During his final couple of years, I became my father’s personal and woefully unqualified rabbi. The only person to whom he confessed mistakes and regrets, shared triumphs and memories, both joyous and painful. Once, he sat me down at the kitchen table to tell me about the gold.
“Sorry, Dad, what did you say?”
“Yes, the gold. I don’t think I need it anymore.” And he proceeded to show me where he’d squirrelled away 50 gold sovereigns “just in case we needed to get out. It’s easier to bribe someone with gold than cash, but I guess we’re OK now”.
I should certainly hope so. This was in 2020, but the family’s Holocaust scars were more real to him than to me. Born in 1926 in the East End of London to Jewish Romanian immigrants whose families stayed behind and perished, the fear of not belonging and of suddenly having to flee with his family down the North Circular Road (presumably after stocking up at Tesco’s) never left him.
I genuinely had no idea, of the gold or the fear. He and my mother – whose Polish and Dutch family experienced identical horrors – had done everything they could to provide that ignorant bliss. Spending all that they had – he was an electrician and she a secretary – so that my brother and I could attend a Church of England public school. Judaism was background noise within our comfortable home. Much more important were the values and traditions of a nation that had given their generation of hunted Europeans unparalleled safety.
As the immigration debate swelled to yet another cacophonous crescendo of Conservative candidates trying to out-scream each other in how tough they’d be on today’s outsiders, I thought of my parents’ most treasured status symbols of “belonging”, aside from our education: becoming adoring constituents of Margaret Thatcher in Finchley and dedicated consumers of the Daily Mail and Daily Express. The nervous immigrant children found an establishment that understood their ambitions and respected their gratitude.
Today, they’d be ashamed of supposedly Thatcherite politicians and the popular press joining forces to make fear of immigration the single most important issue of the moment. Again. And yet it so obviously isn’t. Again. A stagnant economy, a healthcare system on its knees, businesses starved of investment, education in utter chaos, society more fractured than ever, a country seemingly devoid of a realistic long-term plan. They’re the priorities.
But, no, let’s talk about how we’re going to keep out foreigners. The confines of this space make impossible a cogent analysis of immigration policy. More interesting is wondering at the alarming speed with which our popular press ignites the immigration flame when it senses a potential drift to the centre. The desire it has to blur the distinction between legal and illegal immigration. The faded image of British perfection that it dusts off and recrops to persuade people that things really were better and could be still, if only . . .
I can’t help feeling how ironic it is that my parents and the journalistic elite that they delighted in my once being a part of are bonded by the same sentiment. Fear. It drove them to cloak themselves in a Britishness they craved, and it drives my former colleagues to demonise the outsider once again. Every time we reach a pivotal moment – war, financial collapse, political turmoil, leadership vacuums, our relationship with the world – tabloids fall back on an island mentality. Aware that our problems are almost impossible to solve in the short term, they instead look for a quick fix to sate a desire to protect and enhance the status quo.
Isn’t that status quo really what newspapers crave above all else? That “hopey-changey” thing (as Sarah Palin so wonderfully rebuked Barack Obama) is anathema to their internal cultures and external world views. It’s more fulfilling to chase a few easy wins, with politicians falling over each other to keep up, in order to hold “that lot” at bay to protect “our own kind”.
When the Mail on Sunday trumpeted Liz Truss’s vow to send even more people to Rwanda and other nations thankful for planeloads of cash, if not actual humans, its splash headline (“I’d send more migrants to Africa”) reminded some of the infamous “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”. That was when a former Rothermere encouraged his editor to laud the progress of the immigrant hating Adolf Hitler. “Utterly repulsive” was the Twitter cry. And utterly predictable.
I don’t think it’s about racism, although I have worked with cast-iron racist journalists whose glee at immigrant-bashing turned my stomach. Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel, Suella Braverman and other second generation immigrants’ flirtation with a small but influential group of right-wingers is not racism. Pandering to hardline views and ramping up hostility is, instead, callous opportunism. A trait they share with journalists, some apparently united in trying to restore a national culture and identity that in their eyes is perpetually being weakened.
The more coverage there is about immigrants (especially the non-white variety), the more interest is shown by the public and the more anxieties are fuelled. If you walked down the street a year or two after an election and asked people’s views about immigration, they’d be nonplussed.
But in the midst of an ideological struggle, where change is promised but solutions are vague, foreigners get the focus. And, it must be hoped, sales figures and eyeballs get a boost. Arguments become binary and comment-friendly, goodies and baddies more easily identified. Control rather than contribution becomes the mantra. The linguistics of policymaking turn war-like.
This confrontational streak is too easily blamed on racist sentiment. Rather, it’s about fear rooted in disorientating change. My eyes focused on Truss’s pledge not to “cower” in the face of lawyers and human rights conventions. The more that our familiar way of life changes, they cry, the worse it will be. Ironically, the polar opposite to what most immigrants think: the more our way of life changes – ie, Anglicised – the better things will be, particularly for our children. If strangers are to let us share what they have, then we must become less strange to them.
What I hadn’t understood was that my Dad’s generation never stopped being irrationally afraid. That this perfect existence, this sense of belonging, might one day be pulled from under their feet. The exact same fear of the popular press. That’s what those gold coins represented. Security, not bribery. We used the money from their sale to pay for my father’s care, for which I am forever indebted to the Polish, Romanian, Somalian, Kenyan, Filipino, Ecuadorian, Mexican, Spanish and, yes, Rwandan members of staff who attended to his every need. First-generation immigrants caring for second generation, a peculiar reversal.
Although, considering how difficult a person Dad was to everyone including me, we both enjoyed the thought that, in the end, those tiny sovereigns had indeed served their initial purpose. I wish he’d had more hope than fear, just as I wish the media expressed it more often to their readers. But that’s another bribe that will never happen.