Rafael Behr,

It’s not only EU na­tion­als in the UK who fear their iden­tity is be­ing un­rav­elled. But the PM is obliv­i­ous

The Guardian - - NATIONAL -

Prime min­is­ters are rarely judged on the power of their noses. The way they speak and lis­ten at­tracts com­ment. They are praised if they have a com­mon touch or strong vi­sion. Smell is rou­tinely un­der­rated among the po­lit­i­cal senses, and yet I am in­creas­ingly con­vinced that de­fi­ciency in this depart­ment is Theresa May’s great­est weak­ness.

Not lit­er­ally. I’m sure she can tell when the milk in a No 10 fridge is off. But she strug­gles with tests of po­lit­i­cal pun­gency. She did not catch vote-re­pel­lent whiffs em­a­nat­ing from her doomed elec­tion man­i­festo – the stale tang of fox­hunt­ing, for ex­am­ple. She has si­dled close to Don­ald Trump, dis­re­gard­ing his of­fences against de­cency and democ­racy, with­out so much as a nos­tril twitch to­wards the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent.

I raised this weak­ness once with a Down­ing Street aide in the con­text of EU na­tion­als res­i­dent in the UK. It was this time last year, in the run-up to Con­ser­va­tive party con­fer­ence. In the months since the ref­er­en­dum, pretty much ev­ery­one I knew of non-Bri­tish back­ground had re­ceived some stranger’s jibe to the ef­fect that they had over­stayed their wel­come in this coun­try. Data show­ing a surge in re­ported hate crime sup­ported my anec­do­tal ev­i­dence, stuff we had seen: abuse hurled from pass­ing cars; a child in tears be­cause school­mates asked when she was “go­ing back” to a coun­try she hardly knew.

There was some­thing ran­cid in the air, and I won­dered if the prime min­is­ter could smell it. This was not, I in­sisted, an in­vi­ta­tion to change course on Brexit, nor a crit­i­cism of those who voted to leave the EU. Full-bore racists were a tiny mi­nor­ity. But it may, I said, be in the prime min­is­ter’s in­ter­ests to show sen­si­tiv­ity. Some­where on their lib­er­a­tion march, leavers trod in some­thing nasty, and the new gov­ern­ment should check its shoes. I was told that May was known as an ex-re­mainer and needed to con­sol­i­date her new cre­den­tials as a Brex­iter. She dare not show sym­pa­thy for a cause she had aban­doned.

A year later, no one thinks May has a soft spot for the 2.9 mil­lion EU cit­i­zens in the UK. The cloud of ca­sual xeno­pho­bia has be­come a light rain of in­sti­tu­tional prej­u­dice: land­lords re­fus­ing to let prop­er­ties, em­ploy­ers de­mand­ing proofs of res­i­dency that are not re­quired by law. Not yet. A gov­ern­ment po­si­tion paper, pub­lished over the sum­mer, makes it clear that non-Bri­tish EU cit­i­zens will have to ap­ply to the Home Of­fice for new le­gal sta­tus. Their sub­se­quent en­ti­tle­ments, the ease with which they may re­assem­ble a fac­sim­ile of what they have now, will de­pend on the date when they ar­rived in the coun­try.

For most Brex­iters, this is un­con­tro­ver­sial. EU mem­ber­ship made Bri­tain open its bor­ders to con­ti­nen­tal set­tlers. That ar­range­ment will end, so it stands to rea­son that non-Bri­tons must em­bark on the route to cit­i­zen­ship (which the gov­ern­ment says will be easy) or ac­cept their for­eign­ness. To the leaver-be­liever, this is a gen­er­ous of­fer. Move along, noth­ing to smell here.

It is hard to con­vey odours with words, but let me try to ex­plain what it is that makes this re­mainer re­coil. Brex­iters see the is­sue in bu­reau­cratic terms – mov­ing peo­ple between le­gal rubrics. Most will not see it in terms of iden­tity be­cause they don’t see an EU pass­port as a cred­i­ble ve­hi­cle for any emo­tional sense of be­long­ing. If they did, they would have voted re­main. Through the leaver lens, French pass­port-hold­ers in Bri­tain were sim­ply French. They had the op­tion of tak­ing Bri­tish cit­i­zen­ship be­fore Brexit, and will still have it. Le­gal un­cer­tainty in the in­terim is re­gret­table, but that is a prob­lem of tim­ing, not ethics.

Any­one from a mi­grant back­ground will ap­pre­ci­ate that there is no easy sep­a­ra­tion of of­fi­cial sta­tus and be­long­ing. Even those who, like me, were born in the UK to im­mi­grant par­ents, and have had Bri­tish pass­ports from birth, carry a sense of the per­mis­sion that was once granted. We recog­nise that times change, and so­ci­eties may be­come more or less per­mis­sive. Gen­eros­ity waxes and wanes. But in the main­stream, those shifts have al­ways been ex­pressed in rules for fu­ture mi­gra­tion. Ret­ro­spec­tive changes – re­scind­ing li­cences al­ready granted – be­longed on the send-’em-home fringe.

EU free move­ment con­ferred a right to re­lo­cate. And, whether Brex­iters like it or not, that im­plied a right to be­long in per­pe­tu­ity. So it is not a tech­ni­cal ad­just­ment, this de­ci­sion to down­grade the sta­tus of peo­ple who took jobs, mar­ried, had chil­dren, all on the ba­sis of their old sta­tus. It calls out their fail­ure to be more indige­nous and con­fis­cates a lit­tle some­thing from them. In so do­ing it hints at the con­di­tion­al­ity of the deal other Bri­tish peo­ple with roots abroad thought was sealed.

On their lib­er­a­tion march, leavers trod in some­thing nasty. The gov­ern­ment should check its shoes

Many Bri­tish cit­i­zens with im­mi­grant back­grounds voted leave and are happy with that choice. I can speak only for any who share my anx­i­ety when I warn that the treat­ment of EU cit­i­zens probes a del­i­cate place in our mi­grant psyches. It slides a gov­ern­ment nail under the seam where mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties over­lap, pick­ing away at the place where we had wo­ven to­gether the idea of be­ing Bri­tish and some­thing else – In­dian, African, Mus­lim, Jewish, Euro­pean – with­out be­ing forced to rank or dis­card. Brexit forces choices. It tells French cit­i­zens in Bri­tain (and Bri­tish cit­i­zens in France) that they must reap­ply to be some­thing they thought they were al­ready: at home.

A kind in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Theresa May’s record as home sec­re­tary is that she never tried to un­der­stand im­mi­gra­tion be­yond the pres­sure from those peo­ple who want less of it. That is a sen­si­tiv­ity worth heed­ing too, and one to which lib­eral pro-Euro­peans of­ten blocked their eyes, ears and noses. But Brexit is be­ing en­acted to sat­isfy that de­mand.

Leav­ing the Euro­pean Union will negate a right that mil­lions of peo­ple ex­er­cised as the foun­da­tion for their lives in this coun­try. Any claim that they can­not be wounded by it is ab­surd. It cuts deeper than many leavers re­alise. It is a big deal to re­voke per­mis­sion to be­long in a coun­try. I don’t ex­pect the prime min­is­ter to know how it feels, how it smells, to those of us who owe ev­ery­thing to such per­mis­sions, but I can tell her. It hurts and it stinks.

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