My grandfather used to tell a story about when he arrived in England in the 1950s, and spent a whole evening going door-to-door trying to find somewhere to lodge. Everywhere he went had a sign saying ‘no dogs, no blacks, no Irish’. He finally came to one house where the landlord was a fellow Irishman who rented him a room and with whom he remained friends for the rest of his life. London in the 1950s was not a welcoming place for anyone with an Irish accent, and sadly my grandfather’s experience of hostility was not uncommon.
That said, aged 12 I would slightly roll my eyes at such tales and think that they came from another era, one without colour television and far removed from my own experiences. I grew up in the age of the Celtic Tiger, when it never crossed anyone’s mind to treat Irish nationals resident in the UK as second class citizens. So the 345,000 Irish nationals resident in the UK, as well as the people who like me are the children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants, were pretty shocked to hear that not just one, but two senior Tories reckon that Irish nationals and Commonwealth citizens should lose their right to vote in the UK. Apparently the fact that these rights date back decades and that, at least in the case of Ireland, they are reciprocal, does not matter to Liam Fox and Graham Brady. Yes, that is right, Graham Brady, who as chair of the 1922 Committee exerts a fair amount of power on the Conservative backbenches. Fox of course, is an ex-defence secretary, so these remarks cannot be passed off as the ramblings of rogue backbenchers.
According to Fox ‘it is ridiculous that the government of a country like ours could be decided by those who are not British citizens. It is high time we brought this law up to date’ and Brady agreed, saying ‘it would be outrageous if overseas nationals were able to decide the outcome’. Even when discrimination against many of the communities targeted in these statements was rife, they still had the vote in this country. These threats do not just hark back to historic prejudices – they propose a whole new set of intolerances.
In many ways what is really sinister is not the threats themselves but what lies behind them. A decade ago nobody would have thought that they could get away with publicly expressing views like these. Yet with the anti-immigrant onslaught which we have seen on a daily basis in the papers since support for Ukip began to grow, people like Fox and Brady do not just think its fine to want to disenfranchise Irish, Indian, Pakistani and all sorts of other communities, but also have no qualms about saying so. Whether or not Nigel Farage and his cronies win seats at the next general election, they have succeeded in shifting the boundaries in what is considered acceptable in public discourse. Now, more than ever, Labour has to stand up for minority communities. Otherwise, even those groups who thought marginalisation was something consigned to history could find themselves once again facing prejudice and cast out to the edges of our society.
Maeve McCormack is a councillor in the London borough of Camden. She tweets @McCormackMaeve
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