Did you know that the Brexit Department has closed asks Andy Stowe? A visit to the British government’s website says starkly: “Department for Exiting the European Union has closed.” It refers you to the Downing Street and Cabinet Office websites, but there is nothing about the progress of the departure from the European Union.
Let’s hope it doesn’t reopen.
Support for Brexit was always support for a migrant bashing, hard right project. For years Tory papers like the Daily Mail, preferred reading for the more genteel type of middle-class racist, ran stories with headlines like: “How 50,000 migrants came to UK from Romania and Bulgaria in just one year: Figure up by 19,000 in a year after were given right to work freely in Britain”.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Brexiteer argument, rarely challenged by the handful of left supporters of the plan, was that Romanians, Poles, Bulgarian and other EU migrants were stealing jobs from British born workers and this contributed to the sense of rage and disenfranchisement that pushed a chunk of the white working class to the right.
At an awful cost in suffering and human lives, the Covid-19 pandemic has blown that argument out of the water. It has also transformed the discussion about migration.
Everyone has known for years that British agriculture is utterly dependent on migrant labour to pick fruit and gather harvests. Suddenly migrant agricultural workers are as hard to find as a bag of flour in your local supermarket. Oddly enough, for all the talk of the Blitz, Dunkirk, WW2 and a great national effort neither the Brexiteers nor Lexiteers have been rushing to fill the gap. Farmers are not reporting queues of patriots outside their gates at 5am clamouring to harvest fruit or pull up the broccoli from the soil next month. Quite the opposite. Feed The Nation, an industry recruitment body says: “UK farms have a shortage of seasonal labour to help pick and pack fruit and vegetables”. It even has a hashtag #PickForBritain if you want to get more information on supporting “UK farmers by applying for immediate roles across the UK”. So at a time when significant numbers of people are losing their job, very few are interested in trudging through fields doing long hours of back breaking work.
The Country Land & Business Association estimates that 80 000 people are needed for the coming harvests, forlornly adding “There are good jobs available and great opportunities for those currently furloughed, unemployed or students.”
This has prompted something of a change in the press coverage. So, instead of the traditional “Inside squalid, rat-infested three-bedroom home where Romanian gang kept more than THIRTY slaves”, the tone has changed to “150 ‘critically important’ Romanian fruit pickers who will join ‘land army’ battling to save Britain’s harvest lands”. Their wages will range from £8.52 to £15 an hour with a £50 weekly deduction for accommodation. This might go some way to explaining why only 4000 of the newly unemployed 450 000 in Britain have even bothered to be interviewed for the jobs.
The pandemic has changed the way migrants will be perceived. Boris Johnson was elected on a wave of racism and xenophobia. His first response to the pandemic was to resort to British exceptionalism and a bulldog spirit which could be paraphrased as “Hitler didn’t beat us and this is only a bit of a flu”. Yet even he felt obliged to personally thank the migrant nurses who tended him. The racist papers which backed the Tories and Brexit have been forced to acknowledge that it is overwhelmingly black, Asian and migrant medical staff who are dying as a result of treating patients.
Life has become harder for migrant bashing Brexiteers. They’ve learned in the most brutal way imaginable that their food, medical care and essential services cannot run without migrant labour. The pandemic is also teaching them that when governments want to find vast sums of money to keep people from destitution, they can just turn on the taps.
Let’s keep making a case for ongoing, post-pandemic high levels of public spending and explaining that migrants are a solution, not a problem.