Theresa May Must Lift Britain Above Immigrant-bashing

29/07/2016 12:26 | Updated 29 July 2016

Despite warnings since before the EU Referendum that, if the UK falls on the side of Brexit, there could be several years of negotiations before the we leave the EU, there are a shocking number of people who still believe that it is as simple as pressing a button.

There are also a frightening number of people who not only believe that leaving the complex economic, legal and political body we are part of would be simple, but imagine that by pushing this fictitious button immigrants would be catapulted across the sea.

Who they think can rapidly fill the jobs currently being done by the couple of million EU immigrants isn't clear. They also don't seem to spend much time thinking about the impact on UK businesses if millions of people were to vanish and stopped buying goods and services.

The reality is, of course, much more complex than the hostile anti-immigration element of Brexiters would have us believe. For a start, no politician with any sense has been talking about expelling EU immigrants who are already here. It would be akin to shooting yourself in the face because a butterfly landed on your nose.

Even stopping EU immigrants from coming to work in the UK in the years it will take to negotiate with the rest of the Union is not viable. There have been murmurs, including from the secretary of state for exiting the EU, about a cut-off date to prevent having to give leave to remain to those who come prior to the UK exiting the EU. But David Davis has not suggested EU citizens cannot come and work here in the interim, just that those coming after some imaginary date would not automatically have the right to stay after (and if) Brexit actually happens.

So there are some vague 'ifs' but, while we are in the EU, other EU citizens are welcome here. As are UK citizens in other EU countries. Even Davis, an ardent Eurosceptic, has said such a cut-off date would only be set if there was "a surge" of people arriving.

Given how much ignorant hostility has reared its ugly head in the past month or so, if there were a 'surge' it might be that these people are resilient, ambitious and courageous. Exactly the sort of people we should value and who would be an asset to the UK.

The period since the Referendum has revealed some extremely disturbing attitudes and flawed thinking processes up and down the county. More is now known about the hate crimes that EU citizens and other minorities have been subjected to. Hundreds of racist incidents have been recorded since the June Referendum.

Recorded incidents have included violent assaults, arson attacks and excrement being put through letterboxes. There have also been reports of gangs demanding that passers-by prove they can speak English, and diners in plush restaurants refusing to be served by foreign staff.

Although prime minister Theresa May was a Remainer in the Referendum campaign, her approach when home secretary has been linked, by some, to the culture of hostility towards immigrants we are seeing. The Home Office, under May's direction in 2013, sent vans around London with the words "Go home or face arrest" on them.

Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham is one person who has linked May's approach towards immigrants to the anti-immigration hostility minorities have been subjected to since the Referendum.

Mr Burnham told The Independent: "It is clear that the Government has contributed to the unwelcoming climate and that our new Prime Minister in particular is responsible...After the referendum she added to the problem by refusing to guarantee EU nationals legal status to stay in the UK. Her failure to do that has left children being told to go home in their school playgrounds and in the streets where they live."

The contrast between the clever negotiations the UK must undertake with our EU partners and the intellectual brutality of those who wish they could catapult EU immigrants across the sea couldn't be greater. Despite the mushrooming of Twitter profiles and petitions calling for Article 50 to by invoked immediately, any reasonable person understands that, if the UK is to actually change its relationship with the EU for the better, it is going to take considerable intelligence, diplomacy and legal insight.

Given May's previous involvement in brutal messaging, she now must prove she can do more than slogans. She has to prove her diplomacy on the world stage while also challenging those who commit hate crimes and reassuring those who came here to work and build lives.