Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and MP for Stratford On Avon.
Everyone needs to calm down, breathe, and think a little bit more before they react to stories about Brexit. Many seem to be excited every time they stumble upon a shred of evidence that might be twisted to point towards their view – already dearly held – that those who support Leave are racist fools, dreaming of an all-white Britain.
And this fantasy view is now sometimes taken of the entire Government, simply because Theresa May has committed to following through on the will of the British people. Now many opponents of Brexit are prone to seize upon any Government policy as evidence of shameful racism, and make it controversial. All to fit their sad view that this country is suddenly something to be ashamed of.
We saw this in the response to the consultation on the number of foreign workers companies have hired. Cue outrage – and the creation of fears that the Government will soon be regularly publishing lists of foreigners for angry mobs to threaten. But if only the outraged had paused and listened to what Ministers are saying, they would have heard what the plan actually was. Instead they heard a few words; placed them within their pre-existing view of the ‘xenophobic Tories’ and conjured up something to shock themselves with – something that gets wilder and wilder during the game of political Chinese whispers that is modern social media.
Of course the policy – to provide information to central Government about how many foreign workers they had to hire in order to provide useful detail about skills shortages – was perfectly reasonable. But when this reality started the perforate the self-satisfied bubble of disgust, those who had blown it up just called the move a U-turn and went on their way, ready to be righteous another day.
It would be all too easy to accept that some have created this idea of a racist Britain for themselves to fight against, and to conclude that we should ignore them, and get on with our lives. But instead we must stand up and challenge this view because it is so damaging and so far from reality. Ultimately, this distorted viewpoint only undermines the real fights against racism and intolerance.
Britain is not a racist country. In fact, we are one of the most tolerant, least racist and most caring countries in the world. We are a country which, along with just three others in the world, that spends the promised 0.7 per cent of our GDP on foreign aid every year, to help people around the world have better lives. And we are a country where a man called Nadhim Zahawi, born in Iraq, can become selected as a Conservative Party candidate, and then be elected by more than half of the electorate in a constituency that is 93.6 per cent White British.
We are a country in which not only has our Parliament backed and legalised gay marriage, but in which a huge majority of the country supports it too. And we are one of the most likely countries in the world to embrace having a neighbour from a different race, according to the World Values Survey.
We are a country where our former Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke regularly about improving the lives of our BME citizens, and a country where Theresa May worked endlessly as Home Secretary to reduce discrimination and harassment. There is always more to do and these fights are not fully won, but we are a country that recognises injustice and views it as unacceptable.
That doesn’t change because British voters have chosen to no longer be governed in any area by a distant bureaucracy in Brussels. And shame on those who say otherwise – especially if you’re saying so to fit your narrow political views.
And although the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, a part of the Council of Europe, recently singled out the United Kingdom for its “considerable intolerant discourse focusing on immigration,” the reality is that far right parties, racism and intolerance have become much more widespread across much of the rest of Europe in recent years.
You need only to consider the real possibility of Marine le Pen becoming President of France, a woman that even Nigel Farage has said he will not deal with due to her party’s “prejudice and antisemitism”. Or you could look at Austria, where the far right Freedom party narrowly missed out on the Presidency in May, and will have another chance when the vote is rerun in December. Or you could look at the record and policies of parties in Germany, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands – and so on and on.
This is why we cannot allow this myth of Britain accepting intolerance, racism or xenophobia to go unchallenged. Not only is it not true, but it undermines the ability to challenge real threats to freedom and equality when they actually do arise, whether in Europe or at home, by making the desire to have domestic control over all of our laws in some way comparable to actual intolerance. We must be able to challenge racism, but when everyone is challenged then no one is – the power of condemnation is weakened and wasted. We should not and cannot cry wolf at Brexit.
Racism is ugly and intolerable, but Britain has come so far and done so much good. Brexit doesn’t change that, controlling our borders won’t change that, reducing immigration won’t change that. So let’s relax, and commit to tackling racism where it truly exists, not imagining it when none is there.