‘Lithuanian, Romanian, what’s the difference?’

Till Death Us Do Part TV still

The casual racism satirized in 1960s sit-com 'Till Death Us Do Part' has made a reappearance in British society. Paul Townsend under a Creative Commons Licence

Paul Wojnicki laments the acceptance of casual racism in British society.

‘The government ought to bring back national service,’ an on-duty police constable recently said to me. ‘It would soon get rid of all these f**king Poles.’

I was a little shocked at the random outburst, not least because it was the first time I’d ever met the man, part of whose job it is to investigate hate crime and racism. But then I shouldn’t have been, because I hear this type of casual racism all the time. I’ve heard it in the street, at work, in the supermarket and even from family (yes, the side with Polish roots) and friends.

A former manager of mine once made a sweeping statement about the ‘Lithuanians’ we were watching on some CCTV crime footage.

‘I think they look more Romanian, to be honest,’ I remarked.

‘Lithuanian, Romanian, what’s the difference?’ he snapped.

‘Er, about 1,000 miles,’ I noted. ‘That’s like claiming Norwegians and Greeks are identical.’

‘But they’re all over here for the same thing, though, aren’t they?’ he smiled cryptically.

I never bothered to ask what exactly that thing was. As George Carlin memorably noted, ‘Never argue with an idiot. They will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.’

If I were working in an industry directly affected by immigration, I might be able partially to understand the antipathy. It can’t be easy having your income reduced because someone else is willing to do the job for half the money, I suppose. But I work for a local authority in a partnership agency with one of the country’s largest police forces. Diversity and equality are supposed to be drilled into institutions like ours – I’ve heard of awareness courses that warned against using phrases like ‘nitty gritty’ and ‘brainstorming’ because they could be deemed offensive – yet no-one seems to fear making explicit remarks about eastern Europeans.

In the past few years I’ve repeatedly heard the following sentiments expressed by police officers and council officials who were seemingly unaware of my surname and the fact that I’m married to a Slovak:

‘Most of them are criminals.’

‘They can’t be bothered to learn our language.’

‘They’re here illegally.’

‘They’re only here for benefits.’

‘They’re here stealing our jobs.’

The last two worried me the most because I once heard them both from the same person. ‘Which one is it?’ I wanted to scream at him. ‘They can’t be here for our jobs and our benefits!

But then I remembered our old friend Mr Carlin.

It seems to me that anti-eastern European sentiment has somehow become acceptable in 21st century Britain; and to such an extent that serving police officers, council managers and shop assistants feel comfortable enough with complete strangers to make overtly racist remarks.

There’s been a lot of debate around a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the news recently, and rightly so; yet I for one have never heard anyone make hateful remarks about Jews in my entire life. What I have heard is plenty of vitriolic comments about eastern Europeans.

Legitimized racism like this isn’t difficult to unearth; you don’t have to dig around for long on the internet to come across it. Just type the words ‘Polish driver’, followed by a newspaper of your choice, into a search engine and you’ll find that the ethnicity of the drivers in question is somehow deemed crucial to the underlying message in the story.

Frankly I’m astounded that they’ve been allowed to get away with it. Just imagine the outcry if a national newspaper ran either of these two headlines:

1) Jewish driver does U-turn on M6 before driving the WRONG WAY down the road (because he didn’t have money to pay toll)
2) Black driver jailed for death crash

The newspaper would rightly be accused of racism, yet all I’ve done here is substitute the word Polish for Jewish or Black. I’m at a loss to understand why the ethnicity of these drivers is in the headline – other than to stoke up anti-Polish emotions.

It’s hardly as blatant as say, Der Stürmer in 1930s Germany, I’ll admit, but the implication is clear: these people are not welcome. That’s not to say that journalists, or even the editors, feel this way about eastern Europeans, it’s just that they are perfectly in tune with their readers’ opinions. As Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, noted in 2004: ‘My job is to edit my newspaper, to have a relationship with my readers, to reflect my readers’ views and to defend their interest.’

And reflect their readers’ views they do. A story about ‘Four drink and drug-fuelled Polish burglars’ which ran in the Daily Mail in January prompted over 500 comments, one of the best rated of which read: ‘Four Polish burglars................. Now tell me AGAIN why its good to have open boarders?’ [SIC].

So it’s hardly surprising that the recent news that Britain’s population has swelled by around half a million people due to immigration from eastern Europe promoted over 1,000 comments on the Daily Mail website, one of the highest rated of which read: ‘Mr Farage, please take our country back. Shut the gates.’

I’m sure that these people, many of whom have difficulty spelling the word borders, believe that there are billboards dotted all over eastern Europe promising Shangri-La on the British benefits system. And I’m equally certain that they are all upstanding citizens who deplore racism, and anti-Semitism in particular – the Daily Mail recently ran a story on a Jewish man being heckled as he walked through the streets of Manchester and Bradford. The story triggered almost 1,000 comments, most of which were understandably outraged at his treatment. The highest-rated comment read: ‘I’m so ashamed that this country has such nasty, dreadful, bigoted people.... but not surprised, unfortunately.’

Obviously the man in this story had done nothing illegal – he’d simply walked down the street. But neither had the majority of the immigrants who, the paper announced the same day, had swelled our population.

They’ve simply come here to find work.