Every now and then you read something in the newspaper that makes you laugh, even though it probably shouldn’t. Then the laughter is interrupted by the worrying thought that it’s April already and you’ve fallen for an April Fools’ prank. Then you realise, silly, that it’s no joke; you can resume with the laughter but really ought to get a grip on yourself if you seriously thought it might be April already. What’s wrong with you?
Earlier this week Last week (sorry), I read this. In order to “correct the impression that the streets here are paved with gold” (did he mean gold-coloured chewing gum?), Britain is allegedly poised to launch advertising campaigns in the EU’s two newest yet poorest member states, Romania and Bulgaria, so as to stop anyone there from thinking that a move to Britain means all will be plain sailing (as if, didn’t they see the snow?) when restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians living and working in Britain are relaxed at the end of the year.
What, and betray our Big Society by saying it’s a Big Joke? I won’t hear a word of it.
We tend to be grumpy in Britain. And sarcastic (see above). And xenophobic, but that’s another thing. You might well recall how many of us expected the Olympics to be a load of rubbish and then, when the games turned out to be rather good, we grudgingly accepted this but now grumble often about the athletes appearing far too much on our television screens, like we haven’t seen enough of them already and we’re supposed to still give a damn for their achievements. I’ll admit, I could happily slap one or two of them.
If you’re thinking at this point that this post looks rather long, it is. If you wish to be serious about the important issue of immigration, we’d obviously love to hear your thoughts and experiences. If not and you can’t bear to read on, sod it, stop reading right now and just look at the Guardian which featured readers’ hilarious tongue-in-cheek posters as alternatives to deter potential arrivals to these windswept shores. ‘We hate ourselves, we’ll probably hate you too’ says it all perfectly, I feel. So very British.
But allow me to try to be serious about this, my seriousness interspersed with sarcasm, because otherwise I’ll just feel bad for not trying harder later. I apologise for the stacks of facts and figures, I got a bit carried away.
Britain is a migrant nation and always has been. That’s the first thing.
The second is, Britain is the world’s seventh-richest nation. I know. The seventh. Really, it is, that’s not a typo. Forget what you’ve heard about Third World-style handouts of food rations being given to the desperate who are now reliant on food banks to keep them going and put out of your mind, please, any shocked, awkward embarrassment at Save the Children having to launch its first ever campaign in its 93-year history to raise funds exclusively for British children, last September, when it was revealed that 3.5 million children are living in poverty in Britain (that is to say, they have a family income of less than £17,000 per annum), 1.6 of them severely so, making a total of nearly 13 million – out of a population of some 62 million – now living below the breadline. I’ll say it again: Britain is the seventh-richest nation in the world, not that you’d always believe it.
That’s why they are coming, you see. These immigrants. Hordes of them. With their children. Wanting houses and benefits, maybe even jobs and an education, the parasites. Be afraid, fellow Britons: they want your houses. I do love the Daily Mail. It makes me laugh out loud every day.
Even though the vast majority will be hard-working, morally upstanding, many highly educated with excellent English, and will contribute much to society, including paying taxes and creating jobs, and are, in fact, less likely to claim benefits than people who were born here – fact (like the last wave of Eastern European migrants we still hear so much about, only a tiny minority rely on out-of-work benefits), we still fear them. Even though a decade ago, the government’s own research was suggesting that immigrants pay in a whopping £2.5 billion more in taxes than they take out in benefits.
Indeed, some 30 to 40 per cent of NHS workers were born abroad, with one in seven of all migrants in the UK employed in the health and social work sector, an awful lot of them professionals (I include my own doctor and dentist, in that). I hope they don’t decide to leave all at once. Have you tried getting an NHS dentist? Joking aside, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all who helped build an institution we are justly proud of and hence spent ages oddly triumphing during the Olympics opening ceremony. (Sorry, I won’t mention the Olympics again. I’m so bloody sick of the Olympics and thought the Mary Poppins bit went on too long.)
Many will do the jobs that Britons, for some reason, if you believe that too many Brits are work-shy or just plain snobby, somehow consider beneath them. The latest dubious unemployment figures show 2.49 million out of work in Britain (and that’s not to mention those who are just too fat to work; the total number of obesity claims has doubled in three years, costing the taxpayer more than £28 million last year). If immigrants in Britain are so low skilled, and slender, but still manage to take jobs from the British, how does that make the British look? It should make us feel pretty bad about ourselves, yet the shame all too often ends up replaced with a lot of loud and melodramatic huffing and puffing. Does nobody applaud the courage of somebody starting a new life in a new land? There’s nothing stopping Britons moving out in search of better opportunities, either. In 2010, 1.4 million Britons left for other EU countries. Only Romania (2.2m), Italy (2m), Poland (1.9m) and Germany (1.7m) saw more nationals leave.
How about that good old-fashioned British sense of superiority? When Brits move abroad, they either go there to do very important jobs or are merely jolly old “ex-pats” (said with a smile) living out retirement in the sun. Yet too many of those moving in are “immigrants” (said with a frown) who are presumed lazy with sinister motives, castigated for retaining their languages and cultures and criticised for not integrating. Do people not move abroad for exactly the same reason: a better standard of living, increased opportunities? I’d imagine so and would love to hear what the Spanish, for example, think of the Brits who have made Spain their home. I’m sure they all make the effort to speak fluent Spanish, join in with local traditions and choose not to remain, aloof and obnoxious, on the safe fringes of society with other English-speakers, expecting the locals to make themselves understood in a foreign tongue instead of the other way around…
Anyway, it is true that when former Soviet bloc countries joined the EU in 2004, we were told that no more than 13,000 Poles, for example, would come to Britain each year. Within two years, 264,560 had arrived. The immigrant population of England and Wales increased by 2.9 million – from nine per cent of the population in 2001 to 13 per cent in 2011, from 4.6 million to 7.5 million. In the decade to 2011 Poland showed the largest percentage increase in the top 10 countries of birth; Poles are now the second biggest group of foreign residents living in Britain, behind Indians.
As the minimum wage in Romania and Bulgaria is half that in Poland (73p per hour in Bulgaria, 79p in Romania, £6.19 in the UK), it is assumed that this can only mean that more migrants will come, expecting the good life.
But in 2004, only three countries opened borders. This time, all EU states will lift restrictions, giving far greater choice of destination. I find the presumption that Briton will be many people’s first choice incredibly arrogant. It’s been said that Bulgarians are most likely to emigrate to Spain and Greece, because of the favourable climate and lower travel costs, while Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov has pointed out that Bulgaria’s economy is mostly connected to Germany’s, with more business links to Spain and Italy.
Yet allow me to go on a bit longer with the statistics.
The UK as a whole has the fourth largest population of EU migrants (2.2 million) after Germany (3.76 million), Spain (2.6 million) and France (2.47 million). The last UK census, in 2011, revealed that the number of people who were born abroad is close to one in eight. Some 7.5 million residents, representing 13 per cent of the population, were born outside the UK, up from 4.6 million or nine per cent a decade ago, London being home to the most immigrants, with 37 per cent of the capital’s residents born abroad and 24 per cent of them not UK citizens.
This seems like a good point to throw this in: ‘I feel like a stranger where I live’, wrote one Londoner recently.
So, just to make it clear, it seems that some in Britain are of the firm view that we don’t want you foreigners coming in, taking our jobs, stretching our already-stretched services, thank you very much. Truth be told, we want to ship some people out, not invite more in. For example, in some of our cities, one in three households are completely jobless. We’d like to ship those out for starters. We have one of the highest rates of ‘workless households’ in the EU, because it pays to be on benefits, and those blasted single mothers are the worst. Sorry, Daily Mail again.
What was I saying? Oh yes: Britain’s full, so please move along.
Unless you’re rich, that is, in which case, please step right this way. They’re actually moving all the undesirables out of London, all the layabouts and the riff-raff, to make it nice and smart for incoming rich people. Some might call that social cleansing, palming off their social problems onto other, poorer parts of Britain.
Take former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, now demanding a decent £150,000-an-hour for public speaking engagements and under investigation for corruption in France, who is very rich indeed and whose wife is also very easy on the eye (win-win), another
wealthy Frenchman tight git with more money than he could ever spend bidding adieu to his homeland in order to avoid larger-than-liked tax bills. He’s welcome to come to Britain, obviously. Actor Gérard Depardieu chose Russia, but he’d also be welcome. Not for them paying tax at 75 per cent. Oh, President Hollande, with your wacky Marxist idea of making the rich, who can afford it, rather than the poor, who clearly cannot, pay that bit extra in order to reduce the French deficit. What are you like?
(Britain’s richest got richer over the last year, by the way, so they could also afford it. The wealthiest 1,000 people in the UK are now worth a record £414.26 billion, up 4.7 per cent on the previous year. The threshold to even make the top 1,000 rose by £2 million on the previous year: you now need at least £72 million to make the list.)
Now, I do appreciate the scare-stories of cheap imported labour, wages being undercut, migrant families living in cramped conditions with two or three families sharing a house, and how all this causes social unrest. All of which is ideal for the wealthy, let’s not kid ourselves, because it means more money for them. They don’t even have to pay poverty-level wages if migrants will accept even less and will live in sub-standard housing to boot.
And, yes, wages are lower in Romania and Bulgaria, but so is the cost of living, and benefits in relation to living costs in Britain are pitiful no matter how easily they are supposedly obtained. But that’s great too, because low-income families pay as much as £1,280 a year more for basic goods and services (such as gas, electricity, insurance, credit) than better-off families do, meaning more money for the rich men.
Such disparity and inequality across Britain, Europe and indeed the world. Maybe we should be more concerned about that, not who moves where in order to improve their lot in life?
Evidently, some say, it’s far too easy to claim welfare in Britain – immigrants included. There is no shortage of stories proving this case. Here’s a recent one of a young mother, albeit British, fraudulently claiming benefits when she would have been considerably better off with the combination of child benefits and tax credits she was and still is entitled to. These make wonderful stories to stoke up resentment among struggling working people. They also make Britain’s benefit system a bit of a joke.
Haven’t the wishful thinkers and disgusted moral high horse-riders heard about how people, British people no less, many of whom, I don’t care what anybody says, should be in receipt of benefits, are no longer entitled to them? That people are killing themselves because it has been decided by some heartless box-ticker assigned with the task of getting a certain number of people off welfare that they are fit to work when, clearly, they are not? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like to see abuse of the system and accept that Britain has its fair share of feckless and bone idle (or just annoyingly canny, like these two); I just don’t believe we have nearly as many benefit scroungers, of any nationality, as we are led to believe.
That said, the benefits bill is large. I also know that it’s already hard for teachers teaching multi-language lessons, budgets having to stretch to cover myriad interpreters. The health service, too, will be further burdened with more new overseas arrivals. Am I supposed to believe that this government cares about health and education? Please. If it did, it wouldn’t be cutting like cutting’s going out of fashion and there’s absolutely no chance of that happening in austerity Britain. And what difference does it really make, financially, where the patient or pupil hails from other than requiring translators initially? Are there hysterical calls for people to stop having babies? It seems to me that mothers and their little ones depend on the NHS an awful lot more than other sections of working-age society. Should we similarly demonise them for wanting to live in Britain?
I wonder how many people in Britain begrudge the specialist treatment afforded Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old girl shot in the head by the Taliban in October, by the NHS, whose family will now likely remain in the UK. The Pakistani government is meeting all her expenses, by the way.
Overall, in the last ten years, births and net migration have contributed equally to UK population change – each resulting in an additional 2.4 million people. So immigrants really are only half the problem.
Something could be done to ease some of this tension, of course. Politicians want a 32 per cent pay rise, so maybe they could try to justify it by creating jobs for people (so many are out of work, after all). I can think of a few useful ones: checking on the rotten landlords, the unscrupulous agencies organising black market labour (thinking of the tragic circumstances that ended with 19 Chinese drowned whilst picking cockles in Morecambe Bay in 2004, paid just £1 for a nine-hour shift), the self-employed not declaring income, employers failing to pay their employees the national minimum wage. Build more prisons if you must, preferably in some rich person’s back yard (that, too, would create construction jobs as well as raise a few smiles), to throw those who break the country’s laws in for a short while, but do ensure once and for all that people are paying their fair share – starting with the richest – and you just might find, crazy as it sounds, that there’s enough wealth to go around to keep everyone happy and comfortable, including those who have chosen Britain ahead of other countries, which I find quite flattering if not a little surprising, all things considered. If you hadn’t guessed by now.
Government could see to it that eligibility for benefits requires a longer minimum period of residency and that more children living abroad will no longer be eligible for child benefit, as is the case across Europe (only the UK, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Germany and Latvia pay child benefit for children who live elsewhere in the EU; and it costs Britain £1 million a week to do so). That ought to do it.
Then raise wages, reduce working hours, employ more people. It’d be great. Give people more money to spend and more time to spend it; it doesn’t matter where those people come from so long as they pay their taxes and keep money circulating. It could provide extra support to schools and hospitals where there are large numbers of newcomers. It could mean the boarded-up shops come back to life, the streets will be cleaner, the buses will run on time. If Britons don’t wish to be a nation of shopkeepers any longer, because now they’d rather be in finance or marketing or some such, that doesn’t mean that the shops are no longer needed nor that somebody else won’t do a better job of running them (as we have already seen, let’s face it). And if the environment is more pleasant, people will take more pride in it and in themselves. And if that were the case, fewer people would need to whinge about immigration in the first place, because we’d all be happier with no need to find things to be bitter about.
Wait, silly me, Tories are in power. (Another left-wing rant coming up.) They want to crush the working class; always have, always will. They want to keep wages low, for they are the ones reaping the benefits, and indeed would benefit further still if people were willing to work for even less. These are the same Tories who don’t want to train young people any more; don’t want to increase the minimum wage, hence the need for tax credits to supplement poverty wages (and they’re cutting those); don’t want poor kids going to university; don’t even want them joining the army.
And those most likely to vote Tory, the well-to-do, secretly thank immigrant workers for increasing their generous wages at the upper end of the income scale whilst at the same time they mostly couldn’t give a stuff if they’re also depressing wages at the bottom end. They are the very ones who want to – indeed, the only ones who can afford to – hire ever cheaper nannies and gardeners and then fire them without too much fuss. Do they care for the non-unionised workforce if they’ll clean their gutters for half of what the regular chap charges? Like hell they do. How do you think many of them got so rich in the first place? How have they held onto their wealth when everyone else is struggling to make it to the end of the month?
My biggest concern about immigration is for the catastrophic environmental consequences of more people, but of course, where they come from is irrelevant and it’s still the same planet we’re collectively damaging. One way or another, by 2035 the UK population is projected to increase by 11 million, from 62.3 million to 73.2 million, an increase of 18 per cent. I find this prospect absolutely terrifying. Yet consider, if you will, that homelessness in England has risen by almost a quarter, according to Crisis. I wonder why that is. Shelter notes that rents have risen by nearly £300 on average in the past year. Maybe that’s got something to do with it. (I won’t mention Margaret Thatcher’s selling-off of council houses, leaving inadequate social housing stock still, but hope somebody else does.)
Nobody should be homeless in the world’s seventh-richest nation in the year 2013.
Bulgarians and Romanians, and anybody else thinking that the UK looks like a nice place to live, please know what you are letting yourself in for. Please know that you are likely to be exploited – legally – by the types of people that run the country now, for they are the landlords charging extortionate rents, the employers profiting from forced unpaid labour (it’s called Workfare, you should definitely google it), the economists resistant to raising the minimum wage so that it can truly be a living wage – they didn’t want a minimum wage introduced in the first place, in 1999 (the USA brought in a minimum wage during the Great Depression of the 1930s, for goodness sake) and fought tooth and claw to oppose it. You will find that the cost of living is high indeed, just about everything is more expensive than in other parts of Europe, from train fares to food prices (these have risen by 32 per cent in five years, which is nearly double the European average, partly due to wet summers destroying harvests). You will be used to break strikes which will make you unpopular with striking workers, like these were. Without good fortune you will join the despised underclass unless you aspire to be middle class (‘working class’ is not enough) and say all the right things at all the right times to all the right people.
You’ll love the convenience of doorstep lending and high interest loans to tide you over until pay day. Just put the telly on in the daytime, if you can afford to, and you’ll see, every twelve minutes or so, just how many friendly loan sharks there are looking to help you in Britain. I don’t know why they’re called sharks; they’re great big smiling fish, really. After all, they want to help you whereas the banks don’t. Strange, that, seeing as we gave them money when they needed it.
In other words, come to Britain and get fleeced.
We voted for a coalition of over-privileged, right-wing, anti-European bigots, most of whom have never done a real day’s work in their lives but are somehow best placed to tell you, me and everyone how much of everything is just about enough to get by. Still want to join us?
So, Bulgarians and Romanians, if you want to think twice about relocating to Britain, I won’t be offended, I would totally understand. Just please know, as I’m sure you already do, that the vast majority of Britons would much rather see good, honest workers coming in than idle rich and, should you fit this criteria, brave our inclement weather and tolerate our grumpiness, I say: Welcome to the mad house, please enjoy your stay.
Still, I often think of leaving it. Germany looks much better…