At least we don’t get ID cards

… because that would be fascism! Instead, we’re likely to get the NHS checking people’s passports and utility bills (for proof of address) before they can get medical treatment.

As I’ve commented before, the British seem obsessed with not having national ID cards — when they came into power one of the first things the Conservatives did was to cancel a Labour programme that had been in the works for about five years to provide ID cards — because carrying an ID card is inimical to Anglo-Saxon freedom. They don’t object to round-the-clock video surveillance, police stopping foreign-looking people on the Tube to ask for proof of right to be in the country, or now checking nationality documents at the hospital.

They just object to providing people with the documents they need to meet the authorities’ demand (given that one in six Britons has no passport, and they cost about £80). Instead, they leave it up to easily falsifiable electric bills to attest their address.

The Brexit spiral begins

I’ve been warning since the Brexit vote that there could be a xenophobic feedback spiral:

We face years of escalating frustration on both sides of the negotiating table, as the British are confronted with the reality of a Europe that has no interest in making the fantasies of the Conservative Party come true. The British public will become more bloody-minded, unwilling to be dictated to by a bunch of foreigners, leading to a feedback loop of retaliation against the hostages, the EU citizens living in Britain and the British living in the EU. It could get very ugly.

According to the Guardian,

The chairman of JD Wetherspoon has fired a warning shot that the pub chain could stop selling drinks brands from other European countries if senior EU leaders maintain a “bullying” approach to Brexit negotiations.

For Britain to take a decision that harms its neighbours — with rhetoric that positively seems to relish the gratuitous harm to its neighbours — is a matter of high principle. Sovereignty! But when the neighbours respond in kind it is “bullying”.

I never heard of this chain, but then, the negotiations haven’t even started.

Misinformed

After viewing Casablanca with friends recently, we were inspired to try variants on Rick’s famous line about why he had come to Casablanca:

A: And what in heaven’s name brought you to England?

B: I came to England for the tolerant open liberal democracy.

A: The tolerant welcoming liberal society? What tolerant welcoming liberal society? We’re in the middle of a xenophobic backlash.

B: I was misinformed.

Existence and greatness

I commented before on the home secretary’s announcement of a plan to require companies to report on the number of foreign employees they have. Just to keep an eye on things, of course. Information is a good thing, natch. I missed this quote:

She justified that policy on the following grounds: “The state must draw a sharp line of distinction between those who, as members of the nation, are the foundation and support of its existence and greatness, and those who are domiciled in the state, simply as earners of their livelihood there.”

Far be it from me to boast that I am supporting Britain’s greatness, but surely I am somehow contributing to its existence? They don’t seem to mind taking my taxes, anyway, and they’re awfully keen to get their children into Oxford in order to be taught by domiciled livelihood-earners like me.

Encouraging discrimination

A pretty universal anti-discrimination principle in the West has long been that companies should not discriminate against workers on the basis of their national origin. Everyone with a right to live and work in the country should compete on the same basis. But now the Conservatives are pushing the opposite view, proposing to force companies to publish the number of international staff, obviously in an effort to embarrass them into not hiring foreigners in the first place. (It is up to the government to decide how many foreigners get work permits; this is about putting pressure on companies not to employ those who the government has granted the right to be here.) Myself, my partner, my children — even the younger one who was born and has lived all her life in this country — should all be discriminated against in employment.

At least they are following their own advice. According to a new report

Leading foreign academics from the LSE acting as expert advisers to the UK government were told they would not be asked to contribute to government work and analysis on Brexit because they are not British nationals….

One of the group is understood to be a dual national, with citizenship of both the UK and another EU member state.

Obviously you can’t expect simple British civil servants to judge the value of advice from wily foreigners. British Beliefs are Best!

When I moved to Britain nine years ago I was immediately shocked by the xenophobic tone in the press, emanating from both major parties. Unlike other countries I have lived in, where universal problems of racism and xenophobia are balanced by a near-universal sense that it is the job of responsible politicians (and responsible journalists) to oppose these dark impulses, the major parties in Britain seem to compete with each other to show that they hate immigrants the most. Occasional platitudes about racial harmony are swamped by the need to publicly bash foreigners, supposedly because it would be irresponsible to let the foreigner-bashing be taken over by dangerous demagogues. I wrote then

I can’t figure out whether the UK is the most xenophobic country I’ve ever lived in, or whether it just acts like it. On the one hand, the UK has a well-deserved reputation as a sanctuary for the persecuted and would-be persecutors temporarily out of office. On the other hand, UK politicians, who (one presumes) know better, seem to cheer themselves up when they’re feeling blue by attacking immigrants, either directly or (more commonly) by insinuation. The same is true for pillars of society like the BBC.

It’s getting worse…

Metathreats

Even in America it is illegal to attain political ends by threats of violence. But what about threats of threats of violence? From Florida:

“We began receiving complaints from voters,” she said Wednesday in an email to the Post’s editorial board. “Some felt uncomfortable voting at the Islamic Center. When we received a call that indicated individuals planned to impede voting and maybe even call in a bomb threat to have the location evacuated on Election Day…

I suppose this is familiar as a kind of protection-racket negotiating stance. “We’re just having a friendly chat here. Nobody is making threats. If you want to make threats, we can also make threats, but there’s no need for any of that.”

Refer madness

Shortly after the EU referendum, someone asked me why the EU referendum was made to allow such an enormous change from a simple majority. After all, many countries have either supermajority threshold for referenda, or requirements that a majority be attained in a majority of regions or states. The answer, of course, is that

  1. The point of this referendum was to settle a conflict between two wings of the Conservative party. This was not an election, but a sporting contest — though sooner or later, in Britain, everything turns into a sporting contest — and it would have been completely unacceptable if both sides did not feel they had a reasonable chance of winning.
  2. There wasn’t any threshold at all. As many have pointed out, this wasn’t a referendum in the normal sense of the word. It was an opinion poll. The relevant law, the European Union Referendum Act 2015, orders only that the question be asked, and describes eligibility for voting. It says nothing about how the result is to be interpreted or enforced. (The most intricate part of the law seems to concern the question of which hereditary aristocrats are eligible to vote.)

There is nothing inevitable about concluding that the UK should withdraw from the EU because 52% voted that way in the referendum. Most democracies would not make it so easy for one group of citizens to deprive another group of citizens of cherished rights — particularly when the groups really are clearly defined social groups, whether age groups or semi-autonomous component nations (Scotland and Northern Ireland).

In principle, there’s a good argument that the government is constitutionally obliged to get clear authorisation from Parliament before pulling the Article 50 trigger. And if they do that, the MPs could reasonably point to the national divisions, or just the lack of an overwhelming majority, as justification for avoiding such wrenching change.

They won’t, though. Because it’s a sport, and nothing is more important to the British than appearing to be “good sports”. They call this “democracy”, and there have been any number of articles from left-wing Remain supporters, arguing that a commitment to democracy requires that they get behind the Brexit project now. The people have spoken, and any other response is an elitist insistence that you know better than the unwashed masses.

Where does that leave us, the foreigners? I am reminded of the work of David Blight and other historians on the “Lost Cause” historiography of the US Civil War. Americans of the North and the South decided to come together in a spirit of reconciliation, requiring that the Northerners agree to look past points of dispute, like the civil rights of African Americans. They — that is, the white people — pretty much all agreed that this was the charitable and democratic thing to do. Similarly, Britons are divided by economic and class differences, but they can all come together in agreement that the real problem is the foreigners. This is something I noticed when I first arrived here.

Things aren’t so bad in Oxford — though we all know people who have at least been menaced in public in the last couple of weeks for speaking a foreign language — and those of us with good professional jobs have a fairly easy out, if we want it, by acquiring UK citizenship. At least, that gets us to the other side of the rope line in terms of formal legal harassment. Elsewhere foreigners have to be thinking imminently about being driven out of places where they have resided for decades, and where they mistakenly thought they were at home.

The masks come off

I think a lot of people — a lot of foreigners living in Britain — are feeling like this character in Paul Murray’s wonderful satire of the financial crash, The Mark and the Void:

“But if you write the truth about our time? How can the truth ever be obsolete?”

“People don’t want the truth,” he says, waving a hand at the streets around us. “They want better-quality lies. High-definition lies on fifty-inch screens. I wrote the damn truth already, Claude. Maybe I didn’t write it well, but I wrote it. And not only did no one want to see it, they made me feel like a fool for even trying. They laughed out the window at me as they sped away on the gravy train.”

“That was during the boom. Now the gravy train has stopped.”

“Yeah, well, I can’t unsee what I saw. The money poured in, and it was like suddenly everyone in Ireland took off their masks, and they were these horrific, rapacious alien beings who if you fell down in the street would just leave you there to die.”

The day after 

Oxford is full of Europeans, and it seems like everyone is walking around in a daze since the referendum. It’s rare that you hear any other topic of conversation. If anyone has an opinion other than pro-EU they’re not saying, only citing some elderly relatives for possible insights into the psychology of Leave.

I hadn’t anticipated how hurt and angry people would be. Lots of people are talking about leaving. It’s not that anyone is expecting anti-European pogroms, but it makes it suddenly palpable how thoroughly unwelcome foreigners are in this country. I noticed this immediately when I arrived here, so maybe that’s why I’m not so shocked by this result.

Oxford is a xenophilic bubble, in this respect — 70% for Remain — so it’s easy to ignore, if you’re so inclined. Also, many Europeans didn’t really think of themselves as foreigners, which is why this rejection was such an emotional blow. It’s devastating for the university, of course.

I fear that this may turn a lot uglier. I think the British are going to be shocked to discover how much the rest of Europe resents them. It’s like a bad marriage: Europe has been making all kinds of compromises and telling Britain how much they love it to keep the union together. For the sake of the children let us say. The effect was only to heighten the British sense of their own importance. Now that they’ve announced, even though you’ve done everything I asked, I’m still leaving you, because I never loved you, and I never wanted to be married anyway, the British we’ll be surprised to discover how cold and businesslike the Europeans can be, in to just wanting be rid of them as quickly as possible. I fear that the unrealistic expectations will give way to fury and escalating rounds of retaliation against the hostages, who are the Europeans living in Britain and the Britons living in Europe.

Not the Day of Remain

It is accomplished. The UK is headed out of the EU. The generational coup of the pensioners against their children and grandchildren.

I’d hoped, but not expected, that it would turn out otherwise. Huge self-inflicted damage, and I doubt that the situation will develop to the advantage of those who supported Brexit. Scotland will likely secede. Northern Ireland may see the peace process unravel. I’m slightly worried that “Project Fear” actually underplayed the risk. It’s perhaps not the most likely scenario, but I see as perfectly conceivable that we face years of escalating frustration on both sides of the negotiating table, as the British are confronted with the reality of a Europe that has no interest in making the fantasies of the Conservative Party come true. The British public will become more bloody-minded, unwilling to be dictated to by a bunch of foreigners, leading to a feedback loop of retaliation against the hostages, the EU citizens living in Britain and the British living in the EU. It could get very ugly.

It’s a bit like climate-change denialism: You have one side saying, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the effects of our actions, so let’s be hopeful that it won’t be so bad. It might be substantially better than the median prediction. They conveniently ignore the downside risk, which could be pretty terrible.