Notes From the Margins…

You Clap for Me: A Celebration and a Warning

  • April 16, 2020
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It seems a long time ago, back in the days when ‘normal’ still existed, that we didn’t think much of immigrants in this country – especially the ‘unskilled’ kind.  In those days we learned week in and week out from our newspapers and from many of our politicians, that immigrants were a burden on ‘our’ schools and NHS.  We heard that they were stealing British jobs, that they were being ‘shipped in’ in order to undercut British workers.

We heard that they came here as ‘health tourists’ in order to access health care that they hadn’t earned or paid for; that they always went to the ‘front of the queue’ when it came to housing.  We were often told that we were ‘too generous’ and a ‘soft touch’ that immigrants came to – sometimes crossing oceans in leaky, overcrowded boats – all because they wanted to live a life on benefits at the expense of ‘the taxpayer’.

We learned that many of them were criminals and terrorists.  We were told that they ‘refused to integrate’ or learn our language; that they had such contempt for our culture that they had the temerity to speak their own languages in public to the point when you couldn’t even hear English spoken on the tube anymore, as Nigel Farage reminded us more than once.

Farage owed his rise to public prominence almost entirely to his willingness to stir the xenophobic cauldron, and whip up hatred and fear towards different groups of unwanted foreigners, whether it was Muslims, refugees or Bulgarians, or the Romanians who were robbing our ATM machines.   But he was often aided and abetted by Labour and Conservative politicians who spoke with frowning hand-on-hearts sincerity of the public’s ‘concerns about immigration’, while rarely if ever taking the trouble to look into whether or not these concerns were justified,  or question the vicious realities of the ‘hostile environment’ supposedly designed to allay these concerns.

And then came the EU referendum, and we were told that 60 million Turks were coming to our green and pleasant land, and we saw posters of Farage standing in front of a long line of mostly brown-skinned young men to remind us why we needed to get out.  And after that we set out on the road to Brexit, accompanied by Conservative politicians suggesting that EU citizens exercising their treaty rights could be ‘bargaining counters’, and that restricting low-skilled immigration through a ‘points-based system’ would enable us to ‘take back control’.

Only last December Boris Johnson was promising to “bear down on migration particularly of unskilled workers who have no job to come to” and told Sky News that “over the last couple of decades or more… we’ve seen quite a large numbers of people coming in from the whole of the EU […] able to treat the UK basically as though it’s part of their own country.”

The language was carefully chosen in order to play on all the prejudices that have run unchecked through the body politic for so long, and which have proven to be crucial to Johnson’s own rise to power.

And now, five months later,  so many things have changed.  Johnson’s life has been saved, in part because of the nurses from New Zealand and Portugal who watched over him in an ICU.  Doctors and nurses – immigrants or the children or grandchildren of immigrants – are dying in our hospitals.   Now we really are ‘shipping’ Romanians  over here to pick fruit because only a small proportion of Brits have applied for the 95,000 vacancies available in the farming industry.

At a time when many care homes have become coronavirus death traps,  adult social care is dependent on the 250,000 care workers held by people with a non-British nationality (115,000 EU; 134,000 non-EU).

So now it turns out that immigrants are treating our sick and our elderly just as they have been doing for years, except that some of them are dying in the process.  And now even Tory politicians are standing outside their front doors clapping for them, or praising ‘key workers’ – many of whom, surprise surprise, turn out to have been foreign.  As this marvellous video/poem reminds us, we have discovered that perhaps immigrants weren’t intruders and parasites after all, and we are invited to reflect that perhaps ‘unskilled worker’ need not have become a pejorative category, whose baleful significance supposedly increased when the people it referred to were foreign.


So tonight, let’s clap.  But we should see this powerful video as a celebration and also as a warning, because the racists, xenophobes, and nativists who have poisoned our politics will not allow a little thing like a pandemic to stop them. They might be quiet now – some of them anyway. They might even clap, or at least keep quiet when others do. But the politicians and newspapers that promoted and fed nationalist exceptionalism, fear and hatred of the Other because they shared these sentiments, or because they used them simply in order to get power or ‘get Brexit done’ – they will not be shamed, because they never had any shame to begin with.

When we come out of this, when the economy crumbles, when millions are unemployed, they will look for scapegoats, invaders, fake threats, cultural aliens. Catastrophe will harden hearts still further, re-freezing this anomalous thaw, because that is what catastrophes can do.

It should not have taken a disaster like this to make this country show the solidarity, empathy, and common decency that have been so conspicuously lacking these last few years as we have allowed ourselves to sink into a moral sewer, and made too many of us the playthings of charlatans, demagogues, and ‘make Britain great’ chauvinists. It should not have been necessary for a Portuguese and a New Zealand nurse to care for the Prime Minister to make people think ‘oh, so immigrants aren’t too bad after all.’ Only last December that same Prime Minister – a ‘One Nation Tory’ when it suits him and a saloon bar racist when it doesn’t.

Now he gives his ‘heartfelt’ thanks to these nurses, and to the NHS in general. How heartfelt remains to be seen, but it shouldn’t even matter. One address to the nation can never make up for the damage he’s done, and for the damage people like him have done, not just to the ‘immigrants’ who made this country their home, but to all of us, to the essential bonds of decency, solidarity, and goodwill that every society should aspire to always.

Let this poem point the way to a better way forward. Let it lead us to reflect on the putrid hatred and fear that has rotted so many brains, and brought us to the brink of disaster even before this one. Let us pay tribute to the men and women who speak these lines, and who should never had had to say them.

And let’s figure out a way to build a society worthy of them, and fight for it.

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1 Comment

  1. Julietta Schoenmann

    16th Apr 2020 - 10:10 am

    Great piece Matt – you totally nail the duplicity of our government and in particular the PM on the subject of immigration. The question is: what happens when this is all over? So many of us are hoping for systemic change and a fundamental shift in society’s values….has that ever happened before I wonder? Sadly I fear your predication about scapegoats and a catastrophe’s ability to harden hearts may well prove true.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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