Love in a hostile environment

Make Love, not War!

Since time immemorial there have been marriages and relationships between people of different nations. My own knowledge of history is pretty limited, but I suppose one could cite Anthony with Cleopatra, Henry VIII with Catherine of Aragon, Mary with Philip II of Spain, Victoria with Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha… and, of course, Elizabeth II with Philip of Greece and Denmark. Some ‘mixed marriages’ of people in high places were arranged for political reasons, to form international alliances and thereby prevent wars. On the other hand, there have been cases of such marriage alliances not being possible: when our King Charles was an eligible bachelor, one rumoured possible bride was a European princess; her lineage and royal status were ideal, but as a Catholic she was deemed an unsuitable match for the future head of the Church of England. The British Constitution banned such a marriage for many centuries, but in 2011 David Cameron announced that this law would be scrapped, albeit he also made it very clear that a British monarch, being head of the Church of England, could not be a Catholic. It seems that there are considerations which can override love…

It doesn’t take much research to find examples of the considerable number of prominent British people and politicians who are the products of mixed-nationality marriages: Winston Churchill, King Charles, Stanley Johnson, James Cleverly, Thangam Debbonaire are just some of those who spring to mind. Equally there are many examples of prominent Brits whose relationships are mixed-nationality: Prince Harry, Jeremy Hunt, Suella Braverman… and, notoriously, Nigel Farage, who has had relationships with citizens of at least two member-countries of the European Union: oh, the irony… and the hypocrisy! So many great ‘British’ people were from mixed or foreign origins: for instance, Gustav Holst ‒ British, Latvian, Swedish and German; Handel ‒ from Germany to Britain via Italy; Christina Rossetti ‒ British, born Italian; and now Emma Raducanu ‒ a British and Canadian citizen with Romanian and Chinese origins.

Love is all around!

At the other end of the social scale, in ancient times there was far more ‘mixing’ among ordinary people than we might realise. DNA research into the remains of humans who built and visited Stonehenge provides evidence of people originating from far afield: from other areas of Europe and even further east. It was inevitable that there would be mixing. There was the ‘Rape of the Sabine women’ of Roman mythology: the story was that the Romans abducted women from neighbouring tribes to ensure survival of their own people. OK, so most racially mixed marriages have not involved abduction, but usually love instead … The Greek god of love Eros – and his Roman counterpart Cupid – are often portrayed blindfolded, or as actually blind, when shooting their love-arrows at their victims. Love is indeed blind ‒ blind to rules and constraints, including considerations of race and nationality.

Amor, Amor, Amor

Of course, love is the most important factor in human beings choosing particular partners – whatever the circumstances. This includes people thrown together randomly as a result of war or disaster. A little-known example is reported in this BBC article which tells how thousands of Spanish women fell in love with Moroccan troops who fought in Spain on the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). However, during the early years of the ensuing Franco dictatorship, this was forbidden love as far as the authorities were concerned and they did all they could to nip such relationships in the bud, considering them undesirable for religious, racial and political reasons. Thousands of love letters confiscated by the regime were stored away for decades in state archives. According to the BBC article, this sort of disapproval of inter-racial relationships “was not specific to Spain: the fear of European women entering into relationships with colonised men was common across all European colonial administrations.”

Another classic example is the number of ‘war-brides’ resulting from social mixing during wartime in the 20th century, particularly during the Second World War (WW2). The statistics in WW2 are staggering: 60,000 mostly European war brides wanted to join their new husbands in America  ‒ so many that the US introduced ‘The War Brides Act’ to get over the restrictions and quota system imposed by previous laws. Many of the women following their men to the US were, of course, British ‘GI Brides’.

Similarly, British troops returning from Europe at the end of WW2 filled several trains with war brides, notably from Italy; according to Anthony Capella’s novel The Wedding Officer, the British Army apparently tried to discourage Italian women who had fallen in love with British soldiers from actually marrying them. Ironically, Capella’s protagonist himself falls in love with a young widow, Livia…

It had certainly been true that British society in the early half of the 20th Century was not enamoured of inter-racial marriages. Such prejudice had been widespread where ‘ordinary’ people were concerned, but it was considered acceptable for the well-to-do to pair off with partners of other races. The WW2 war-brides phenomenon probably helped to mitigate pre-war prejudices. Then, of course, there was the arrival of HMT Windrush, and the influx of people from other parts of the former British Empire, which often led to racial mixing.  

Love is in the air…

The photo is of the author’s parents

Another result of WW2 was the development of the jet engine, and the consequent expansion of long-distance air travel. In the 1950s and 60s, the foreign package holiday enabled ordinary citizens to taste the life and culture of foreign countries, just as had been experienced by British servicemen fighting abroad. Many young women on holiday from the UK fell in love with Spanish waiters… It was not one-way traffic; for example, thousands of young Spaniards came to the UK to learn English while working in the hospitality sector, prior to returning to similar work in Spain – many establishing their own hotels and restaurants.

In addition, the sort of cultural awareness, tolerance and open-mindedness that developed in multicultural UK in the second half of the 20th century was largely the result of education policy. Study of foreign languages became more widespread and it became routine for young people to travel abroad, largely to countries neighbouring the UK. Indeed, from the early 1970s, university language students were required to spend time in the country of their ‘target language’, and inevitably, many young Brits found love abroad. Then, of course, there was the Erasmus scheme – heavily supported by the EU – from which British students benefited while the UK was still a member. West Country Voices has carried many articles cataloguing the disastrous effect of Brexit on language study, and the student travel related to it.

Love makes the World go round… (just not in the UK since Brexit)

The effect of Brexit on language study has indeed been disastrous; so much so that in November 2023 the German Ambassador to the UK, Miguel Berger, voiced his concerns, as reported in several newspapers: “This is a truly dramatic decline, which is deeply worrying especially as it is an ongoing trend,” Berger said. “When I visit British and German companies in the UK one thing that people tell me is that they are now more than ever actively searching for employees with German language skills. But language learning is not just of immense value in terms of employability. It is also the gateway to another culture, encouraging friendship, trust and understanding across borders, and these are exactly the qualities that we want to see embedded at the heart of the future relationships between the UK and its European neighbours.” When I did an internet search with the words “German Ambassador concerned about UK language teaching”, I discovered that these concerns have been expressed regularly by successive German Ambassadors for over twenty years.

Of course, in the good old pre-Brexit days, all this inter-nation contact produced mixed relationships and marriages, and it was considered perfectly acceptable for such couples to live in the UK if they decided to, and in those days the freedom of movement enjoyed by British citizens during the UK’s membership of the EU endorsed this natural right. Less language study now means fewer young Brits spending time abroad, and fewer finding love in EU countries: it’s almost as though Brexiters’ xenophobic prayers are being answered.

All you need is love, love, love – it’s easy (not)!

Brexit itself as a phenomenon is bad enough, but the lead up to Brexit brought so much negative messaging, and the desperate drive by increasingly right-wing Tories to continue brainwashing less discerning voters into xenophobic fear of ‘forinners’ seems to go on and on. The drip-drip-drip campaign was set off by Farage and culminated in 2016 with his notorious photo-shopped “Breaking point” poster, continued in Theresa May’s “hostile environment”, Cameron’s talk of “a swarm of migrants” and Boris Johnson’s warning of “77 million Turks”; and has been evident in the horrendously inhuman policies of Priti Patel and Suella Braverman. Now Rishi Sunak has built up to his Rwanda policy with a statement on illegal migrants, by suggesting that if nothing is done they will take over the UK – scare tactics reminiscent of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood”(£) speech in 1968. In every case, with the possible exception of Powell, these politicians were and are pandering to the far right, wishing to preserve their political positions. Considering the tone of the coverage of the Rwanda policy in the media of our nearest neighbours, Sunak is evidently ruining the reputation of the UK. It is pertinent to listen to Hashi Mohamed discussing the Rwanda Bill on BBC Question Time on 18 Jan 2024: he refers to Sunak’s rubbishing of the UK judiciary and calling the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)  a ‘foreign court’ (which it is not!) and says such rhetoric “is poison”.

Love hurts… if Brexit has anything to do with it

As if that wasn’t enough, here are just a few examples of how Brexit has already affected the lives of some ‘international’ families:

The Guardian, 22 December 2023 – “Italian citizens bank accounts frozen owing to ‘shameful’ post-Brexit rules”. An Italian restaurant owner and his British wife have had their bank accounts frozen overnight after 15 years of custom, and 21 years of paying UK taxes. They’ve had to close the restaurant, unable to pay their staff and suppliers. Massimo and his British wife Dee say the settlement scheme is a “catastrophic” post-Brexit tactic designed to frighten immigrants into leaving UK.

The Guardian, 26 December 2023 – “Italian woman facing removal from UK despite ‘permanent residency’ card”. An Italian environmental technology investor who has lived in the UK for 14 years has discovered she could be removed, despite getting a “permanent residency” card after Brexit. Silvana, who has a British husband and a baby girl with dual nationality, said, “I’ve been treated like a criminal”.

The London Economic, 7 January 2024 – “Confusion reigns as ‘Brexit paperwork’ prevents Spanish woman re-entering UK”. As reported inThe Guardian, the woman, who lived with her husband in Bedfordshire, had left the UK to visit her family over Christmas. Her application to remain in the UK under the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is yet to be concluded and she claims to have paperwork confirming this. Upon her arrival at Luton, however, she was told that there would be ‘no chance’ of her being let into the country. She was detained overnight, and ‘removed’ back to Spain.

The Guardian, 15 January 2024 – “French woman ‘heartbroken’ after losing job in UK after Brexit speaks out”. A French woman has described how she lost her job in Shropshire and was left “heartbroken” about life in the UK, because of a mix-up over the immigration process for EU citizens which was instituted after Brexit. Sophie, who is married to a British man, was in the UK for five years before Brexit but went back to France in 2020 for 18 months after a family tragedy.

And now, according to María Ramírez in her article in The Guardian on 18 January 2024, the question is being asked in EU countries:

“If the UK is treating EU citizens so badly, why don’t we do the same to UK citizens coming to our country?” The UK Border Force declares: “our number one priority is to keep our borders safe and secure, and we will never compromise on this” – but in all honesty, how is treating EU citizens so badly doing anything to control our borders? Anyone would think – as Massimo and Dee suggest ‒ that this behaviour results from a conscious policy of discouraging EU citizens from even contemplating coming to the UK as anything but tourists. As María Ramírez says in her article: “This translates into uncertainty, anxiety and potential expulsion for thousands of families.”

Don’t love you no more

Of course, such negative messaging dished out over the last decade or so has been incredibly unsettling and distressing for many foreign citizens and their UK partners and spouses: years of being given the impression that they are not welcome, and that their remaining in their adopted country is a concession, rather than a right. Now comes the last straw: to reinforce the messaging, the government made an announcement on 22 December 2023 which has devastated thousands of families: the doubling of the minimum income threshold required for British citizens to obtain a visa to bring their partner from abroad to live in the UK. Thousands of families will be hit by this new minimum £38,700 salary requirement. This provoked outrage in certain sectors of the press, as well as causing extreme upset in many families, increasing their feelings of insecurity in the UK. The measure had already been reported in The Guardian a few days previously, and legal action was reportedly being planned against it. The new income requirement has also produced an interesting, if depressing, conclusion in the less right-wing press: the suggestion that in the future, only the rich will have the freedom to fall in love with foreign citizens.

Since then, in response to the reaction, there has been some tinkering with the dates and details of implementation of the new rules, but the damage has already been done. And, although most of the families affected are those with an EU member, it will affect people from other parts of the world too; an Australian acquaintance, married to a Brit and with a son, told me recently that, had she not already managed to obtain her second residence permit, she’d have been deported under the new measures. Even more distressing is to hear of a family in which the father has lived, worked and paid taxes in the UK for over 20 years, saying that not only does the UK seem to consider that the parents should never have married, but also that their children should not exist.

UK: the Uncaring, Unloving, Unfeeling, Unfriendly Kingdom. Is this really who we are?