The tolerant UK I love seems to be vanishing

You may say ‘the referendum isn’t about you’, but it is. German-born historian Tanja Bueltmann on her watershed moment 

June 16, 2016
european union boris johnson debate june 23
Source: iStock

Yesterday was my ultimate personal watershed moment in the referendum campaign. Why? Because Vote Leave released its post-Brexit road map. And it completely ignores European Union citizens already resident in the UK (as well as British citizens living in continental Europe).

Never mind that we have been the subject of populist scaremongering, often clearly xenophobic, for months. Suddenly they couldn’t care less about us. Instead the so-called Asylum and Immigration Control Bill simply states that it “would end the automatic right of all EU citizens to enter the UK by the next election”. So what’s that supposed to mean? Does it apply to EU citizens who are long-term UK residents? Might we find ourselves standing at the border unable to go home after a holiday? Will we suddenly need a visa?

But that’s not why this is my watershed moment: that is because nobody cared. As Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof played some childish flotilla game on the Thames and George Osborne pulled the emergency budget out of the hat, the road map (which includes a plethora of other very worrying propositions) was largely ignored. That is a slap in the face of EU migrants in the UK and UK migrants in continental Europe – millions of us. You could say: but the referendum isn’t about you. Well, but it is: we would potentially be among the worst affected, but have no say. And in any case: it was made about us!

Do I still feel as welcome in the UK as I used to? No. Do I feel valued? No. As pro-Brexit Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom noted earlier this week, immigration enriched British society only until 2002 – so tough luck then, I came after that....And here’s the worst thing you can say in response: “But we don’t mean you.” Well, I am an EU migrant. Full stop. Any xenophobic headline against an EU migrant, any migrant bashing, is against me. You don’t get to cherry-pick.

In any case: I am clearly meant. I have had my face plastered across Twitter by Ukip supporters with my nationality singled out, and called a fraud: as a German I am apparently not allowed to voice my views because I am a foreigner. Inevitably I was told that if I don’t choose UK citizenship I should just get lost. I’ve been told to “shut up you German cunt” and similar friendly things countless times. Images of Hitler were tweeted to me literally within minutes after Iain Duncan Smith launched his anti-German tirade. Pictures of tanks followed at other times. All invoking images of war and evil Germans – halt ze German advance and all that. I have been shouted at in the street for wearing a StrongerIN sticker – makes me a traitor, apparently. And there’s (of course) my favourite: I am also an “EU whore”.

Such behaviour is not characteristic of the UK I love. But the UK I love, an open and tolerant country, seems to be vanishing. I see a “Trumpification”, and look in horror at clear parallels in early 20th-century German history.

I have absolutely no idea what is happening here in the UK right now. But what I do know is that it keeps me up at night.

Tanja Bueltmann is associate professor of history, Northumbria University. This piece was originally published via her Twitter feed, @scotsdiaspora.

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Reader's comments (1)

There are few times that I am ashamed of my fellow citizens but this is one of them. Have we really come to this? I count myself lucky to have been born in this great nation but the sort of abuse discussed in the article shames us. Let us not descend to name-calling whatever the outcome next week. After all, it is us "grown ups" that have the vote!

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