Lesley Riddoch: To remain a proud mongrel nation Scotland must stop foreigner-blaming

Will life become unpleasant for EU nationals in 2020 as European leaders start playing hardball in tough and probably nasty trade negotiations?

A remain supporter looks on during a demonstration in Parliament Square on March 13, 2017. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
A remain supporter looks on during a demonstration in Parliament Square on March 13, 2017. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson has an overwhelming mandate to get Brexit done. That shouldn’t mean a negative focus on EU citizens living here, but as British and European leaders arm-wrestle their way through the year ahead, producing us versus them narratives and “Hop off you frogs” headlines aplenty, it probably will.

In 2020 a new Labour leader will probably officially embrace Brexit and leave millions of Remain voters south of the Border without any means of democratic expression, thanks also to the collapse of the bickering People’s Vote campaign and the leaderless Lib Dems. Anyone hoping the main Westminster opposition parties will swiftly recover from the failed Brexit battles of yesteryear to refocus on the human rights battles of tomorrow is likely to be disappointed.

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The enlarged cohort of SNP MPs has the energy, mandate and moral authority to champion the views of the “losing” side, raise important questions about the way Brexit is managed and persuade gung-ho Leave voters that giving Boris carte blanche over every aspect of British life is not a good idea. But the third largest party at Westminster is customarily ignored by politicians and the mainstream media. There’s no reason to think 2020 will be any different.

South of the Border at least, Europeanism has suddenly become as unfashionable and last season as glittery cards, wrapping paper, carols and Brussels sprouts – a Christmas tradition which could, incidentally, disappear if rivals follow the example set this Christmas by Morrisons and Asda and rebadge their sprouts with local origins. Soon, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Scottish sprouts will be all we’ve ever known.

A small thing perhaps and both supermarkets insist that pleasing Brexiters played no part in their re-labelling decisions. But maybe a sign of things to come. A sign that anything or anyone from a European country will soon smack of an alien culture.

Is this overstating things? The statistics suggest not.

The number of hate crimes recorded by police in England and Wales has more than doubled from 44,500 in 2013-14 to a new record of 103,379 in 2018 while the number of cases passed to prosecutors has dropped from 31 to just 11 per cent. Admittedly, referral rates have dropped across all types of offence, hate crimes sometimes don’t have named suspects, and out-of-court disposals don’t result in criminal charges. Suspects are also harder to identify when anonymous accounts are used to send abuse and threats online.

But still, as weekend stabbings in a rabbi’s home north of New York City amply testify, attacks on minorities can happen in apparently tolerant environments. And Britain is not likely to be all that tolerant a place in 2020.

If EU leaders take a tough stance during forthcoming trade talks – as they surely must – the hostile and triumphalist Europhobic British press will have a field day, demonising EU institutions and painting European leaders as robbers and thugs determined to cheat the noble, freedom-seeking Brits.

In this unpleasant and toxic political environment, unsuspecting, ordinary EU citizens will be on the receiving end of anti-Brussels sentiment. Indeed, that nasty process has already started, in some very surprising locations.

A few customers at the Ceilidh Place Hotel and restaurant in Ullapool objected to a tiny EU flag mounted over the cash-desk. Days later, a French waiter was effectively told to get back home by a guest. Now all waiting staff wear T-shirts sporting the 12-stars of the EU flag on their backs, in solidarity with their French colleague and anyone else picked on for their ethnicity.

Thanks to the hotel owners’ strong public stance, there’s been open discussion about changing public behaviour and some visitors have revealed bruising encounters they’ve experienced elsewhere.

One Portuguese man living here for almost a decade, said customers now regularly demand to be served by “someone who speaks English properly,” at his workplace – a large High Street department store in Scotland. His English is almost perfect. A workmate also told him to stop using his native tongue while chatting with two other Portuguese speakers in the staff canteen. Are these incidents unusual one-offs or the tip of an iceberg set to grow larger as Britain’s acrimonious withdrawal from the EU dominates front pages and political discourse in 2020?

How will employers and managers respond?

Scotland prides itself on welcoming New Scots and Nicola Sturgeon was widely praised for reaching out to EU citizens straight after the 2016 referendum, reassuring all who’d chosen to live and work here that Scotland was their home. This message of international solidarity gets loud cheers at independence rallies – partly because it neatly distinguishes Scots from very different English attitudes towards immigration, Europe and international cooperation.

But are we just virtue-signalling and kidding ourselves?

Are EU citizens getting almost as many pointed and unpleasant jibes in Remain-voting Scotland as Brexit-voting England?

It’s impossible to know for sure. But these and other incidents should prompt the SNP to try and reconfigure the Westminster debate before Britain withdraws on 31 January. Otherwise, a very nasty scenario could develop – one in which EU nationals are singled out, pilloried and turned into scapegoats for the political and economic uncertainty that will inevitably arise as a wildly over-promising Conservative leader hits the brick wall of an unyielding and united bloc of EU trade negotiators.

Agreed – the notion that Britain might somehow remain in the EU or single market, through the mechanism of a second vote, or a Remain alliance at Westminster is now officially dead, but the idea of a part-European identity and the internationalising impact of freedom of movement has always meant more to Scots Remain voters than the arcane details of tariff-free trade, and harmonised regulations. It still does.

Protecting the rights of EU citizens living amongst us is an expression of enlightened self-interest, curiosity about other cultures, gratitude for the energy and enthusiasm of incomers and recognition of the enduring importance of respecting cultural and ethnic difference.

Boris Johnson’s self-imposed December trade negotiations deadline is bound to ramp up anti-European, anti-foreigner rhetoric.

If Scotland wants to remain a proud “mongrel nation”, we must hold the line against any descent into foreigner-blaming. And that means all of us.