My father was an immigrant. His father was from upper Egypt, of Sudanese heritage, and my paternal grandmother was of Syrian descent. If my father tried to settle in the UK today, his application would almost certainly fail. He lacked the funds to buy himself residency, didn't have any particularly sought after skills, and lacked the trump card: a European passport. But in 1970, Britain welcomed immigrants from all over the world and my father came from Egypt to settle in London for a better life. Jobs were relatively plentiful and easy to get; you could literally walk down the street, see an advert for a job and start that same day.
I grew up, a mixed-race child in a vibrant London. I rarely experienced the bitterness of racism, and only ever from strangers. In the main, my friends and I were like a Benetton advert; white, black, Chinese, Pakistani, Indian, a mix of races, colours, and ethnicity that was utterly irrelevant to our interactions. We were thrown together by the comprehensive school system, but stayed together because race was irrelevant: we liked each other. Never once, when I visited my friends' houses, no matter what their background, did I feel anything but a warm welcome. There was no sense of an immigration divide, no them and us. We came from different places, but were all British.
It saddens me that we now live in a country where immigration has become such a divisive issue. It must be terrifying for newcomers and their children, but also scary for British people who have seen people arrive in such numbers that their communities have changed beyond recognition. Successive governments have handled immigration terribly, doing nothing to manage it, and shouting down anyone who dares to raise the issue as a racist or bigot. But we've now reached a point where the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, is warning of the dangers of uncontrolled immigration. Is he a bigot?
Immigration is a raw, divisive issue and it's one supporters of the EU can use to browbeat opponents to distract people from the real problem. Immigration is simply a symptom of that real problem; the fact that we no longer live in a democratic system. It is the most visible one of many symptoms caused by the theft of our democracy.
The right to control our own borders has been taken way from us by the EU. I say taken because we never voted to give that right away. We cannot control immigration because over the years successive governments have ceded power to a supreme legislative body in Brussels, the unaccountable, unelected EU Commission.
The EU referendum is actually a vote about whether we believe in democracy. As I've previously noted, in the UK, if I don't like a law, I know exactly what I need to do to get it changed. I cannot change EU law. There is simply no mechanism. If I don't like the way the British government spends my taxes, I can get rid of it. Short of hiring an expensive Brussels lobby firm, I cannot influence the way the EU spends my taxes at all.
The EU is undemocratic, but it has some vocal champions of democracy lining up to defend it: Barack Obama, Jeremy Corbyn, most Labour MPs, unions - much of the political establishment. I've struggled to understand why, and have only been able to conclude that they have been affected by the corrosive influence of money. I'm not just talking about the prospect of economic harm that EU supporters seem convinced will befall the UK if we vote to leave. People seem to have also been influenced by the prospect of losing direct funding.
The EU uses our tax money to dole out funds to organisations such as the National Union of Students, the London School of Economics, Unite, even the doom-saying Institute for Fiscal Studies. In fact the EU funds thousands of British institutions that one would normally expect to fight for democracy to their very last breath. If we leave the EU, those organisations will no longer be able to apply for those funds and will have to rely on whatever public funding mechanism a UK government decides to replace them with, if any.
It's a scary prospect, but, as I've previously argued, our democratic rights are far too important to be surrendered for a few pieces of silver. If you don't think it's a big deal and that we should just trust unelected bureaucrats to exercise power in our best interests, take a look at Greece, where youth unemployment is close to 50% and an entire generation of people is being sacrificed in the service of the EU ideal. The Greek government is utterly powerless to alleviate its people's suffering because it has ceded most of the principal functions of government to the EU.
And if Greece is too far away, take a look at Britain, where our once tolerant country has been divided by uncontrolled immigration forced on our powerless government by the EU.
Our democratic rights are all we have to protect us from tyranny and poor government. We must not sell them for the illusion of a pot of EU gold. People on both sides will try to use scare stories of immigration, risks to the economy, house prices, war and all sorts of other noisy issues, but, at its quiet heart, democracy is the defining issue of this referendum.
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