A few weeks ago, a person I hadn’t spoken to in a very long time came out of the woodwork. To tweet me. How 21st century. The tweet read: “That’s what we need to hear more from, Canadian Lib Dems”. Now, this person and I had never seen eye to eye politically, so him slagging off the Liberal Democrats was no surprise. If it had been contained to a slant against the party, I would have let it slide. But something about the “Canadian” jibe stuck in my teeth. So we traded heated remarks, over Twitter, on the subject. His stance only got harder – what right did I have as someone foreign born to comment on issues surrounding politics in the UK? This seemed to be the crux of his argument.
I moved to Britain the better part of two decades ago. I’ve spent what amounts to my entire adult life here. The times in which the country of my birth has been used against me has thankfully been very few. But each time it has happened, it hurts on a level that’s hard to communicate if you’ve never been through such a thing. I recall one time, on a train back from the West Country to London, and getting off the phone with someone and being told, “This isn’t your country, you c**t. Why don’t you f**k off back home.” The worst thing was, while he was clearly very drunk, he was with some much more sober friends who didn’t apologise on his behalf and in fact laughed through the whole incident, finding it extremely amusing.
Most of the time something along these lines has occurred, it has been because I have been mistaken for an American. In 2004, in the depths of the Iraq situation, an Irishman on a bus told me that “we” don’t want “your type over here” and then suggested in no uncertain terms I get out of the country sooner rather than later. The other thing I’ve been mistaken for is Irish, now that our neighbours to the west have been mentioned, and on occasion been on the end of the sort of “you stupid micks, eat some potatoes” style stuff you’d think went out with the War. I suppose this tells us lots of things; for a start that not all Englishmen are as adept at spotting accents as is customarily believed.
This all feels very timely on the back of UKIP’s European election campaign. After the finger billboard and Farage’s “you know the difference” comment, genuine questions have been raised about what is and isn’t acceptable. UKIP campaigners have said that being anti-Romanian is not racist given that they are technically part of the same race as British people. You could pick this apart until forever, which I’m not interested in doing just now. What I’m more interested in is the fact that you cannot argue that being anti-Romanian isn’t xenophobic. Judging someone solely by the nation of his or her birth, to the exclusion of any other factor, sort of defines the term. Is that suddenly all right? Did I miss something? That didn’t used to be all right, I’m pretty certain.
My experience of Britain has, a few unfortunate incidents aside, been mostly xenophobia free. This is a tolerant nation at heart. My worry is with the economic downturn doing what these things tend to do, i.e. hitting the least financially fortunate the hardest, added to the focus on the role of the EU in all of this, has possibly tipped the balance towards the people of this sceptered isle being more fearsome of foreigners than usual.
What I’m interested in is the following – one, hearing from people who have been subjected to what in this day and age could be called “casual xenophobia”, your stories, your feelings; and two, from people born and bred in Britain about what they think are the acceptable limits of such behaviour and more specifically when they think comments related to someone’s nationality are acceptable and when they aren’t. By the way, in bringing this subject up I am not by any means declaring myself free from sin. I have no question that in a drunken moment or two I’ve made some remark about one nation’s people being more like this or that. I’m simply asking what the limits are.
All comments from either end of the question, be you born on Blighty’s fair soil or from somewhere off these shores originally, very welcome below this article.