Back in the late 1940s, when a number of Polish refugees were living and working in Leeds, somebody remarked to my mum that she thought 'they should send all those Poles back where they belong. Don’t you agree?’
'Well, no,’ said my mum. 'Seeing as how I’ve just married one.’
I should add that my late mum, undoubtedly working class, half-Yorkshire and half-Irish, could be more than a little forthright when she chose. I’ve been thinking about this scenario a lot over the last few days. My dad, who had lost everything in the war, including his own father, his half sister, an aunt, several uncles – and his home – was the least bitter man I ever knew: kindly, clever, wise.
In the years since he died, I’ve lost count of the people who have told me that he touched their lives in positive ways. But he always maintained that extreme racism and hatred could happen anywhere, at any time, that it was not the vice of any one nation or group of people (and he did not exempt his own nation) but rather a result of circumstance and venality: people choosing to ignore or downplay uncomfortable truths, while the deprived, the angry, the vicious, the out-of-control or the simply deluded were egged on, given permission by those with quite different and mostly self seeking agendas.
He was right. The hideous sparks of UK racism we are seeing publicised on news and social media could, if not robustly extinguished right now, be fanned into a conflagration that will engulf us all. And when those leavers who believed the lies that quitting the EU would mean control of all immigration, realise that they have been deceived, things can only get worse.
It feels as though we are drifting and the rocks are looming. Never, in more than 60 years on this planet, have I woken each day with such a feeling of disorientation, such worry about the future of our children and their children. Somebody said it feels like a bereavement and it does. This is not to compare the incomparable. A bereavement is uniquely personal, a sort of mental and spiritual car crash. But the sensations are oddly similar: that feeling of waking to the sense of oppression and depression, the spiralling out of control, the way in which you make a space in your day for other things only to have the grim reality forced on you yet again.
'Why is everyone being so hysterical and melodramatic,’ asked a writer of some distinction on Facebook last week. To which one can only reply, don’t you feel it? And if you don’t, what’s wrong with you? Don’t you hear the collective howl of decent people who think that this was not so much democracy in action as a subversion of the democratic process; that great fat lies were told and unbelievably believed, that those people suggesting that we keep calm and carry on because everything will be just fine – while little Polish girls are being called vermin and once more told to 'get back where they belong’ – are fooling themselves, even if they can’t fool the rest of us.
Meanwhile, those who should be tackling this, seeking to extinguish the flames, parade across our television screens with no answers, no leadership, no comfort to give. The only person showing real leadership – and I admit that I’ve not been one of her natural supporters – is Nicola Sturgeon. In all fairness, she is in a better position than most to offer leadership but she certainly seized the day. Good for her. Most admirably, in my opinion, the very first thing she did was to reassure EU people working in Scotland that they were and are our friends, that they are welcome here. It was a strong statement and it was surprisingly effective. 'I want to take the opportunity […] to speak directly to citizens of other EU countries living here in Scotland – you remain welcome here, Scotland is your home,’ she said.
Last weekend, we had visitors, including a German friend who has studied, lived and worked in Scotland for some years now. What may have felt to us like an admirable but obvious speech was, he told us, powerfully reassuring. We have had nothing so authoritative from Westminster, and when something did come, it was too little and too late.
As we sat over a meal, a mixture of all nationalities and none, Scottish, English, Irish, German and Polish, it occurred to me again as it has many times over the past years, how much my dad would have loved it that his grandson felt like a European and had close friends from many countries that two or three generations ago had been all but destroyed by old enmities. Whatever Scotland can do to retain and maintain this – and who, if not the Scots – then whatever difficulties may lie ahead, it’ll be worth it.
Meanwhile, I can’t help feeling, with the protectiveness that all loving daughters feel for their dads, so glad that my dad isn’t around to see what’s happening.