To start with, at least, when I became the Vicar in my current parish back in 2012, I felt self-consciously and uncomfortably pale. Just along from the Elephant and Castle in South London, St Mary’s was a black majority church, most of the people originating from West Africa – from the profoundly Christian countries of Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. My curate was black, my Church Wardens were black, all my altar servers were black, so too, the majority of my congregation.
One wag said that we had now become a Guinness church. I looked puzzled. “Oh” she explained “mostly black, but with a little bit of white at the top”. That one stung. Last year, the Church of England appointed Nigerian-born Bishop Karowei Dorgu as my immediate boss, the Bishop of Woolwich. Thank goodness, I thought. Guinness no longer.
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It seems extraordinary to me that it is only in the last few years – roughly since I have been at St Mary’s – that negative attitudes towards black immigration seem to have softened. In 2002, the European Social Survey asked whether people of a different race should be allowed to come and live in Britain. Roughly half of the people asked said that “none” or only “a few” should be allowed in.
The same question was asked ten years later, in 2012, and they found the same results. Only in 2014 did things start to change, when 43% said that “none” or only “a few” people of a different race should be allowed in. And then, in 2016 – the year of the referendum on EU membership – that figure had dropped to 32%.
At least the numbers are moving in the right direction, you might say. Well yes, though, I am appalled that even 32% of people think they shouldn’t be allowed in. While I think people sometimes throw the accusation of racism around too easily, there is clearly a residual core of it in this country – and it is far larger than those of us who live in places like South London often appreciate.
In 2018, the Oxford University Migration Observatory found that 10% of people said that no Australians should be allowed to come and live in Britain, compared with 37% who said that no Nigerians should be allowed in. Big difference. And we all suspect that ‘Australians’ here is code for white and ‘Nigerians’ is code for black.
Allow me one more statistic, before we move on from the numbers. This one is important because it cuts against the widespread perception that ‘enlightened’ attitudes towards race map neatly onto the division between those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. Really, they don’t.
In a survey conducted by the LSE during May 2017, both Leave and Remain voters said they preferred immigrants from within the EU to those from outside the EU: “What’s striking – and what no one is talking about – is that British voters prefer EU to non-EU migrants. This pattern of preferring immigrants from inside the EU to those from outside holds across all social groups in our data,” they explain.
This is true about young people as well as old people, Leave voters as well as Remainers. All wanted to reduce non-EU migration by more than EU migration. Our membership of the European Union, with its priority access for EU members, is a way of prioritising EU migration over non-EU migration. The question is: is this also a way of prioritising white immigrants over black ones?
Since I have been at St Mary’s, one regular feature of my job has been to stand as a character witness and pastoral support for a number of people whose immigration status in this country has yet to be determined. I have often sat on the plastic chairs in the miserable Taylor House in Islington, waiting for a tribunal to pick over the lives of my parishioners. This is the tip of the spear of the so-called “hostile environment”, the place where the right to remain or an order to deport is determined. And the one thing I can tell you about this horrible place, with its nasty carpet tiles and air of impending doom, is that very few of the faces here are white.
As much as anywhere, it is Taylor House that has shaped my attitude towards immigration and the debate over our membership of the European Union. Why should mostly white Europeans have some sort of priority access into the UK? This, to me, is where the accusations made by Remainers that Vote Leave was racist come a cropper. They are right, that there was an especially nasty racist side of the Leave campaign, exemplified by that now infamous “Breaking Point” poster. And reducing immigration clearly motivated many to vote Leave.
But there is also a rarely acknowledged implicit racism to the Remain position – it wants free movement for Europeans and border controls and immigration tribunals for non-Europeans. Indeed, increasingly, the whole of Europe is being set up so as to keep non-Europeans out. Since the so-called migrant crisis began in 2015, Europe has turned itself into a fortress to keep out migrants. Eight hundred miles of barbed wire fencing has been erected from Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria down to Macedonia and Greece, where there are migrant detention centers that look like concentration camps.
Coming out of the European Union and taking back control of our borders, allows us the ability to treat EU and non-EU migrants in exactly the same way. And I am delighted that both the Conservatives and Labour have recently pledged to do precisely that. EU migrants won’t get special treatment, said Teresa May. “A fully qualified doctor from Pakistan will be treated just like a fully qualified doctor from Poland,” said Diane Abbot, Shadow Home Secretary. Surely this is a highly moral position. Why should we have one set of rules of Europeans and another for Non-Europeans?
I cannot count the number of times I have been accused of being a racist for voting to leave the European Union. Yet places like Taylor House were deporting non-Europeans for many years before we decided to Vote Leave. Tell me: before the referendum, where were all those who now shout so vociferously about the racism of others? Yes, some were there. But there are also a lot of people who only began to throw the term racism around when immigration policy started to make a difference to fellow Europeans, or when it threatened to make a little more inconvenient their week-end shopping trip to Paris or little Jonny’s pre-university inter-railing. And yes, sitting in Taylor House, I did rather come to resent all of that twitter-cheap radicalism.
There are those who argue that we have historic and cultural links with Europe which justify the priority EU membership gives to EU migrants. But I don’t get that. Maybe it’s because I am married to someone from outside the EU who doesn’t have a British passport. Maybe its because, from the perspective of my church at the Elephant, it is the historical, cultural and religious links we have with Commonwealth counties that feel much stronger. If our coming out of the EU will give us an immigration policy that is fairer to people from outside of the cosy EU club – and its Guinness leadership in Brussels – then it is surely a blow against racism and not an example of it.