Who are the real saboteurs? Is it those who want Brexit to be properly scrutinised by parliament to prevent a disastrous deal which could wreck the economy and shred social provision? Those were, after all, the saboteurs who needed crushing according to the Daily Mail when Theresa May called her calamitous snap election. Or are the real saboteurs those who – through bigotry, twisted ideological zealotry and outright stupidity – are damaging the fabric of the public services we all depend on?
Britain’s National Health Service is propped up by 12,000 doctors from the European Economic Area. Without them, our most treasured national institution – which brings us into the world, mends us when we are sick or injured, cares for us in our final moments – would collapse. So it should be of some concern to us, to put it mildly, that nearly half of them are considering leaving the country, and a fifth have already made actual plans to do so.
What a twisted irony. The leave campaigners made a calculated decision to win the EU referendum with a toxic mixture of lies and bigotry. One of the most striking falsehoods was an extra £350m a week for the NHS after we left: instead it’s being emptied out of desperately needed doctors.
And can you blame them for wanting to leave? We’ve now had years of vitriolic scapegoating of immigrants to deflect responsibility from the banks, the tax-dodgers, the unaccountable corporations, the poverty-paying employers, the rip-off landlords, the neoliberal politicians, and all the other vested interests who have unleashed misery and insecurity upon this country. The positive contribution of immigrants was all but banished from public discussion. The campaign reached a crescendo during the referendum, with immigrants variously portrayed as potential criminals, rapists, murderers and terrorists, validating every bigot in Britain and resulting in a surge in hate crimes on the streets. I wonder why European doctors don’t feel particularly welcome right now?
This is about the worst possible time to haemorrhage doctors. The NHS is enduring the longest squeeze in its funding as a proportion of GDP since its foundation; it’s being fragmented by marketisation and privatisation; it’s under growing pressure because of decimated social care budgets while citizens continue to live longer. Plunging morale – because of privatisation, staff shortages and cuts – is affecting all doctors, regardless of where they’re born: a recent study suggested two-thirds are considering leaving. The consequence? We’re having to look abroad for more doctors. This is a recurring irony of Conservative rule. After the first five years of the coalition government, drastic cuts to nurse training places led the NHS to look for one in four nurses abroad.
How have we allowed the bigots and xenophobes of our unhinged tabloid press and political elite to inflict so much damage? Rather than making our live-saving foreign doctors feel unwelcome, surely we should be focusing on how we can tax the booming wealthy individuals and big businesses so we can invest more in our NHS? It should be abundantly clear who the real saboteurs are. They have already inflicted incalculable damage to our social fabric, our public services, our economy, and our international standing. The question is: how do we prevent them from inflicting even more damage?
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist