From 5,000 miles away, I no longer recognize my country. At first glance I thought the newspaper headlines were a joke: promises of forcing firms to publish “Foreign Workers’ Lists” too obviously fascist to be anything more than a Facebook meme. I never imagined that – with just a month left to stop the spectre of a President Trump – I’d turn to American news for solace. There’s still grounds for optimism here: there’s at least a 50% chance that Trump will be gone on 9 November. It may never happen. In the UK, Theresa May is in power. And populism is the order of the day.
So xenophobes and racists rejoice: yours is the new “spirit of citizenship”. If the choice is between this nationalism, and being cast out as a “citizen of nowhere”, the latter seems preferable. I am metropolitan, and I am privileged, and I want my child to grow up as a “citizen of the world” – especially now he cannot grow up as a citizen of Europe. If this means I have no voice and no future in May’s Britain, I will mourn. But I will not return.
Of course, this is the Conservative Party Conference: they are all preaching to the choir. It’s not clear how much of May’s and Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s speeches on immigration – and nationalism – is actual policy, and how much is rhetoric designed for standing ovations and tabloid headlines. The skeptical (or the strategic) might wonder whether even Rudd’s rapid retreat, in response to fierce criticism of her proposal to make British companies declare the proportion of foreign workers they employ, was pre-planned to make eventual legislation on other topics seem “moderate”.
For there’s as much poison in some of Rudd’s other, less-remarked upon initiatives. The criminalization of landlords who rent property to irregular migrants will drive a black market in overpriced and substandard accommodation, posing dangers not only to migrants but risking the public’s health. Pushing irregular migrants out of the legal banking system will simply increase the power of exploitative recruiters and employers. For a Government that likes to talk so much about how they are determined to eradicate the “barbaric crime” of “modern slavery”, they seem remarkably unconcerned about driving irregular migrants further into the shadows.
So I raged as I listened to silver-haired May deliver silver-tounged lies, coating a single truth – that the majority of the British public are worried about immigration – with convenient populist assumptions. The arrival of more European migrants has coincided with the stagnation of the British working class. But as every social science student knows, correlation is not causation.
In fact, the Home Office’s own advisory committee has repeatedly found little evidence that migrants “take British jobs” except in fairly specific circumstances. They did find that business’ are likely to be punished for breaking labour laws “once in a million years”. You don’t need to build high walls when you build a floor to your labour market. You can protect citizens and migrants. But that might not be the point. If we stop being angry at migrants, it may be harder for this government to pretend they’re looking after the ordinary people while simultaneously dismantling any social safety net.
This is not a Britain I want to belong to. And yet what ultimately made rage most about this week’s Conservative bandwagon was May’s very clear message that people like me – liberal and internationalist – don’t belong; that we don’t deserve a voice; that we ‘don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means’.
I do know what citizenship means. I wrote a book about it. I know that citizenship can liberate you from domestic tyranny and foreign aggression, that it can bring autonomy and dignity, that it is the cornerstone of fundamental equality in the face of entrenched privilege. And it is for this reason that I know that the citizenship we should aspire to has nothing to do with cheap nationalism. The citizenship we should aspire to depends upon tax reform not concrete walls. It depends upon optimism not just obligation. Citizenship is a question of community, not a flag-waving jamboree.
I am insulted. I am angry. And I want no part of this petty patriotism. The greatest irony of all is that – talking about the Union and Scotland – May promised that she ‘will never let divisive nationalists drive us apart’. Scottish nationalism bad, British nationalism good: reductio ad absurdum. Even for a politician, it’s quite an achievement to break your own vows the very moment you make them. This will not end well for any of us.