If they try to use the people of Twitter as their political tools, they can expect a backlash. If there’s one thing #CameronMustGo and Trumpton has shown, it’s that it’s the people that count, not the parties. And long may that last.

 

 

The Nige Before Christmas

Farage Santa Ill

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the House

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The Kippers were watching the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nigel so soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

With no chance of sex ed in their little heads.

And Mark in his ‘kerchief, and Doug in his cap,

Had settled their brains for a long winter’s nap.

Mark and Doug

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutter, and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Gave the lustre of midday to objects below,

When, what in the world should I suddenly find,

But a man on a tank, who was out of his mind.

Farage tank

With a fag in one hand, in the other a beer

St Nige looked around with some kind of a leer

He looked this way and that as though searching around

For something he wanted, some thing to be found

St Nige doesn’t care if you’re naughty or nice

He cares if you cook with too much foreign spice

If your daddy or mummy came from the wrong place

If your accent is strange, or you have the wrong face

He has gifts for rich Brits, but for migrants the boot

And for everyone else just more hardship and soot

He’ll travel the land checking homes all around

If he sees a strange face, or hears a strange sound

Then it’s time to repatriate, quick as a flash

To send them all ‘home’, with a dash, dash, dash, dash

No matter how nice, no matter how good

There’s no place for them in his neighbourhood

St Nige has no sleigh, and no fine reindeer

But he does have his tank, and his fag and his beer

And behind him are mobs, all filled up with hype

He dog-whistles loudly and calls them by type:

“Come bigots, come racists

Come Englanders Little

Join our people’s army

Be ready for battle

Come lost and afraid

We’ve got someone to blame

It’s the immigrants’ fault

Let’s show them our flame.”

The BNP, EDL and Britain First

Oh, all Britain’s racists, they gather, the worst

To support the great Nigel, their hero and saint

You’d better watch out, their hearts are not faint

 EDL etc

Saint Nigel looked up and he flashed me a smile

A smile more befitting a dread crocodile

He winked and he grinned and I knew what he meant

A message it was, a message he sent.

“Happy Christmas to all – if you’re British and rich

And for everyone else, well life is a bitch.”

Farage Santa Ill

Mr Bigot’s Halloween….

MR BIGOTs Halloween cover

 

 

Mr Bigot liked Halloween.

It was one of his favourite celebrations. Mr Bigot liked scaring people – it was one of his favourite activities. Only that morning he’d tried to scare all the listeners to a radio programme about how all those nasty immigrants were coming over here to take their jobs, to claim huge amounts of money in benefits, to destroy their health service, fill their schools, and much, much more. Just like every other morning.

Oh yes, Mr Bigot liked Halloween a lot. And this Halloween was going to be particularly special. UKIP had organised a very special party. Mr Bigot was really looking forward to it.

He didn’t really need a costume. He was scary enough as it was – and he knew it. Just a set of fangs and a cloak would do. He could put on a Romanian accent – everyone knew Romanians were scary. Oh yes. Terrifying.

The party was happening at one of London’s best clubs. Mr Bigot was a member – as were a number of his friends. There wouldn’t be any riffraff let in.

Mr Bigot didn’t like riffraff. Oh, he always liked a good photo-shoot with common people, but that was quite enough. Mr Bigot liked to portray himself as a man of the people, but really he wasn’t sure he liked people very much.

He put on his cloak and fitted his fangs as he approached the club, and smiled spookily at the liveried man at the door. The man smiled back and touched his top hat deferentially, welcoming Mr Bigot in. Mr Bigot found him entering a place of wonder: the entire club had been decked out in a spectacularly spooky style. There were heavy cobwebs on every chandelier, jack-o-lanterns on every window sill, curtains of black velvet and much, much more. Long tables were filled with silver platters filled with steaming food. The aroma was wonderful.

MR BIGOTs Halloween blank

One of Mr Bigot’s oldest friends, dressed up as Frankenstein’s monster, complete with bolt, lurched quickly across the room to greet him with a strange kind of smile. Mr Bigot leaned over to him.

“Looks great, old boy,” Mr Bigot whispered, “must have cost a pretty penny.”

“Oh,” said his friend, “no need to worry about that. Thanks to our new Polish friend, we’re quids in these days.”

His friend pointed across the room to a slightly disreputable looking fellow dressed in a black military uniform. The man smiled and gave a straight armed salute. Mr Bigot smiled back.

Then Mr Bigot took a closer look around the room. People were dressed in all kinds of different costumes. There were a few witches, a lot of skeletons, and plenty of zombies – though those might just have been some of the party members who hadn’t read their invitations carefully enough to realise it was supposed to be fancy dress.

Then Mr Bigot had an uncomfortable thought. He whispered again to his Frankenstein’s monster friend.

“There aren’t any reporters here, are there?”

“Oh no, Mr Bigot,” his friend replied. “Just Nick and David over there, and they can be trusted completely.”

Mr Bigot looked over to where his friend was pointed, and there were Nick Robinson and David Dimbleby, rather poorly disguised as neutral, independent journalists, sipping at their drinks and sharing a laugh.

MR BIGOTs Halloween close

“Excellent,” said Mr Bigot with a smile. “Now, I really need a drink!”

“Beer?”

“God no,” said Mr Bigot, “do you know how many photo-shoots I’ve done today? I’m sick of the taste of the stuff. Get me a claret, and a good one.”

While he waited for his friend to bring him his drink, Mr Bigot wandered around the room, listening to the undead band playing UKIP Calypso, and chatting with a few of the more unusually dressed guests. The first he came to was dressed in a pink shirt and very tight trousers, and had an obviously false handlebar moustache.

“What have you come as?” Mr Bigot asked.

“I am a gay Bulgarian,” the man said with a guffaw. “Scary, eh?”

“Very,” Mr Bigot agreed, “just don’t go getting married – we could do without more floods!”

“How about you?” Mr Bigot asked the next one, who was blacked up and wearing rags.

“I have Ebola,” the man replied, with a faux African accent almost as good as Mike Read’s Jamaican one.

“We should never have let you in,” Mr Bigot laughed, “or anyone like you.”

Mr Bigot strolled past a pair dressed in business suits with blue ties with yellow stars, wearing blank face masks. Eurocrats, of course. Another had even come as José Manuel Barroso.

MR BIGOTs Halloween closer

Just as Frankenstein’s monster lurched up with his drink, Mr Bigot saw another costume he couldn’t quite place. Skin darker than Mr Bigot was comfortable with, torn clothes soaking wet, heavy fronds of seaweed draped over his shoulders and head. The man saw him staring and smiled.

“I’m a drowning migrant in the Mediterranean,” he said, and Mr Bigot grimaced.

“Damn those Tories,” he muttered under his breath, “why did they think of that idea first? It’s brilliant.”

The drink tasted a little strange to Mr Bigot – not a claret at all, but some kind of mulled wine, thick with spice. Mr Bigot took a large swig, and felt the drink go straight to his head. He shook himself, wondering what was coming over him, and went to sit down in a large, comfortable arm chair. It had been a long day. He was tired. He drank down the rest of his drink and leant back in his chair, closing his eyes.

When he opened them, he found a strange man approaching him. The man was unshaven, and wearing a T-shirt with ‘LBC’ in small letters on the chest. In his hand he held a microphone, attached to some kind of tape recorder. What’s going on? thought Mr Bigot. I thought there were no reporters here. Then he relaxed. It must be a costume. The man’s first words confirmed it.

“I’ve come as James O’Brien,” the man said with a smile, “I thought you might find it scary.” Mr Bigot couldn’t help a silent shudder – he still remembered being ambushed on LBC. Whoever this was, he had a nasty sense of humour. Should go far.

MR BIGOTs Halloween closest

“Perhaps,” the man said, “I could give you a quick interview?”

“Of course,” replied Mr Bigot with a sharp-fanged smile. The man held out his faux microphone, clicked a button on his faux tape recorder and started asking questions. Boring stuff to start with, just like most interviews. How nice it must feel to be so high in the polls, to have one MP and another on the way. Mr Bigot gave the usual answers – he could do this in his sleep.

“You must be delighted that the public has realised,” the interviewer said, “that immigrants are responsible for so many problems – taking away jobs, costing a fortune in benefits, destroying our health services and so on.”

Mr Bigot smiled again, but then, to his complete surprise found himself saying something he hadn’t planned. And laughing.

“Surely you don’t actually believe that,” Mr Bigot couldn’t stop himself saying, “do you? I mean, even I don’t believe that. I know very well that immigration doesn’t cost jobs, or any of that other rot. Are you stupid? I’m not. This is politics, matey.”

Mr Bigot felt thick-headed. It must have been the drink. And yet he still couldn’t stop himself.

“It’s brilliant, isn’t it? So many dopes take what we say at face value. All those idiots vote for us – it’s worse than turkeys voting for Christmas. I mean, workers vote for us though we want to take away their rights! As though anything we say would make any difference at all except to make their lives harder, and make us richer. We know it’s rot, you know it’s rot. But better to blame Johnny Foreigner than my mates in the banks. And when they vote for us, we get all this,” he waved his hand around the opulent surroundings. “There’s no gravy-train like the Brussels gravy-train,” he finished, “and long may it continue.”

“What?” said the interviewer, “don’t you want us to leave the EU?”

“God no,” said Mr Bigot with a laugh, “if we leave we all know business will be down the tubes – and all these lovely expenses will stop flowing. Still, we’ve got to keep saying we want to leave. That’s the point, isn’t it?”

“And immigration? What about immigration?”

“If we don’t have immigration,” Mr Bigot found himself saying, “where will I get my chauffeurs from? Where will we find women to clean behind the fridges? Just so long as immigrants are properly frightened, that’s good enough for me. That way we can pay them a pittance and they’ll have to accept it. And just as long as there’s enough hate and fear to keep people distracted, everything’s just the way I want it.”

The man pressed the button on his tape recorder and suddenly looked stern. “That’s great,” he said with a sly smile. “You do realise that I really am James O’Brien, I hope? This will be great on the LBC news.”

MR BIGOTs Halloween closest white

Mr Bigot’s face went white. He felt cold inside. What on earth had made him say all of that? It wasn’t like him at all. He was usually so good at keeping up the pretence. Even when he made little slips he got over them with a laugh and a smile. This time, though, he couldn’t see how he could do that. It was a nightmare. A complete nightmare. He closed his eyes and could feel the tears begin to come. What a horrible Halloween.

Suddenly he felt an arm on his shoulder. He opened his eyes. James O’Brien was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Frankenstein’s monster stood before him.

“Are you alright, Mr Bigot?” his friend whispered. “I think you must have dozed off for a while.”

“But…” Mr Bigot shook himself. Had it all been a dream? Had he imagined it all? He sighed, long and slow, the composed himself. It must have been. Oh, it had felt scary – but there was no real need to be scared – at least not for Mr Bigot. The rest of the country, well they had plenty to be scared about.

For everyone else, the nightmare had only just begun.

MR BIGOTs Halloween cover

 

 

Words by @paulbernalUK, art by @kaiserofcrisps and @paulbernalUK

For the original Mr Bigot, see here.

Immigration, xenophobia and racism…

Every so often, these days, someone says something about immigration that makes me think about racism, xenophobia, or both. Often it’s someone from UKIP, but recently Tory politicians have been joining in pretty regularly – and even Lib Dems and Labourites have been triggering the same reaction in me. Whenever I mention this on Twitter, in amongst the other reactions there will pretty much every time be someone who says something like ‘why does someone wanting to limit or control immigration have to be racist or xenophobic?’

The answer I generally give is that of course they don’t – but these days, all too often, the reasons behind such statements have racism or xenophobia in the background. That is, not all those people wanting to control or limit immigration are racists or xenophobes, but a lot of xenophobes or racists use the relative respectability of opposition to immigration as a cover story from xenophobia or racism.

I had three interesting altercations of this kind on Twitter last week – from what I remember, they came after the revelation that UKIP had done a deal with a Polish MEP who happened to be a Holocaust Denier. In all three cases, the starting point was a seemingly rational objection to immigration. I engaged with the argument – I don’t always, because these kinds of arguments can be exhausting and depressing – and in all three cases the ending was memorable. The first finished with the suggestion that Labour councils had been engaging in ‘ethnic cleansing of whites’ (the words of my opponent). The second peaked with the remarkable statement that everything always goes downhill when the proportion of whites in an area goes below 60% – a ‘fact’ that I was assured couldn’t be racist because my opponent has been told it by a black person. The third argument was much more rational, and specifically about immigration from the EU. It ended with a suggestion that one of the biggest problems with EU immigration was that communities didn’t integrate. When I pushed on this point, asking which EU communities didn’t integrate, the answer came Poles and West Africans. Aside from my own experience of the Poles as integrating very well into British society (as they have since their great contribution to the Battle of Britain), the way that West Africans somehow fitted the ‘EU migration’ story made that old feeling of racism and xenophobia come back again.

It happened again when I read of Michael Fallon’s comments of towns feeling ‘swamped’ and ‘under siege’ by EU immigrants. If he really was talking about EU immigrants, what was it that made him feel ‘swamped’? Too many Polish shops on his high street? Too many shopping aisles in his local Tesco with Eastern European specialist products on them? Hearing Czech spoken at the bus stop? Does he think he can tell an Eastern European from a Western European just by looking at them – I mean, Nigel Farage may be able to ‘know the difference’ between a Romanian and a German, but…

To me it feels like dog whistle politics. When Fallon talks about feeling under siege, he means that ‘they’ look different from ‘us’. ‘We’ should feel threatened by ‘them’. That’s feeding into racism and xenophobia – and I’m afraid that’s all too common in the anti-immigrant rhetoric going around at the moment. That’s where the ‘too many black faces’ talk comes from, the ‘ethnic cleansing of whites’, the ‘going downhill when the White faces go below 60%’, and the non-integration of West Africans goes. And whilst we’re at it, non-integrations is often a cypher in itself. It suggests people shouldn’t talk their own languages, even amongst themselves, shouldn’t wear any clothes that aren’t ‘British’ enough – and certainly shouldn’t practice any religion other than Christianity openly.

Of course there are rational arguments against immigration – though most of them fall apart under serious scrutiny. Those twin myths of ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefit tourism’ keep being trotted out though the figures show they’re negligible – and indeed immigrants tend to be younger, healthier and less likely to claim benefits than non-immigrants, as well as contributing more in taxes than they cost in terms of health and benefits. ‘They’ aren’t taking ‘our’ jobs either – in general immigration creates as many jobs as it takes, and boosts the economy. The problem problems we have with housing are connected with chronic underinvestment and a dysfunctional market – not immigration.

All this, however, is lost in the morass of misinformation, much of it fuelled by racism and xenophobia. What are also lost in this mess are the real causes of the real problems in places like Clacton, Rochester and elsewhere. Whilst focussing on the immigrants, the unscrupulous landlords, dodgy employers and tax-avoiding rich people and companies who mess up the housing market, pay poverty wages and massively reduce the tax take necessary to make the investments those communities need, are laughing all the way to their off-shore banks. Politicians wreaking havoc through austerity and ‘reform’ are left to enjoy their subsidised drinks in the Commons’ bars. The real villains are happy to see immigrants and immigration take the blame. Of course they are.

So no, talking about wanting to limit or control immigration isn’t racist or xenophobic – but plenty of xenophobes and racists talk about wanting to control immigration. And plenty of others are selfish enough to encourage them to do so, because it keeps their own actions away from the limelight. It keeps them from being held to account – and it allows the story to keep on going in exactly the same way. The side effects of the encouragement of racism and xenophobia are hideous, and the damage it does to us as a whole, as a culture, as a community, is incalculable. It divides, it stigmatises, it spreads suspicion, distrust and fear. It’s what makes people suspect any Muslim could be a terrorist, every African a carrier of Ebola, every Serb a war criminal, every Romanian a thief. It diminishes all of us. That it’s allowed to grow, to fester, is something that makes me, for one, deeply sad.

The Ballad of KipperNick

Nick RobinsonIn the run up to the local and European elections, I became increasingly frustrated by the way that the BBC were dealing with them. It wasn’t really something new so much as an accumulation of frustrations over the last few years – the way that, it seemed to me, the BBC had played a pivotal part in the rise of UKIP. Anyway, more of that later. I decided to have a little experiment. I created a Twitter account, @KipperNick – a parody of Nick Robinson, who seemed to be playing the role of cheerleader-in-chief for Nigel Farage and UKIP. The main reason was to vent a little of my anger at the BBC, but I also thought I would have some fun – and I really did. I learned a little bit too…

This was @KipperNick’s first tweet:

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I followed it with a few along similar lines – I didn’t try to hide the fact that this was a parody account. The name ‘KipperNick’ should have made it pretty obvious for a start, and the bio clearly described it as a parody. Perhaps my humour was a little dark – though I think that darkness was appropriate for the subject matter. Anyway, the little parody was pretty successful from the start – a lot of RTs (as in that case), including a couple with over 200:

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Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 17.11.15All in all, it was fun and a bit strange – I found it surprisingly easy to parrot the kind of language that Nick Robinson uses, and a lot of fun to tease him. I did wonder whether the man himself ever read the tweets – I did @mention him a couple of times – but I doubt it very much. There were, however, a couple of things that happened that surprised me. The first was that within about 10 tweets, the account was briefly suspended – I imagine someone reported me for something. On my main account, I’ve never been suspended – I’ve done over 127,000 tweets with it, and some pretty provocative – but with @KipperNick it took no time at all. I assumed at the time it was a disgruntled UKIPper… they do seem to be a bit trigger happy.

The second thing that surprised me was the number of people who thought I was the real Nick Robinson. As I’ve said, I didn’t exactly disguise the account very well, but I had a lot of people tweet at me as though I was the real Nick. Some thought I was serious about there being interviews with Nigel Farage on the hour every hour on election day. Others were seemingly genuinely angry with the BBC’s obsession with UKIP, and thought my tweets were the real thing. It wasn’t just one or two, but lots.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 17.30.15The trouble was, I don’t think my parody was far from the mark at all. When the BBC really did try to link a report from the French Open tennis to Nigel Farage, it was beyond the level of parody. When I posted this, people didn’t believe it – but it was the one entirely genuine post of the whole story of @KipperNick.

So what does all of this mean? Well, for me, it means that the BBC should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves – and as I listened to David Dimbleby’s increasingly nervous chuckle during the European election broadcast, I think they were beginning to feel a little of that themselves. They’re not stupid – well, I don’t think so.

The idea of putting Nigel Farage on Question Time regularly probably seemed like fun to start with – and the broadcasters do like to shake things up. Mainstream politics IS incredibly dull at the moment, with three main parties pursuing seemingly identical policies in most ways, with candidates looking pretty much identical and sounding pretty much identical. Having a ‘funny’ character like Farage on to spice things up sounds like a great idea – but the more they did it, and without serious criticism, the bigger a hole they were digging. When you add to the equation the huge amounts of xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny in the tabloid press in particular, the momentum starts to build.

The BBC is hardly blameless in other ways – and the rest of the TV industry could be even worse. The amount of ‘poverty porn’ on our screens over the last few years has been part of a larger level of encouragement of a divisive, blame-based approach to our problems. It fosters hate – and the UKIP agenda feeds directly into it. Over the last few weeks the media seems to have realised this a little, and started to scrutinise UKIP a bit more – but until James O’Brien’s interview on LBC mere days before the election, Farage had never been called properly to account either on TV or on radio. The BBC should feel thoroughly ashamed of their role in this – and there should be some serious soul-searching going on.

Mind you, I doubt very much that any is happening at all. Memories seem almost as absent as consciences in the BBC.