Our tolerant country is turning into a nasty place to live as we argue over helping refugees, says Joyce McMillan
As I write, Gary Lineker is defending himself on twitter, and making a pretty good job of it. His offence, it seems, is to have posted a tweet earlier this week saying: “The treatment by some towards these young refugees is hideously racist and utterly heartless. What’s happening to our country?” Like the singer Lily Allen, who made similar comments after a visit to the Calais Jungle earlier in the week, Lineker then received a deluge of bitter, raging and violently-phrased abuse from people who clearly think that being a refugee should be an offence punishable by death - “let the boats sink, problem solved”, wrote one charmer.
The occasion for this latest outpouring of toxic hate was the British government’s belated decision to accept a total of 300 unaccompanied child refugees from the jungle camp in Calais, and the fact that most of those children turned out, on arrival, not to be appealing wide-eyed tots, but teenage youths who have somehow survived not only the gruelling journey to the Channel coast, but also months of hell in Calais. If you want to know more about the reality of that journey, as experienced by a boy who was 12 when his mother decided he was old enough to attempt it, read a book called The Lightless Sky, by Gulwali Passarlay, now a British citizen living in Manchester; and then look again at the faces of those teenagers in the media images, and think for a moment of what they must have suffered and survived, to reach this point.
Engaging with reality, though, is not the strong suit of the people who took exception to Lineker’s remark, people whose life seems to be one long ecstasy of hatred, suspicion and ill-will, directed wherever the latest screaming newspaper headline tells it to go. One of his critics, jumping to the cue eagerly provided by some of Wednesday’s newspapers, began to opine that “the jungle kids don’t look like kids, and it’s not racist to say so”. To which Lineker replied: “However old they are, they’re bloody human beings, like you.”
And Lineker’s shock and impatience at some of the responses he received is more than understandable; for all of a sudden, we seem to be living in a Britain where racism and xenophobia - the determination to hate or mistrust people purely on grounds of their origin - are acceptable views, not only expressed without restraint, but taken up by our political class as opinions to be treated with respect. Those who espouse these views will of course argue that the opposite is the case; that “political correctness” has robbed them of a voice for decades.
Yet in this country allegedly dominated by political correctness, the law against incitement to racial hatred has apparently now become a dead letter, as writers like Katie Hopkins write with impunity that all refugees and asylum seekers are “cockroaches”, headlines pump out daily hate speech, and it takes a retired professional footballer to say clearly in public what our politicians are now, almost to a man and woman, too afraid to say: that this kind of hate-filled thinking is vile and delusional, that its history is terrifying, and that if this island is to have any future as a civilised place to live, we must resist it, every hour of every day.
For the truth is that the row which has dominated many sections of the British media this week, including BBC news bulletins, is a row about next to nothing. Whether they are children or adults, the total of 300 people now to be allowed entry to Britain - only 150 of whom arrived this week - is an abysmal, mean-spirited drop in the ocean of misery created by two decades of unresolved conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, all of it involving western interests. Since 2011, the Syrian conflict alone has caused almost five million people to flee the country. 2.7 million of them are in Turkey, largely provided for by the Turkish government. 1.5 million are in Lebanon, a troubled country which itself has only 4.5 million citizens. Germany has offered a home to 600,000 Syrians, and although the far right is doing its best to exploit the situation, German society seems to be coping well. Britain, by contrast, barely figures on the list of host nations. For every one hundred Syrians settled in Germany, we have so far accepted one; and yet we are now, apparently, throwing a national hissy fit over the arrival of a couple of busloads of boys, some of whom might - horror of horrors - be 18 or 20, rather than seventeen.
So what is to be done? Celebrities like Gary Lineker and Lily Allen can help, of course, by calling out this abject, evil-minded nonsense for what it is. The most dangerous vacuum, though, lies in our mainstream political debate, where the Tories seem increasingly keen to adopt the language and attitudes of an imploding Ukip, and where Labour cannot decide whether to call post-Brexit Britain’s growing festival of grim xenophobia by its proper name, or to remain where 20 years of Blairism left it, apologising abjectly for allowing too much migration, when it should be apologising for allowing another 15 years of junk neoliberalism, and gradually eroding the wages and dignity of ordinary working people beyond endurance.
What the events of this past week suggest, in other words, is that the UK is now on the verge of becoming a very unpleasant place indeed, where all the tolerant internationalism and diversity that has been one of this country’s greatest assets, over the last 40 years, is suddenly under threat of being reversed. That a majority don’t want this is almost certain; Gary Lineker also tweeted his thanks, this week, to all the thousands who had supported his stance. It’s undeniable, though, that that tolerant majority are no longer shaping the terms or the language of the UK debate, in the aftermath of Brexit; and in a world where being “foreign” is increasingly framed as a problem - and where people are already being forced to choose between identities that have always, until now, co-existed in harmony - the only way is down.