The anti-immigrant sentiments stoked by pro-Brexit forces are becoming increasingly palpable on the streets of London. They have led to a documented rise in racist violence throughout the United Kingdom, but they are also showing up in more mundane and subtle ways, such as at the neighborhood grocery store.
This past week in London, when I went into the local Marks & Spencer’s supermarket with my father, next to the newspaper stand with its tabloids blaring anti-immigrant headlines was a shelf filled with boxes labeled as “British daffodils.”
They were sad-looking flora, the tops wilted and ugly. That, however, seemed beside the point. What mattered was the message: that they were tilled in the home soil of Britain. What mattered was the Union Jack flag stamped on the price label. Beer bottles also sport similar nationalist emblems these days. Consumers are urged to feel proudly and securely British — or better still, English — by buying “English tomatoes.” I am supposed to believe that my British lamb tastes better for the flags ubiquitously stamped on the plastic wrapping.
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London is, of course, not about to become monocultural or monoracial. The city, with more than 10 million residents, is still bustling and vibrantly diverse. But the casual jingoism one sees even on London’s streets and in its stores is a warning of just how closed-in and inward-looking Britain as a whole could become as it casts adrift from the European Union (EU), and as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson seeks to consolidate the political support that older, pro-Brexit voters gave his party in December’s general election.
This Wednesday, Johnson’s home secretary, Priti Patel, unveiled the government’s post-Brexit immigration plan. In essence, it seeks to impose a rigid points-based system. Under the new plan, in an abrupt change from the current policy, most EU immigrants will be denied the right to live and work in Britain, as will most lower-income, “low-skilled,” non-EU visa applicants. To qualify, they will have to reach a certain number of points, acquired through a combination of proving they speak English, having higher education qualifications and having a waiting job offer that pays a middle-class wage.
In essence, Johnson, like Trump in the U.S., is seeking to re-cast his country as a magnet for professionals with specialized scientific and business and medical knowledge from poorer countries, while explicitly locking out those countries’ poor and working classes from the regular immigration routes. Johnson hasn’t, at least as of yet, followed Trump to the extreme measure of excluding asylum seekers and refugees, but he is clearly treading a similar path. Johnson appears to be gambling that this combination of tough immigration controls and an emphasis on a romanticized British — or English — nationalism will appeal both to the older and wealthier voters who traditionally back the Conservative Party, as well as to working-class voters who previously voted Labour but who felt that mass, unrestricted immigration was driving wages downward.
It’s that combination — in some ways similar to Trump’s 2016 coalition of angry white working-class and rural voters who have felt disempowered for decades, along with affluent suburbanites interested more in tax cuts and deregulation — that led to Brexit; and it’s that combination that reshaped the British electoral map in the December elections, giving Johnson a huge parliamentary majority that, for the next five years, means he can pass pretty much whatever legislation he wants.
While, in theory, sectors of the economy with worker shortages would be able to get exemptions under the government’s immigration proposal, in practice, such a system is likely to result in a huge shortage of workers in the health care and home care systems, in hotels and restaurants, in farming, and in other areas that, over the last few decades, have come to rely on a steady influx of immigrants. That in-flow of workers has long made the U.K. one of Europe’s most dynamic economies. For months now, many business organizations have come out against the implementation of such a system; and in the wake of Home Secretary Patel’s announcement, groups such as the Federation of Small Businesses have warned such a plan, if implemented, could devastate parts of the U.K.’s economy. The government’s own estimates are that upward of 70 percent of arrivals from the EU into the U.K. since 2004 would not have qualified under the new immigration system.
Patel admitted that under these new rules, her own parents would likely not have been able to migrate to the U.K. and to reinvent the future they were able to offer their children.
On a personal level, I know that my own great-grandparents would not have passed the bar; some of them left the shtetls of the Russian empire during the Pogroms, came to London speaking only Yiddish, and made lives for themselves as booksellers in the immigrant neighborhoods surrounding the Bow Bells in East London. A generation later, my grandfather and his parents left Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union as refugees. My great-grandfather, a rabbi, who also didn’t speak English on arrival and didn’t have a well-paying job waiting for him, went on to become head of the Beth Din, the Jewish religious court in England. My grandfather, Chimen, who arrived in London as a teenager, became a leading socialist historian and manuscripts expert. None of these people would have had an easy time of it in Johnson’s Britain.
There is something entirely depressing about the inward-turn the U.K. is taking. At a moment when the country’s long history of tolerance and of openness to immigrants is particularly needed as a shining light, the country is, instead, battening down its hatches.
A day after Patel unveiled her proposals, a far right gunman shot dead nine people in shisha bars in an immigrant neighborhood of the town of Hanau, Germany, on Wednesday. That same day, Trump announced that his new director of national intelligence would be Richard Grenell — who, as ambassador to Germany aroused his host’s wrath two years ago when he said that he wanted to “empower” Europe’s right. That right is increasingly empowered, and the results are as ugly as they are predictable: authoritarian governments in one Eastern European country after the next, extremist parties on the rise in Germany, France, and elsewhere, the Italian government’s vicious treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and so on.
At previous moments of global authoritarianism, of swings rightward both in the halls of power and on the streets of cities, the U.K. has generally resisted following such paths. These days, however, Brexit Britain is joining the stampede. The end result will be a smaller, nastier, less tolerant societal vision.