So Vinnie, it’s one law for us and another for them, is it?

Published in The Independent (September 4th, 2013)

In trademark tough guy style, Vinnie Jones has tackled this nation’s core problem. “England is past its sell by-date,” he proclaims in an interview with the Radio Times. The problem is too many foreigners, so when he lands at Heathrow from his home in the United States, he can barely recognise his birthplace. “It’s not the country I grew up in. It’s a European country now.”

In a few short sentences from a second-rate footballer turned third-rate actor, here is the perfect encapsulation of the hypocrisy and idiocy that lie behind Britain’s immigration debate. For a start, there is the steadfast refusal to realise that this country is, like it or not, part of Europe. It underlines the importance of raising school standards when you realise little Vinnie, growing up in Potters Bar, failed to learn this rather basic geographical fact.

Then put aside the absurdity of this thuggish player – best-known for squeezing a fellow footballer’s testicles – bemoaning how foreign stars and managers have ruined his sport. He clings to the idea the beautiful game was better in the days of hardmen and hoofball, when he broke the record for the fastest booking in league history, than it is today, when our grounds are graced by the world’s finest players. No surprise to see him hail John Terry as a “proper” English footballer.

But consider the immense arrogance in his implied assumption that Britons can live wherever they want in the world – but other nationalities should not be coming to our sacred shores. So Jones lives in Los Angeles, in a house with a huge Union Jack flying outside and getting his boxes of Walkers crisps delivered, while moaning about other people doing precisely the same as him in moving to better their lives while importing native cultures.

Unfortunately, he is far from alone in this myopic world view. There are an estimated five million Britons living abroad; it is claimed that we are more likely to emigrate than any other Europeans. Perhaps this wanderlust is a wonderful legacy of our imperial past. Yet at the same time there is growing hostility towards migration into Britain; one poll this week found six in 10 people thought immigration produced more disadvantages than advantages.

The past few days has exposed a nation puzzling over its place in the world. As we struggle in search of a new stance, we cannot afford to cling to outdated assumptions from the past. This includes the neo-colonial legacy that leads Britons to never question their right to live and work wherever they want on the planet while pulling up the drawbridge against the rest of the human race. So gap-year students work their way round the world, film stars and financiers move abroad for business and pensioners retire to the sun, while back home the nation grumbles about the impact of immigration and flirts with isolationism.

Vinnie Jones is right about one thing: this is no longer the country he grew up in. But nor is it the same world.

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