In many ways, it has been the question at the heart of the Brexit journey. Who do we want to live and work with?
When eight countries of central and eastern Europe — the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia— joined the EU in 2004, at the same time as Malta and Cyprus, the sudden arrival of workers and their families to the UK took many people by surprise. Far more arrived than were expected, and in some ways it felt quite different from previous periods of immigration.
I worked in local government at the time, and sat in many meetings where we discussed how best to cope with increased demand for school places and housing stock. Public servants had assumed that workers would arrive, earn money to send home, and then rejoin their families in their countries of origin. But instead, whole families arrived – and stayed - and local infrastructure became stretched. Unlike other times when people arrived from overseas, EU workers found their way to rural villages, seaside towns and farming communities. They didn’t only settle together in extended community groups in cities and large towns, as some other newly arrived people had done previously.Suddenly, millions of Brits found themselves living and working alongside people they didn’t know. People from other cultures, speaking different languages, eating unfamiliar food. It was a big transition.
It was not as foreign a concept for London as for some other parts of the UK. This has always been a city where people have settled from all around the world. The newness of living close to someone from a different culture was not felt here in the same way as in other places.
St Paul’s Institute commissioned us to ask Londoners a set of questions about freedom of movement of labour and capital, ahead of their event. We found that Londoners are likely to have close contact with people from different backgrounds to themselves St Paul’s Institute – Brexit Poll Of Londoners – February 2019.
When we asked our representative sample of 1,023 adults in London about relationships with people from different ethnic backgrounds to themselves, this is what we found:
Of course, this reflects the historic diversity of London, its centre as a major global finance hub where professionals are employed from all over the world, and its large international student community, as well as the movement of people made possible by EU membership. The breadth of immigration to London means that there are hundreds of languages spoken on our streets, and almost every kind of food served in our restaurants.
Not everyone who comes to London is seeking to make their fortune; some have already made it, in large quantities. Last spring, Reuters described London as ‘the Western capital of choice for Russian officials and oligarchs who flaunt their wealth across Europe’s most luxurious destinations’.
Some people who come to London hold disproportionately high quantities of the world’s wealth, others arrive with nothing. And this disparity is noted by London’s residents. We found that three quarters (74%) said they agree that it seems easier for extremely rich foreign nationals to get permission to live in the UK than it is for ordinary people from other countries trying to make a living for themselves and their families. The immigration debate has become central to political and public discourse again, this time mostly driven by Brexit. But EU membership is not the only driver for movement of labour and capital. When St Paul’s Institute discuss their recent research at their event with the Bishop of London on Monday, they will need to bear in mind that, as far as the public see it, it’s one rule for the super-rich, and another for everyone else.
Democracy and the Common Good: Who is welcome here? St Paul’s Cathedral, Monday 18 February, 6:30pm. Register for the event here.
Katie Harrison is Director of Faith Research Centre at ComRes and is helping St Paul’s Institute to organise this event.