Prime Minister Theresa May admitted she “should not have used that language” when she said in a speech last week that EU citizens would no longer be able to “jump the queue” after Brexit.
This was not an apology, nor were May’s comments a slip of the tongue. Her lines were carefully crafted and pre-briefed to journalists the day before her speech, the un-British image of the EU queue-jumper deliberately chosen to appeal to her hardline supporters.
Words matter, especially if they come from the holder of the highest political office in the UK. May’s comments are deplorable in themselves but they also collude with toxic headlines and outright lies to stoke fear for political gain. See, for example, the current scandal of inflated NHS health tourism figures – EU citizens were accused of causing health tourism costs of £200million to the NHS, but a Freedom Of Information enquiry revealed that the NHS fraud division had only discovered seven potential cases over three years.
It is dangerous to single out a group of people as a threat, whether an economic or cultural one. May’s language deliberately stokes people’s fears – of stolen jobs, of being left behind, of Indian relatives not being able to join you because of those queue-jumpers from the EU. And it is this fear that can ultimately lead to violence or hate crime, endorsed by the dangerous collusion of government and tabloids spreading lies.
After SNP MP Philippa Whitford asked the Prime Minister to apologise for her insulting queue-jumper comment, the best May managed was to mutter “I should have not used that language”, only to then divide immigrants into good – (GPs) and bad (the rest) again straight after. She showed regret over her choice of words but no remorse, driven by her personal anti-immigration agenda.
The Prime Minister is playing with fire to achieve her political goal, happy to repeat the divisive tactics of the 2016 referendum.
There is a silver lining: the huge public backlash against May’s words shows that the UK’s moral compass is intact. The Prime Minister didn’t get away with it. Now we need to make sure that where EU citizens are concerned, she also doesn’t get away with it after Brexit: tweaking the new status we all have to apply for, changing the rules, ignoring her promise that we can all live as before Brexit.
Our trust in May is broken. The only way for EU citizens in the UK to feel reassured is not for May to regret the queue-jumping comment, but for all her promises to become legal certainty in a way that cannot later be changed without parliamentary debate and scrutiny.
We need to remove any possibility of a Windrush scandal in the future for all 3.6 millions EU citizens in the country. Words are not enough to reassure the “queue-jumpers” currently getting into line to apply to stay in their home.