Room for more: let’s not turn inward

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Spend any time walking in the Dales and the frequently vaunted claim that ‘Britain is full’ can start to look faintly absurd.  Of course, it’s not as simple as that but even a cursory analysis of a map of these islands reveals that only a tiny proportion is built over, the rest being taken up with agricultural land and semi-natural wilderness.

The other side of the coin is of course that for the vast majority of people in the UK, their everyday experience is lived out in densely populated urban areas, using what seems increasingly creaky transport infrastructure to move between cheek-by-jowl homes, bustling workplaces and crowded shopping centres.

Then there’s the economic challenges preoccupying both government and households – skyrocketing house prices, high education fees, under-investment in public services.  It all seems like we’re barely coping as a nation.  Just about managing perhaps.

Yet the UK still boasts the fifth largest nominal GDP index in the world; and per head of population we have more financial resources than just about any medium sized country on the planet.  They’re a long way from being evenly distributed but that alone ought to give pause for thought about what ought to be possible for us to achieve as a nation.  It should surely be a matter of choice.

But something is wrong, and not just with the country’s economics.  While we’ve been mesmerised by government efforts to fix the deficit and arrange an orderly exit from the EU, a change of political culture has slipped by almost unnoticed: one which lays the responsibility for economic failings not at the door of those who manage the economy but at the poorest and most vulnerable in society.  One which identifies an idealised corpus of acceptable hardworking Brits around whose aspirations everything should be designed whilst casting the unemployed, homeless, long-term sick and immigrant as feckless and deserving of little or no support.

I want to tell you about someone I recently met.  Born in a Commonwealth country, she arrived in the UK legitimately with her parents fourteen years ago when her father was invited into a mid-management position by a UK employer.  The family established their life here, her and her siblings attended university (she took both an undergraduate degree and a masters) and she began to work.

After such a long time in this country, the UK is to all intents and purposes her home.  She has no ties to her country of origin, little understanding of how to get by there and no prospects of employment.  Yet recently owing to a technical change to her father’s visa, all of his children were served notice to quit the country and their right to work was rescinded.  Naturally they each appealed but with mixed success.  In the case of my friend, she was told earlier this year by the presiding judge that although he agreed that she ought to be allowed to stay, he had no choice but to refuse her leave to remain.

A few weeks later, on a routine visit to a reporting centre, she was detained, her mobile phone removed from her and she was locked in a cold room for several hours with no access to food or drink.  She was searched, bullied and threatened with immediate deportation.  Mercifully, she had been quick-thinking enough to send a panicked text to her parents before her phone was taken, so they contacted her lawyer and were able to put a stop on proceedings.  But the incident left her terrified, convinced that she will be plucked from her home and sent to a country of which she no longer has any meaningful understanding.

This is the outworking of the ‘hostile environment’: a brutal, inhumane system designed to purge the country of anyone who doesn’t fit the precise criteria that the Home Office see fit to impose on our national hospitality.  It is cruel, mean and scandalous.

This is not the Britain I recognise, care for or am proud of.  My country is one – has always been one – that welcomes guests, celebrates diversity and enables meaningful integration between cultures.  It’s a nation that stands up for, not persecutes the weak.  It’s a country that knows how much there is to gain from engaging the skills, energies and aspirations of people from all around the world.  Finally, it could be one that takes responsibility for its past misdemeanours in the form of empire to offer mutually supportive relationships with parts of the world that need assistance with their economic development.

Could be, but as things stand, the UK seems to be disappearing in a hall of mirrors of its own making, turning inward, jealously guarding its borders and baring its teeth to neighbours and friends, like a wounded, cornered beast.

The question is, how do we break our collective conscious out of this spiral of erosion and restore a more constructive, positive mindset?  I suggest by looking to the most vulnerable members of society – the homeless, long-term sick, elderly and yes, immigrants – and designing our administrative responses to their needs as humane, compassionate and adaptable to individual circumstance.  Not easy, and not without contradiction.  But please let’s dispense with nastiness, treat people with respect and never, ever, attempt to strip them of dignity just because they haven’t yet received their official welcome from the state.

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