On the EU, Yellow Ambulances and Little Red Bicycles

Belgians fleeing westwards away from the advancing German army, 12 May 1940

When she was just fourteen, my grandma and her family rode bicycles from Belgium, through France to Calais, where they boarded a ship to England, leaving the continent and the oncoming Nazi occupation forces.

My grandma rode her prized possession: a shiny red bicycle. It was a Christmas gift she had to leave behind at the docks, as there was so little room on the ferry. She told us she watched that bicycle from the ship as it set sail, getting smaller and smaller.

I think a lot about that bicycle.

As a toy-crazy child in the nineties, I’m fairly sure I felt that bicycle was the most tragic thing in the entire story.

Now, I think about that bicycle and how scared that little girl must have been. I think about how brave my gran was, how brave she and her parents and her little brother must have been, to leave behind their home, their friends, their country, everything they knew, in the hope of a better life. Four people in the first wave of thousands who fled Belgium for the UK, fearing a repeat of German atrocities committed in Belgium during WW1.

I would be a terrible immigrant.

I know I would. It takes guts to leave behind everything you know. I don’t have that courage.

I’ve moved a mere two hours from my hometown, to London, and even that can seem like the other side of the world, with different rules, a different language. How do immigrants deal with leaving so much behind? Where do they find the courage to balance the demands of their new home with those of the old — the parents and friends left behind, the entreaties to come back home and stay there?

My dad died, very suddenly, five years ago. The week I started my current job in London he fell over and didn’t get up or speak or move or do anything ever again. I saw him in hospital, held his corpse-still hands and said goodbye, made another journey to speak at his funeral, another to clear out his home. I should have done more — If I’d lived locally we might have found him sooner, I might have been more help to my mother and sister.

How much harder would it have been, if I’d lived in a foreign country? Nobody decides to emigrate on a whim, nobody leaves home because it’s the easy option. I am in awe of immigrants.

So no, I don’t see my family enough. So when we talk, we stay away from politics, from the rough, raw places we disagree. But tomorrow’s vote is the most important we will all see in our lifetimes — and my family’s history is tied up with Europe. So I asked my family, where did they stand? And … for the most part I found the conversations disappointing.

But my family, like the rest of you, have been lied to. This is not a debate about immigration. It should not be, it should be about economics, about our place on the global stage, about all the things our EU membership has given us. It should be about us trying our damnedest not to be the first country in history to walk away from the greatest project of peace, optimism, co-operation and togetherness this continent has ever seen, a project that was set up as a direct response to the war my family escaped, to prevent a repeat of those terrible times. How would we show our faces in Europe again, after walking away from that?

It shouldn’t be about immigration. But the ‘Brexiters’ — after they thoroughly lost the economic debate — have done what the far right always do: they’ve made it about immigration. It is the easiest thing in the world for politicians to point at marginalised groups and blame them for the problems they’ve created. To make people afraid of the ‘other’. Last week, Farage put out a poster that is indistinguishable from Nazi propaganda posters of the 1940s. From Donald Trump building his wall, to Farage, to the people my grandmother escaped, those in power have convinced us to blame the powerless for our trouble again and again, and by and large, they’ve succeeded. Because in a world where the richest 1% own 99% of the world’s wealth, all our troubles must be the immigrants’ fault, right?

As Iain Banks put it, in his last ever interview:

“Your society’s broken, so who should we blame? Should we blame the rich, powerful people who caused it? No, let’s blame the people with no power and no money and these immigrants who don’t even have the vote, it must be their fucking fault.”

So Boris, so Farage, so you cowardly, vile lot, you want to make this about immigration? Let’s fucking talk about immigration.

Obviously, there’s no agenda here.

Let’s talk about the sheer guts it takes to emigrate. About the fact that leaving your home country is NEVER a casual decision. Let’s talk about the myths Boris’s friends in high places have created, that idea that ‘they’re coming here because we give them a free ride’. His friends in high places like Sun newspaper owner Rupert Murdoch, who’s admitted he only supports Brexit because British politicians do what he says, whereas European ones don’t. Consider that, and consider who publishes the scaremongering stories you read about lazy immigrants on benefits (or are the immigrants taking ‘our’ jobs? I’m confused). Consider how absurd the notion is that someone would have the sheer drive to leave everything they know and then live on the dole and sit on their arse all day. The idea that they wouldn’t want to continue to succeed, to drive, to improve, to contribute to society. Consider that immigrants are less likely to claim benefits than our homegrown British citizens. Consider that immigration is good for the economy — it increases our labour force, it pushes up consumer spending.

Did you know the actual EU website keeps an online dictionary of all the myths about the EU in the British press? Have a look through that. Have a good laugh, I’ll wait. From curvy bananas to EU regulations on barmaid’s cleavage, this diet of misinformation Murdoch and his like are feeding us would be hilarious if it weren’t so goddamned scary. With thanks to novelist Nick Harkaway, I’m naming these lies ‘yellow ambulances’, due to the strangest item under ‘A’ in that dictionary: that the EU forced us to paint all our ambulances yellow.

Is it any wonder that when it comes to the EU, surveys reveal British people are wrong about, well, basically everything? We think we have significantly more EU migrants, pay more in benefits and EU membership is more expensive than is actually the case.

Yellow ambulances. Can you hear the sirens blaring? ‘FREELOADERS’ they sing. ‘THEY’RE NOT LIKE US.’ Yellow for cowardice, yellow for fear.

Farage’s poster? A yellow ambulance. A nasty little lie — with the white person’s face covered up and the location of the photo, supposed to be England’s green and pleasant borders, actually somewhere between Croatia and Slovenia.

“They’re all coming here!” says your mate in the pub. “Nah, mate,” you shout over the sirens coming out his mouth. “They’re really not. We’re not even taking our fair share.” He can’t hear you, over the ambulances.

“We send £350 million a week to the EU!” No, we bloody don’t.

Speaking of ambulances: “They just want our NHS!” cry the Brexiters, who seem unaware that the majority of European countries enjoy universal healthcare, and EU immigrants make up 10% of NHS doctors and 4% of our nurses. The BMJ last week came out in favour of the Remain campaign, and could not name one prominent national medical, research, or health organisation that has sided with Brexit.

“They want to come here and claim benefits!” Please do me a favour, put yourself in the shoes of an EU migrant and research your benefits. I haven’t made much distinction in this article between refugees and migrants, because ten minutes talking to most Brexitters reveals they don’t care about the difference: most seem to think refugees are migrants with a fake limp and a sob story.

But pick your flavour — refugee or migrant, unemployed or employed, child or adult, married or disabled — and work out what you’d get. Jobseekers Allowance? Only if you’ve been in the country for three months. And you’d only get it for 91 days in total. So that’s £70 a week for food, rent, bills — oh, it’s such an easy life. What about housing benefit? Ah, well, you can’t have that if you’re on JSA. The Emergency Housing waiting list? Well, that’s for emergencies, isn’t it, for the actual homeless.

I have always been grateful to live in a country with a safety net — and I don’t begrudge those who are caught by it. I assume those who complain know they themselves will never be homeless, sick or poor. What lucky people!

While Farage and his cronies create the image of a bloated, dying country, tell their lies and send their horrible yellow ambulances screaming to the scene, I’ll be over here on my red bicycle, voting to remain in the EU.

Come and join me.

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