I’VE got a friend whose father was a prominent local Labour politician. He was brought up with the most tolerant and liberal of values. Before council cuts made him redundant, he was a social worker. He used his redundancy money to help invest in several buy-to-let properties in Barnsley.
In the last 18 months, however, he’s become a changed man. He is thinking things he never thought would enter his mind, saying things he can’t believe are coming out of his mouth. And it’s all because tenants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states have ripped him off. A group of young Russians have just done a moonlight flit, owing him two months’ rent. It’s not the first time it has happened. He is weary. And he is worried that he is turning into a racist.
Who knows where his erstwhile tenants have gone? Certainly not the authorities. Do they even know how many migrants are here? The only thing my friend knows is that he won’t be getting his seven hundred and odd pounds back.
Ask many landlords in South Yorkshire and they will tell you a similar tale. Such individuals have no respect for property, no concern about owing money and no understanding of the common laws of the land. And then people dare to criticise Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and the former Home Secretary David Blunkett for suggesting that migrants are “swamping” parts of the UK. Those who pontificate from the lofty moral high ground somewhere on the left are clearly living in a different country from us. And those who dismiss the appeal of Ukip are deluded – the party has high hopes as voters elect a new crime commissioner in South Yorkshire today to replace Labour’s Shaun Wright.
Like my friend, I couldn’t have been more tolerant of everyone until a few years ago. I spent 14 years of my life in London. If you couldn’t get along with other cultures in a big city like that, you might as well have gone home. I had friends and colleagues whose families had come to Britain from the West Indies, Uganda, India and Pakistan. Their ethnic origin didn’t bother me one iota. However, what has been happening since the EU opened its borders is a whole different scenario.
We’ve never been unwelcoming in Barnsley. Indeed, countless local families can trace their roots to forefathers who travelled from places as far-flung as Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Poland and Hungary to seek employment in the mining industry. I’ve often described my hometown as a “little New York”. It’s raised sniggers, but the comparisons to a melting pot populated by those drawn here to seek their fortune held true.
Now we have to cope with the sheer number of new arrivals from overseas who are turning up with no expectation of even looking for a job. Added to this is the fact that there aren’t enough jobs to go round for those who do want to work. This is brewing up a perfect storm of discontent and distrust and it’s ruining the town I love.
The expectation of support in terms of health and social care, education and welfare is colossal. The effect on neighbourhoods is discernible, with pressure on existing social housing and bitterness between different cultures forced to live in close proximity to each other. Such issues put long-held plans to regenerate the town centre into sharp perspective: when a town’s population shifts on its axis, what kind of town is it becoming?
What’s also happening is a division between immigrants from different countries. From anecdotal evidence, Polish people and those who arrive here from African nations, have a reputation for striving for self-sufficiency.
When I talk to my friend, a former asylum seeker who came over with her two children from war-torn Zimbabwe some years ago, she’s as angry as I am. She’s worked hard as a carer to pay for their keep, is a prominent member of the local church and as upstanding a citizen as you could wish to meet. Romanians though? That’s a different matter. I hope you don’t think I’m being judgemental, but if we are to open up this debate properly, we have to pull it apart. For too long, it’s been a conversation held in hushed tones and behind closed doors.
The problem is that most of us are entirely powerless to make a difference. We must rely on our political leaders to pull together and stop the point-scoring. They complain that people think they are “out-of-touch” with ordinary voters. Well, here’s their chance to prove they are not.
As David Blunkett says, their task is “find solutions, not peddle illusions”. He suggests that at the very least, migrants should be required to speak English, to have the right to claim benefits only when they have contributed to the British economy, and if they don’t find gainful employment, to be required to return to their country of origin. In speaking such sense, he has the ear of people like me, my friend the landlord and anyone else who wants to live in a fair and tolerant society.
If British people are to have their faith in democracy restored, perhaps Mr Blunkett’s colleagues in Westminster should listen too.