Two things happened this week. Firstly, I got my hair cut. Something newsworthy as it’s happened just twice in the last 6 months due to lockdown. Judging by the many pictures posted on Instagram of the latest ‘fresh cut’ and ‘trim’, others are also taking advantage of the novelty of a newly cropped barnet.
Secondly, whilst I was sitting in the barber’s chair, the UK media was focusing on what it saw as the main topic to be alarmed by. Not the rising Covid 19 infections in our country nor the biggest drop in GDP for 100 years, but the images of make shift dinghies crossing the Channel and the Government’s threat to send in the Navy.
These two things – happening at the same time but seemingly not linked – have a common theme linking them; immigration.
How do we view immigration in this country? If you looked at the way the EU Referendum was run and the negativity towards people from abroad you would say clearly that immigration was a polarising and divisive issue. The polling backed that up. But then we thought things changed – polling started to say that immigration wasn’t anywhere near as big an issue as before. 2020 brought coronavirus and the outward and heartfelt appreciation of key workers, many of whom had come to Britain from overseas or were the sons and daughters of immigrants.
Oh how long ago that weekly clapping feels now! I’m sure I’m not the only one to pick up on the irritability and tiredness people feel after this challenging year. Uncertainties abound and the future is unclear. The generosity of spirit I saw and heard back in the lockdown days has been replaced in my councillor’s inbox by anger, emotion, unrealistic expectations and little tolerance of ‘others’. I’m not saying this is everyone’s attitude but it has certainly been much more prominent recently.
Back to my hair cut. My barber is originally from Iran. He left there seven years ago at age 18 to come to the UK to work. In his words he came ‘for the opportunities’ and because the UK is still seen as a good place to live. He’s made a success of it. I wouldn’t have known anything about him had he not reached out to me on social media during lockdown. I was impressed at his friendliness and the fact he wanted my business. So I changed barber and have visited twice so far. He wants to do well, has strong aspirations and is friendly.
Here in a nutshell is the positive face of immigration – someone who is helping our economy and not taking from it. And of course this is the reality of how many people coming to Britain actually operate – they strive.
The BBC TV coverage of the people heading across the sea to Kent took a pasting on social media. The reporter was in one boat with a packed dinghy behind him where some were using buckets to get rid of the water that was coming into the makeshift vessel. At what stage would he have intervened to save lives I wonder? Or was the spectacle too good to miss?
Back on shore the TV cameras lingered on a couple who proclaimed that ‘they want to use our NHS don’t they?’ when asked if they had any sympathy for the asylum seekers. Really? Would you risk your life for £37 a week as an asylum seeker? You have to be desperate to make that crossing.
Which brings me back to the clash of reality versus perception. The reality of my barber – the striver, the achiever and his good customer service versus the relentless messaging and screaming headlines which say ‘these people are only coming to our country to take from us’ or somehow threaten us.
I find it deeply depressing but I leave you with one thought – if you are comfortable with yourself and you work hard to get what you want you have no need to fear anyone. Embracing difference is an essential part of liberalism, so it’s down to us as liberals and progressives to make sure the positives of that are communicated.
Cllr Paul Hodgkinson is Group Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Leader of the Opposition on Gloucestershire County Council. He is the councillor for Bourton-on-the-Water and Northleach. He tweets @paulcotswolds