x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Do come to Britain - but then please go home again

With the imminent change in EU immigration controls, the UK braces for an influx of workers from Romania and Bulgaria. No wonder, it is planning to discourage them through negative ad campaigns.

 

It's official. The worst-kept secret in Britain has finally been confirmed by official statistics: after English, Polish is now the most commonly spoken language in England.

For those of us living in the UK's towns and cities, rather than the elite office suites of Whitehall, the only surprise here is that it has taken so long to confirm what we already knew. Perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised, for the only polish in Downing Street is the sort used to shine the tabletops.

Here on other streets of the country, by contrast, the proliferation of Eastern European culture has been evident for some years.

Since 2004, when Poland was admitted to the EU, hundreds of thousands of its citizens have flooded into the UK, making their homes here, creating new wealth and prosperity, and sending welcome remittances to their families back home.

The arrival of so many newcomers has also proved to be a blessing for the natives, for without the influx of this stoic, industrious workforce, our national infrastructure would have gone down the plughole long ago.

Nowadays if you want repairs to your house, it's Polish builders who are most likely to turn up and do a decent job. In North London where I live, our weekly refuse is collected by people more familiar with Gdansk or Kraków than Hampstead or Wembley. Even our local hospital is operated by nurses and doctors from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

I myself have the ultimate badge of middle-class affluence - a Polish cleaner. Dana works mightily hard each week to transform the municipal tip which is my home back into a thing of joy and beauty: she never lets me down, is uniformly cheerful, and on her rare forays back to Warsaw to see her family (a trip she inevitably makes via a gruelling two-day car ride, to save the cost of a plane ticket) she invariably brings me back a present, be it a jar of honey or some chocolates.

But in truth, while Britain's major conurbations have been able to absorb the influx without difficulty, some rural areas have felt themselves overwhelmed by the number of newcomers.

My 83-year-old friend Phyllis who lives in the town of Boston, in rural Lincolnshire, tells me she has seen a virtual transformation of the town she grew up in.

There are now 7,000 residents from eastern European countries residing and working in this sleepy market town. That means the newcomers account for nearly one in 10 of the local population. But with no extra resources available to deal with them, the local service infrastructure has been stretched to breaking point.

Well, it's about to get worse. With the imminent change in EU immigration controls, the UK is now bracing for another influx of workers, from Romania and Bulgaria this time. They are eager to sample life in this country, and you can see why: the minimum hourly wage here is £6.19 (Dh35.7), around six times greater than in their homelands. And in the UK, it is widely rumoured back home, the social security system will pay your bills should you run into financial difficulties.

Some surveys suggest that up to 100,000 extra people per year may make the trip from those two countries. So it is no wonder that Government ministers are said to be contemplating a "negative ad" campaign" to put off would-be immigrants.

How odd. For the last three decades, Britain has been busting a gut to advertise itself to tourists as a land of plenty for foreigners, a message that reached its highest volume during last summer's Olympic Games. But foreigners, welcome as tourists, are now to be told they are not so welcome as immigrants. Unless they are billionaires or wish to purchase a football club, we'd rather foreigners remain foreigners. One minister was quoted as saying that the message of the ads would be simply "to correct the impression that the streets are paved with gold."

Of course, many foreign workers already know this to be the case, simply because they're the ones having to clean the streets in the first place.

So what might we expect from these commercials? Having extolled Britain as a land of milk and honey for so long, is it possible to reverse your corporate cultural message and yet keep a straight face?

Well fortunately there's still plenty of old Britain to moan about, untouched by either spin doctors or global warming: No jobs, dilapidated housing, a rising cost of living, snowdrifts, droughts and floods, beefburgers that contain horsemeat, a nation in which the only two subjects of conversation are weather and whether (whether Manchester United or Manchester City will win the Premier league, that is) and a culture in which urban unrest jostles with the latest exploits of teenage celebrity wanabees as the only reference point for anyone younger than 25.

The reality is, of course, somewhere between the two versions. Britain is now a far more tolerant place than it used to be. But it's also less courteous, more grasping, and far less deferential to age and authority than it once was.

Still, if all else fails, the admen can always call upon that ultimate bastion of British life to dissuade people from settling. It was Alan Ayckbourn who said put three Englishmen on a desert island, and within an hour they'll have invented a class system. However much we might like to think of ourselves as a role model of modern democracy, the class divide will be the one unique aspect of life here in the UK which will forever remain exclusively our own - and utterly bewildering for those from abroad.

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins