22 January 2019

Don’t believe the myth that this is a nation of Little Englanders


Say what you will about Theresa May — and you can say plenty — no-one has ever accused her of being over-freighted with emotional intelligence. This has been obvious for a long time now but is a problem that, while insurmountable, has steadily grown in importance. She is hardly alone in this, of course, but it ill-behoves the leader of a country more or less divided in half to act as though she has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue.

The same, of course, could be said of some of her opponents. Newly-radicalised Remainers, for instance, are prone to thinking the very worst of all Leavers, forgetting that their own enthusiasm for Remaining part of the EU was, way back in 2016, often heavily-qualified and flecked with an understanding that the EU was at best an imperfect set of institutions that often behaved stupidly and sometimes even worse than that. Many Remain votes were cast with little enthusiasm and plenty of ambivalence. Referendums push people to extremes, however, and so the EU has been reimagined as the last, vital, bulwark against everything that’s hellish or reactionary in modern Britain.

Just as the Leave campaign was built on plenty of myths — and some of them pernicious ones at that — so, in response, the rump Remain movement has constructed matching myths of its own. Perhaps chief of these is the suggestion that Brexit has unleashed everyone’s Little Englander; every bridge is a drawbridge and every gate a portcullis.

No matter what Leave campaigners may say now, immigration was central to their victory. I see no point in them denying this for the record is plain even if it now suits them to pretend otherwise. And yet since then something startling has happened: the salience of immigration as an issue has plummeted. Before the referendum, nearly half of all voters (45 percent) named immigration one of the most serious issues facing Britain; now fewer than one in five voters tell IpsosMORI migration is that important. This is the lowest figure since 2001.

From which we may hazard that if Leave voters were — as some Remainers believe — driven by xenophobic obsession in 2016 they have, or at least many of them have, shed that xenophobia in 2019. Other surveys of opinion confirm that, contrary to what is often assumed, attitudes towards immigration have softened considerably since the referendum. Moreover, although coming from a lower base of approval, Leave voters’ beliefs around immigration have softened at much the same rate as Remainers’ views.

Furthermore, it is well-established that voters are capable of holding more than one view at a time and are happy to do so even if, in sum, these views approach the point at which they begin to contradict each other. Hence, when asked about their personal experiences or even their local communities, voters are significantly more likely to view the contribution of immigrants positively even as they worry it might have an overall negative impact on the country.

None of this is to say immigrants from EU countries have no reason for feeling anxious. Many plainly feel the wind has changed and now blows from a chillier point of the compass. And, as a matter of psychology, one may understand — and sympathise — that Brexit must have felt like a rather personal repudiation to many EU citizens residing in the UK. Equally, the implied logic of the Leave campaign was not just that future immigration was bad but also that there had been too much of it in the recent past.

Again, however, the difference between the personal and the general matters. Even on the latter front, there has been no great popular campaign to remove EU citizens or even make their lives more difficult. Which, typically, makes you wonder why the government has done its best to do exactly that. I suspect this owes something to the narrowness of Theresa May’s thinking; having interpreted the referendum as something close to a single-issue plebiscite in which the meaning of Brexit could only be satisfied by ending free movement (thereby significantly complicating her options) she lacked the empathy needed to see that EU citizens here now needed reassurance, not the sense they were being used as chips in a high-stakes political game.

Even stupidity is not guaranteed to last forever, though. So it is welcome that the government has decided not to make EU citizens pay £65 for the pleasure of registering their residence in this country. This was a penny-wise pound foolish policy anyway that could earn the government nothing but grief. As such it was a typically fat-headed, tin-eared, policy in the first place and a reminder that this government has an unusual thirst for self-inflicted pain. So much so, indeed, that sometimes it is easy to think absurdities are pursued chiefly to provide the grounds for subsequent retreat and humiliation.

Still, despite it all it seems important, I think, to draw a distinction between official policy and the way life is actually lived. The Home Office often appears and sometimes is — as the Windrush scandal confirmed — sociopathic but that does not a nation of sociopaths make.

Consider some other recent developments. The death of the actor Windsor Davies spawned a predictable flurry of nostalgia for the way things used to be. His role in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum — a situation comedy focused on the misadventures of a troupe of army musicians in India at the end of the Second World War — was fondly recalled with there being much talk of how they just don’t make ‘em like that any more and, of course, the BBC would never dare to show IAHHM ever again, not with all the political correctness gone mad and all the rest of it, you know.

Well, indeed they would not. More than most mediums, television dates quickly and comedy often has a shorter half-life than other genres. To say IAHHM was “of its time” is both obvious and generous and an implicit acknowledgement that such a show would not, indeed could not, be made today. Or, at any rate, would have to be made differently.

Throughout almost the entire history of British — and especially English — comedy it is axiomatic that foreigners are intrinsically funny. They cannot help it, the poor souls. Even so, it is striking how 1970s comedy now seems something close to obsessed with issues of race and sexuality. Homosexuals — poofs, in the parlance of the time — are both absurd and terrifying; so too, and perhaps even more so, are black men. In truth, even when judged by modern standards IAHHM was a relatively minor offender when compared with programmes such as Mind Your Language, Love Thy Neighbour and Curry and Chips.

Look them up on YouTube and see what I mean. These are shows from a different world and, if we are interested in being honest, a much narrower, nastier, one. Doubtless future generations will gawp in amazement at some of the cruelties of our own time but we in turn are able, indeed required, to note the extent to which what was deemed funny 40 years ago is not so very clever or funny now. If television is, in part, a window onto society, Britain has changed immeasurably and immeasurably for the better since a time when racial prejudice — often overt, not even “casual” — could be played for laughs on primetime. Nor was this something limited to situation comedy as the experiences of black footballers in the 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s demonstrated. That too seems to belong to a different era.

None of which is to say that Britain is always as relaxed or liberal a polity as relaxed liberals would like to believe it. Merely that, for all of everything and for all that we are more aware now of subliminal prejudice or bias, the experience of Britain enjoyed by black, Asian and other ethnic minority citizens has been transformed. If that journey is not yet complete — and in some instances far from complete —  it remains important to note how much of it has still been made. Not enough, perhaps, but far from nothing either.

I do not mean to be Panglossian about these matters. Not everything is for the best and this is not always the best of all possible worlds. Even so, the outrage caused by shortcomings — to put it kindly — in the system is as notable as the shortcomings itself and a reminder that caricatures of Britain, whether offered by Leavers or Remainers, have only a limited usefulness and purchase. That does not justify governmental heavy-handedness and stupidity but nor should a villainous bureaucracy be taken to speak for the people as a whole.

The current political climate, however, encourages almost everyone to think the very worst of people with whom they happen to have political disagreements. So be it; some of these arguments are both important and necessary. But they do not reveal the whole story or the entire picture. If we have learned anything these past three years, it might be the usefulness of allowing for good faith disagreement and the desirability of a political culture that pays some attention to the importance and power of generosity. If the government too often fails in this regard that is no reason for citizens to do likewise.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.