[Confused about the precise relationship between Brexit and immigration? You will never need to worry again after reading Tychy’s handy guide.]
Like a little boat voyaging over a smooth sea, we are crossing the Meadows. We had set off from the port of Bruntsfield and the university library is waiting for us on the furthermost shore. It is mid-morning and there are gangs of sprightly young mothers who are sweeping forward a jumble of pushchairs and toddlers; tall men in silk scarves who are solemn with the responsibility of supervising tiny overexcited dogs; and cyclists in lycra who are cruising along with their noses pointed aggressively in the air. Better not get in the way of those cyclists!
Once we are on the other side of Melville Drive, there are apparently two rugby teams in the middle of a match, lumbering about on a field of chopped up mud. But look again and you’re so surprised that you stop in your tracks. They are not playing with a ball but with a frisbee. Yes, these miraculously huge and energetic men in muddy shorts are all fervently absorbed in the flying of a luminous pink disc.
Andrew is the goalkeeper, or whatever this game has for a goalkeeper. He is pro-immigration. He works for a university research department, in a laboratory which studies the regenerative abilities of zebrafish. Most of his fellow researchers in this department are immigrants, from nations such as Poland, Spain, India, and China. Andrew also tutors undergraduate biology students and these are likewise generally immigrants.
Andrew likes hanging out with these guys. Quite unconsciously, he is fanatical about exploring their ideas and culture and cuisine. They have flat parties and day trips to the Highlands together. Next year, he has been invited to his colleague Jordi’s family home in Barcelona for a holiday. Jordi is always able to get hold of ecstasy, which Andrew never knows how to go about doing himself. Andrew is also in a serious relationship with Monika, a student from Lithuania. If his laboratory finally secures that three-year research grant, he will take the plunge and propose.
If you were to ask Andrew about his views on immigration, after his ridiculous frisbee game had ended, you would find that he has a carefree “just let them all in” attitude. He is not afraid of immigration and he is confident that our society can cope with whatever it brings. There is something admirable and even Churchillian about this can-do stance, though you suspect that Andrew might nonetheless afford an example of what the philosopher Slavoj Žižek terms “the Beautiful Soul which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it.” In other words, Andrew knows that mass immigration from, say, the Middle East or Africa will never happen and so he has never assumed the responsibility of really thinking its implications through.
A little while back, we had walked past Dorothy, a businesswoman who is practising her golf shots on the Bruntsfield links. She is anti-immigration. As a businesswoman, she had originally welcomed unlimited European immigration to Edinburgh because it had enabled her to take on many talented young workers. These employees were refreshingly hard-working and by some fortuitous imbalance in the universe they were deeply appreciative of her rather pinched wages. In seeing how these poor youngsters had transformed their lives whilst working for her, Dorothy came to feel almost as if her business was a charity.
Lately, however, she has come down to Earth with a bump. Finding a reliable nursery for her granddaughter is impossible – they are all full up. And her youngest daughter wants to go to university in England next year, but the rents are putting profound constraints upon where she can study. Dorothy takes a somewhat Malthusian view of the current economy. She thinks that as the population rises, the UK’s resources will be depleted until everyone is reduced to poverty.
Yet she additionally has fluttering heebie-jeebies about immigration. Last year, her business took on a Romanian worker who had lots of unpleasant beliefs about Jews and black people. There was endless bickering at work and they had to let him go in the end, a process which Dorothy always finds costly and time-consuming. Dorothy imagines that her ex-Romanian’s ideas are practically friendly when compared to those of the city’s growing Muslim population. If some of them had their way, she’d be now traipsing around the Meadows with a sack over her head.
So Andrew and Dorothy appear to have entirely irreconcilable views about immigration. They could debate for thousands of years about the subject and it is still not clear that they would ever reach a conclusion. But here’s the thing! There is actually a single, solitary point upon which both sides agree.
They both think that immigration policy should be decided within a UK general election.
On this question, the pros and cons of immigration are neither here nor there. In a UK general election, Andrew would vote for the Greens, who want mass immigration, whilst Dorothy would vote for the Tories, who want restricted immigration. They agree only upon the fact that having the Vote is a precondition for having the debate about immigration. If they don’t have the Vote, then what’s the point of having the debate? They might just as well leave any debating about immigration’s pros and cons to those who really have the power.
We are now walking past Michael, who is prancing about on the grass with a plastic rapier. He and his friends are rehearsing for a student production of Romeo and Juliet, which they want to take to one of the C venues at this year’s Fringe. Michael is Tybalt, although so far the sternness keeps flopping out of his handsome face. He is pro-immigration.
When you ask Michael about immigration, he has a hundred statistics immediately ready about its economic benefits. Michael is always infinitely evidence-based. Upon inspection, however, he is not in fact arguing for immigration and he is instead maintaining that ordinary people should not be allowed to have any say in the future about immigration policy. He wants open borders to be taken out of politics altogether by the EU and frozen essentially as a constitutional principle which the electorate can never get at. He has exactly the same paranoia as the Chinese Communist Party: elections are unpredictable and so policymaking should be left to dispassionate administrators, in suits.
Michael is now arguing with you about immigration and you are both wading through a great thicket of statistics. You should take note of who he is not arguing with. Michael wants to convince you that immigration is virtuous, but after the referendum is over his ideas could be imposed upon every successive generation without them having any say. This is the arrogance of somebody who thinks that they have ended history.
Michael keeps repeating something which will stick in your head. You will brood upon this as you trudge off towards the university library and Michael resumes his rapier thrusts. Michael insists that the UK is a “welcoming” country which has “welcomed” countless immigrants as part of its cultural heritage. But what sort of a welcome is this really?
If your employer forces you to “welcome” customers to his supermarket, this is not a welcome of any recognised value. The customers are not really your friends or your chosen guests. With his tolerant attitude, Andrew the frisbee player has doubtlessly welcomed many students to Edinburgh. Dorothy, the businesswoman, has certainly welcomed her employees. Still, in their city’s circumstances, these two are passive recipients whose welcome of immigrants is taken for granted by the system. They have never actively made a decision, as voters in an election, to invite newcomers in. They have been never trusted with this responsibility.
Andrew, our splendid frisbee-wielding hero, wants to welcome immigrants into Edinburgh. For once in his life, he would like to vote for them.