There’s a plaque on a wall, in a street, in East London.
It defines what is great about the UK…
I am the descendant of immigrants.
Somewhere in my family history there is Dutch ancestry. My father was definitely an immigrant as he travelled here in the 1960’s all the way from Fiji.
In short, I wouldn’t exist without immigration.
The reason I mention all of this is that right now, in the United Kingdom, in the country that I was born and raised in, it’s populace is trying to decide whether to stay a part of the European Union or leave it.
After watching the camps of ‘Leave' and ‘Remain’ make their 'cases' if you can call it that, I felt that I had to say or write something about why the UK should remain in the EU.
As a mixed race boy growing up in the 1970’s in the Midlands, I have experienced the positives and negatives of the country that I love. I have had people of all nationalities be racist to me over the years and people of all nationalities be, well, not racist to me too. But regardless of this, I grew up thinking that the UK was basically David Niven personified. Polite. Slightly aloof. Traditional in an amusing way, but if the chips were down and no matter what the cost, Britishness meant always protecting the underdog. No question.
I honestly felt that I was born in a land of heroes.
I mean look at WWII. This tiny island decides to go up against a country who has already taken control of half of Europe. Really? Why?
Because it was the right thing to do.
The UK was instrumental in setting up the United Nations and rebuilding Europe after the war, to stop it from ever happening again.
We watched Soviet supported dictators in Eastern Europe suppress the freedoms of their people and to counteract this supported Germany and France in setting up the foundations of the common market. Knowing that closer trade and linked economic activity for the good of all would make any European war pointless and self-defeating. Plus look at what having such a society growing as a unified Europe has done. It has helped cause dozens of countries that were under Soviet dictatorships to become free. Czechoslovakia anyone? Romania? Hungary? Lithuania? I could go on. We have always committed ourselves as a country to the idea of closer European Union. We wanted to be closer to Europe because the advantages were obvious. Better protection. Stronger economies. More leverage to negotiate on issues outside of the EU on the world stage. Right from the mid-sixties.
In fact Edward Heath took us further into it in the 70’s. As did Margaret Thatcher. They saw it was the right thing to do. At that time the economy in Britain was something like seventh or eighth in Europe. Now as part of Europe we’ll soon be first. As part of the EU, we developed the concept of Human Rights, it was a British idea! Without us there would be no European Court on Human Rights. We helped define that for the protection of all humanity.
My EU passport means that if I am in a non-EU country and need help, I can turn to any of the embassies or consulates that are in that country if they are EU member states and they will help me.
I can set up a business, buy a home, have children, receive medical care and basically live a life anywhere within the EU. Or not, as I choose. Of course that means that people from all of the EU can come to the UK to do the same too, which is where the real problem lies for those that want to leave the EU.
Of course the leave camp cite the bureaucrats of Brussels as 'telling us what to do’. Really? You mean the bureaucrats who are carefully selected by all the member states including us. The bureaucrats who can only make suggestions to policy and standards within the EU that can only be ratified and put into action if all member states agree, including us. Even then they wouldn’t necessarily apply to all countries because some countries have opt out options as part of their EU membership, yes you guessed it, including us. Oh and by the way, we get to elect people to the European parliament to represent us. In fact, that EU passport that you’ve got entitles you to stand for election in any EU member state. So if you want to represent Spain’s interests in the European parliament you can. You would have to get elected though.
These aren’t opinions, these are historical facts.
But again, it seems it all comes down to immigration. To me, as that boy in the Midlands in the 1970’s, watching Lenny Henry on TV, seeing different races arrive and establish themselves, they added to the culture that is Britain. Added to it’s economy, added to it’s history, added to it’s greatness. To have lived through those times to get to now and watch the rise of the subtle tendrils of fascism and racism, of division and hatred arise in the UK… Well, it breaks my British heart.
It’s not the first time this has happened in the UK or indeed in any country. We have the BNP even now, but we also had Oswald Mosley who supported the Nazi’s.
I live in East London in the borough of Hackney, which is about as mixed an area as you can get. Not too far away from me right now, in the Borough of Tower Hamlets, is the site of the 'Battle of Cable Street’, where Jewish people, local activists, communists, socialist and even anarchists stood together and stopped Mosley’s fascist 'Blackshirts’. Women threw the contents of chamber pots at them. Demonstrators tore the legs off chairs and chased them through the streets of East London . 150 anti-fascist demonstrators were arrested by the police who were escorting the fascists on their march. Who over time has been proven to be correct?
There is a plaque there that reads as follows:
“The people of East London rallied to Cable Street on the 4th October 1936 and forced back the march of the fascist Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts through the streets of the East End.”
And yet right now, people are openly saying that immigrants are rapists, murderers, thieves and worse. That’s painting a lot of people with a very large brush at best, slanderous and libellous at worst. A narrative is snidely being painted that 'The Other' is to blame for the problems in the UK. Really? Because even if 10 million immigrants landed in the UK right now and were somehow miraculously given benefits, housing etc… the costs still would not come anywhere near the amount of money the banks and their behaviour cost us in the crash, or the lack of aggressiveness by HMRC in getting back tax from corporations. By the way, the only way that last one is going to stop is if lots of countries get together and renovate tax law internationally so that it is standardised across economic areas for the benefit of all, of course to do that we’d be better off as part of, well, the EU of course. (Imagine being outside of that when getting tax law sorted… ouch).
But the fear of 'The Other' still rears its ugly head every now and again. And every time it saddens me because the UK that I know becomes a little bit more tarnished each time it happens.
My only hope is the youth of this country. As a teacher for many years at primary age, I would often say to my classes, “This is your world, you are our hope to make the world a better place.” I know that sounds clichéd, but if even one of them believes it… Well, it’s worth a shot right?
Young people nowadays are excellent lie detectors, they question things, have access to information at their fingertips, they can effect social change by using an app, starting petitions, protesting and making connections with each 'other’. They decide on their own truth, their own facts because they have had to learn to sift through the multi-channel, multi-media landscape we live in. I am hoping that they will vote to remain. I am hoping that they see through the fear mongering because unless you live in a mixed, major city, chances are your probably voting leave because you fear the change that you see.
Change scares some people.
I understand that. I once helped a child overcome a fear of water, once a week for six weeks this child would sit on the edge of the pool, cautiously dangling their feet in the water whilst I used a watering can to carefully pour water on ever higher parts of his body. He would gaze across the thigh deep training pool and refuse to get in, even while he could see his friends having fun. Both myself and the swim tutor knew we were failing him. Week seven came, and there he sat refusing to get in, staring across the water.
I realised then what the problem was.
He was looking at ALL of the water and all he could see was threat. A large amount of water is intimidating, but when you’re in the water not all of it is touching you, you only ever have to deal with a small amount at a time. So I asked the boy to stand on the pool ladder with his back to the pool, so he couldn’t see all of 'the problem’. He did so. I asked him to take a step down. He did so, holding tightly onto the rail. I asked him if he was Ok and he said yes. We continued like this for about 10 minutes until he was standing in the pool. He slowly turned around and realised he was in the pool for the first time. He smiled. In the end, being in the pool was Ok.
Change will always come, no matter whether we want it to or not. If you want to be able to adapt to change, you have to be in the centre of it. Not outside of it. To be honest, we should be good at this, I mean, who else has curry as a national dish alongside fish and chips? I mean we even made curry sauce to go along with fish and chips, we love it that much!
I’m not saying the EU is perfect, but do we really want to be on the outside looking in when every expert is saying how bad this would be? Do we want to be on the outside where we can’t effect any positive change and we are ignored?
Common sense alone tells me that if we leave, then the sharks will circle. Our economy would be more fragile, more at risk. Like blood in the water to sharks, the predators would begin to circle. Our weakness at that point would be the opportunity for corporations and countries, both economically and politically. If you have any doubts about that, look at what OPEC did in the 60’s and 70's…
The media have played a large part in the portrayal of ‘The Other’ as a threat, when clearly they are not. Dead Syrian children washed up on beaches are not ‘threats’, they’re our guilty conscience, we need to do something other than turn our backs on the world. The legacy of our forebears tells us this.
Go to the WWII cemeteries in France and you will see British names alongside French, Polish, Muslim, Sikh and Christian nations from all over the world. This is history’s price. This is where those strangers who died for a peaceful Europe, a peaceful world, this was their sacrifice. This is the one duty they passed to us, to never let division spoil Europe again.
If we leave, I worry that the far right in our own country and probably abroad will rub their hands with glee because division is their watchword. Fear is their credo. Control, their desire.
If that happens, then what is ‘Other’ will be defined by the political far right. If you are anything other than heterosexual, white and male, at that point, you better start running.
We will not be honouring any Britons memory if we let that happen.
There’s a plaque on a wall, in a street, in East London. It defines what is great about the UK, it’s last line is:
“They Shall Not Pass.”