Sunday, 12 June 2016

Axe Grinding for the EU Referendum

I try, I really do, to keep a balanced view on most things. Never jumping to conclusions, listening to both sides of the story, unafraid to throw my hands up and admit I’m wrong and completely change my mind. I’ve tried to take the same approach with the EU Referendum and I’ve listened to friends, family, politicians and the media to build up a balanced picture of the options that we are faced with. I also have my own life experiences that feed directly into the arguments that are being made and I know that these will be a factor in my decision making.

I’m your classic sitting-on-the-fence voter, Mr Cameron, and here is where my mind is at right now...

Border control and immigration will be a major factor in my decision making. Don’t groan, I need to thrash this one out because it’s a biggie. I’ve seen how population growth has eaten into my quality of life and the lives of my family and friends and it will have a major impact on my future. I'm rational and sensible enough to ensure that race and religion do not influence my thinking and I will be extremely angry if anyone plays that hand with me - I don’t care whether the individuals that enter the UK come from Syria, Poland, Russia, China, Lilliput, Hobbiton or the moon. I honestly don’t care where they come from. Population increase is putting a major strain on my immediate, day-to-day life and I worry equally about the impact of dinghies full of young men that are arriving on our shores as much as I do about the UK-born families in my local area that are knocking out babies on a conveyor belt like their lives depend on it, but we’ll come to that later...

As young women growing up in Birmingham in the nineties, my friends and I first encountered newly arrived groups of immigrants when on nights out in the city centre. We were very aware of the dangers that they presented to us, but we didn’t feel comfortable talking about them because the media and our older peers told us that speaking about immigrants in a negative light was frowned upon. Groups of ‘foreign men’ (we didn’t know where they came from, since the news didn’t offer us handy diagrams at the time) would follow us around clubs and try to buy us drinks, they would hassle us on the street when we were trying to get home at the end of the evening and, even when out shopping in the day, there would be large groups of men hanging around in town taking photographs of themselves and shouting abuse. They became a constant feature of our evenings out and eventually my friends and I stopped going out in town, or we would leave early in order to avoid them. The ‘call me when you get home’ rule had never been applied so strictly.

When older friends moved into the area and they told me that their teenage daughter was going out for the first time in town, I didn’t know what to say. I politely reminded them that town could be a dangerous place and she should be careful, but bit my lip and said no more. Why? Because most of the men that gave us trouble were non-white immigrants that had recently arrived in the UK and I was afraid that my older friends would think I was a racist, when actually I just wanted their daughter to be safe. The more I thought about it afterwards, the more I realised that I should have said something. What would be the worst outcome? That they think I’m a racist? Or that their daughter avoids being attacked and raped? Next time, I promised myself, I will explain everything to them. Why should my fear of causing offence be more important than her safety?

Now, as I have grown older and entered the work sector, I have come to see the positive side of immigration. I work in the higher education sector that employs many talented, professional workers from all around the world and each one brings something different to my working environment. I talk with them, I eat their food, I learn new skills from them, I meet their families and I call many of them my friends. But here’s the thing. They are a) skilled people that in some cases have been invited to work in the UK because they possess skills that surpass those of equivalent UK workers, b) they came to the UK through an official route and hence c) we know pretty much everything about their history and where they have come from. These people are making a valuable contribution to society and I welcome more like them into the UK. However the real problem is this - how can we guarantee that the people who are walking into our country right now are like these skilled workers and not the dangerous men that walk around town at night? Any argument that can seal the deal on a distinction being made will get my vote.

The impact that immigration has on housing and services also cannot be ignored. In 2010 a very close friend of mine died unexpectedly. She was a single mum, she had a history of childhood epilepsy, her ex-boyfriend was threatening to kidnap her baby daughter and drug dealers were making deals right outside the window of her ground floor flat. She contacted Birmingham City Council to request a move and presented letters of support from her doctor and the courts, but she was told that she was on the third tier of priority, beneath 1) tenants needing rehoming due to their houses being demolished for regeneration of the area and 2) immigrant families moving into the area. A brand new housing estate was being built nearby, but residents had been told that immigrant families moving into the area would be given priority to apply for them. A year later her mother found my friend dead in her flat, face-down in bed with her two-year-old daughter crying in a high chair in the kitchen. Doctors suspected that her epilepsy had returned and she had suffered a fit, most likely brought on by the stresses of her situation. No-one liked to say it, but everyone was thinking it. At the time it was considered taboo to talk about immigration in a negative light, but the cracks were starting to show and fingers of blame were being pointed. Would my friend still be alive if she had been moved out of that flat? I don’t know. But it’s an opportunity that she should certainly have been given.

Many people on council estates in Birmingham are painfully aware that immigration is putting a strain on housing and they talk openly about it now. I have friends sitting on the council housing list who have been there for years. And let’s face it, if I - a childless, single woman - wanted to get a council house then I would stand no chance whatsoever of getting on and moving up the housing list. But it’s the pressures on services that are a problem too. It takes 3-5 weeks to get a doctor’s appointment at my local GP surgery. My mum recently waited two months to get a hospital appointment for an urgent test and now she has to wait from April until August to get her test results. It’s a commonplace joke in my local area that the medical centres make you wait months for an appointment in the hope that you’ll die in the interim period! And yet most days I pass through the site of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham on my way to work and the number of different languages that are spoken around me are staggering. The waiting areas are rammed with people from a variety of different cultures and you can’t even get a car or bus past the front of the hospital without sitting in a long queue of taxis picking up people and dropping them off. I don’t ever remember the hospital being this busy and feeling so pressured. And yet, although I mention encountering people from different cultures speaking different languages, I’ll happily turn the same spotlight on my own UK-born friends and place blame at their door too. It infuriates me that kids in my local area grow up knowing full well that if you knock out several babies then you will never have to work again. I hear them talking about it among themselves, sharing stories on entitlements and what you can claim from where, wearing the next pregnancy like a badge of honor and laughing at people who need to go out and work. Some of these people are my friends and so I bite my lip, but if I could deport some of them out of the country to relieve the pressures that they place on society then I would in a heartbeat.

I'm also acutely aware of a voice that isn't booming its opinion across social media. Our old folk. We're focusing so hard on reaching the young people (as Eddie Izzard ploughs his way through university campuses) but has anyone asked the older people how they feel? I wonder how many of them, like my grandmother, have been forced to sell their family home to pay for their care because the government couldn't afford to do so? I wonder how many, like my grandmother, have been sent home desperately ill in the middle of the night because the hospitals don't have enough beds? An increase in population can only exacerbate these problems. Old age looks pretty grim right now, and don't forget we'll all be old soon...

… I haven’t cast my vote yet and I’m open to debate, but these are the kinds of thoughts that are weighing on my mind. I’m exposing myself to all arguments and I’ve spent a lot of time talking to both sides, but, to be honest, I’m becoming increasingly annoyed by the condescending, sneering viewpoint that if you support a Brexit then you are some kind of vile, idiotic, racist underclass that doesn’t have a functioning brain. I am an educated, professional woman without a racist bone in her body and yet I have suffered this kind of abuse when trying to merely engage with the Leave viewpoint in order to get a balanced view. Do you realise, Remain camp, that you are forcing a class divide by casting yourselves as intellectually superior, business minded, financially secure, ivory tower-dwelling betters and viciously mocking the concerns of anyone who you consider to be lesser than you?

To these sneering Remain supporters – the heads of businesses and the J. K. Rowlings and Bob Geldofs of the world - I would say this. When was the last time you applied for a council house? When was the last time you tried to get a doctor's appointment in an area like mine or an NHS hospital appointment? Are you a woman who is intimated by the gangs of men that hang around town late at night and hassle you in the street? Are you an old person being forced to sell your house to pay for your care? Yes it’s a shame for the people who are fleeing war and my heart bleeds for the crying children that are rescued from the sea, but why should I empathise more with these people than with my closest friend who couldn’t get a council house and died as a result? Or my mum who has been waiting months for a hospital appointment and has a further five month for the results of a biopsy? Or my friend's sister who was raped by a gang of illegal immigrants on a night out to celebrate her eighteenth birthday? Or my nan who was forced to sell her family home to pay for her care and then dumped outside her care home in the snow because the hospital didn’t have enough beds to keep her?

Maybe in our current climate of moral masturbation it’s simply not cool to help our own people in the UK. Maybe it’s cooler for Londoners to sit around in coffee bars bragging about how they helped a Syrian family than it is to say that they helped a homeless old man in Birmingham. How many more Twitter followers do you get for being photographed hauling a dinghy ashore? How much more does your ego inflate when your fellow girlfriends fawn over you at dinner as you brag about how much cash you donate to refugee organisations? And how many more DVDs/tickets/books does a celebrity sell for opening their doors to an immigrant family?

It appears to me that the Leave and Remain supporters boil down to two kinds of people - the people who are fiercely defending the future of their families and the people who are fiercely defending the future of their investments. The Remain camp appeals to me in the sense that I would take a financial hit if a vote to leave was cast, but, in the grand scheme of things, can I morally defend protecting my investments at the expense of making life for the people around me more miserable? I don’t think I can. The Remain campaign keep telling us that businesses will suffer and we will all be worse off financially in the event of a Brexit, but I’m starting to think that if it means that my friends will be housed, my family can get GP appointments, I will feel safer on the streets and the old people are treated better, then pass me my cheque book… I’ll pay you right now whatever the cost to get out.

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