One of the things that makes me most proud about Britain is how internationally-facing it is. I’ve met Swedes who go to London more than Stockholm, scientists who long for an international conference in Cambridge, Americans who go to the Edinburgh festival, Chileans saving for a trip to London and the Harry Potter Studio Tour, etc. And I love that for decades we’ve attracted the smartest and best people from around the world to work in our banks, on our health service, in our universities. And I don’t think anyone can argue that’s not a good thing. How can taking clever, motivated people from a different background and putting them into your town or city not contribute to society more than detract from it?
But you know that image we cultivated? The one of an outward-facing, forgiving nation? Of a global hub mid way between Paris and New York? Of a liberal yet enterprising island? It is dead. A knife has been taken and thrust into the heart of the identity we projected to the world. Over the past year what I have heard, from foreigners in the UK and people I meet around the world, is somewhere between sorrow and confusion. Suddenly their image of a global Britain has faded. In place of the positives is bland food, rain, and resentment.
And all that was done in the space of one day in June. Damage that will probably take a decade to fix. European doctors, nurses, engineers, scientists, students who would once have jumped at the chance of a year or a life in Britain, are staying away. Those already here are thinking of going home.
And it need not be because anything has changed (although it has). Even if the mood amongst the British towards foreigners hadn’t degraded (and it has – xenophobic resentment is being voiced far louder than before), the spectre than 52% of the population would face economic hardship just to be rid of you looms close. Even if Brexit didn’t effect the sources of money and jobs the previously drew in international workers (and it has – EU science collaborations are shunning UK members, banks & car manufacturers are leaving), the threat of a cut-crazed Tory government going havoc on those industries is enough.
When I meet people abroad and Brexit comes up, I apologise. I try to heal the wound; stick paper over the cracks. But a sceptical eyebrow remains raised. And so it should. The only way Britain can prove that we are still a global nation is with actions. Tearing down meaningless financial and bureaucratic barriers in the way of international immigration. Increasing the funding in science, technology, research, etc, beyond what the EU was previously contributing. Becoming a brain sink rather than a start brain drain. Condemning and stop the acts of xenophobia and racism. And remaining open-for-business to international collaborations (and pay our fair share for the privilege). Only then, and with many years of hard work, can Britain fix its international reputation.
But that can’t happen with a government that’s hell-bent on creating an introspective, austerity-ridden tax haven. The 8th of June is our last chance to save Britain’s global reputation. Lets take it.