Prime ministers are rarely judged on the power of their noses. The way they speak and listen attracts comment. They are praised if they have a common touch or strong vision. Smell is routinely underrated among the political senses, and yet I am increasingly convinced that deficiency in this department is Theresa May’s greatest weakness.
Not literally. I’m sure she can tell when the milk in a No 10 fridge is off. But she struggles with tests of political pungency. She did not catch vote-repellent whiffs emanating from her doomed election manifesto – the stale tang of foxhunting, for example. She has sidled close to Donald Trump, disregarding his offences against decency and democracy, without so much as a nostril twitch towards the American president.
I raised this weakness once with a Downing Street aide in the context of EU nationals resident in the UK. It was this time last year, in the run-up to Conservative party conference. In the months since the referendum, pretty much everyone I knew of non-British background had received some stranger’s jibe to the effect that they had overstayed their welcome in this country. Data showing a surge in reported hate crime supported my anecdotal evidence, stuff we had seen: abuse hurled from passing cars; a child in tears because schoolmates asked when she was “going back” to a country she hardly knew.
There was something rancid in the air, and I wondered if the prime minister could smell it. This was not, I insisted, an invitation to change course on Brexit, nor a criticism of those who voted to leave the EU. Full-bore racists were a tiny minority. But it may, I said, be in the prime minister’s interests to show sensitivity. Somewhere on their liberation march, leavers trod in something nasty, and the new government should check its shoes. I was told that May was known as an ex-remainer and needed to consolidate her new credentials as a Brexiter. She dare not show sympathy for a cause she had abandoned.
A year later, no one thinks May has a soft spot for the 2.9 million EU citizens in the UK. The cloud of casual xenophobia has become a light rain of institutional prejudice: landlords refusing to let properties, employers demanding proofs of residency that are not required by law. Not yet. A government position paper, published over the summer, makes it clear that non-British EU citizens will have to apply to the Home Office for new legal status. Their subsequent entitlements, the ease with which they may reassemble a facsimile of what they have now, will depend on the date when they arrived in the country.
For most Brexiters, this is uncontroversial. EU membership made Britain open its borders to continental settlers. That arrangement will end, so it stands to reason that non-Britons must embark on the route to citizenship (which the government says will be easy) or accept their foreignness. To the leaver-believer, this is a generous offer. Move along, nothing to smell here.
It is hard to convey odours with words, but let me try to explain what it is that makes this remainer recoil. Brexiters see the issue in bureaucratic terms – moving people between legal rubrics. Most will not see it in terms of identity because they don’t see an EU passport as a credible vehicle for any emotional sense of belonging. If they did, they would have voted remain. Through the leaver lens, French passport-holders in Britain were simply French. They had the option of taking British citizenship before Brexit, and will still have it. Legal uncertainty in the interim is regrettable, but that is a problem of timing, not ethics.
Anyone from a migrant background will appreciate that there is no easy separation of official status and belonging. Even those who, like me, were born in the UK to immigrant parents, and have had British passports from birth, carry a sense of the permission that was once granted. We recognise that times change, and societies may become more or less permissive. Generosity waxes and wanes. But in the mainstream, those shifts have always been expressed in rules for future migration. Retrospective changes – rescinding licences already granted – belonged on the send-’em-home fringe.
EU free movement conferred a right to relocate. And, whether Brexiters like it or not, that implied a right to belong in perpetuity. So it is not a technical adjustment, this decision to downgrade the status of people who took jobs, married, had children, all on the basis of their old status. It calls out their failure to be more indigenous and confiscates a little something from them. In so doing it hints at the conditionality of the deal other British people with roots abroad thought was sealed.
The treatment of EU citizens probes a delicate place in our migrant psyches
Many British citizens with immigrant backgrounds voted leave and are happy with that choice. I can speak only for any who share my anxiety when I warn that the treatment of EU citizens probes a delicate place in our migrant psyches. It slides a government nail under the seam where multiple identities overlap, picking away at the place where we had woven together the idea of being British and something else – Indian, African, Muslim, Jewish, European – without being forced to rank or discard. Brexit forces choices. It tells French citizens in Britain (and British citizens in France) that they must reapply to be something they thought they were already: at home.
A kind interpretation of Theresa May’s record as home secretary is that she never tried to understand immigration beyond the pressure from those people who want less of it. That is a sensitivity worth heeding too, and one to which liberal pro-Europeans often blocked their eyes, ears and noses. But Brexit is being enacted to satisfy that demand.
Leaving the European Union will negate a right that millions of people exercised as the foundation for their lives in this country. Any claim that they cannot be wounded by it is absurd. It cuts deeper than many leavers realise. It is a big deal to revoke permission to belong in a country. I don’t expect the prime minister to know how it feels, how it smells, to those of us who owe everything to such permissions, but I can tell her. It hurts and it stinks.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist