On Axel Scheffler’s moving Nibbies acceptance speech and why the UK cannot pick and choose its brightest and best, but needs a tolerant immigration policy if they want more like him to enrich the UK (culturally and economically).

On 14 May 2018, Axel Scheffler received the prestigious British Book Award for Illustrator of the Year. If you are a parent in the UK, you will likely have seen the picture books he co-created with British writer Julia Donaldson, most famously The Gruffalo. During the award ceremony, he took the opportunity to talk about the treatment of EU citizens after the Brexit vote, because, as he put it, “I can’t pretend it’s business as usual”. A transcript of the speech and the video are available here.

There are two things to learn from this speech: there are no good immigrants in Brexit Britain, and it will be very hard for the UK to attract the brightest and best unless they revise their attitude to immigrants.

British Bulldog ripping up EU flag, drawing by Axel Scheffler.
The Gruffalo illustrator Axel Scheffler, on the Drawing (for) Europe project. (Nosy Crow blog)

I found it striking and deeply moving that someone as successful as Scheffler expressed similar feelings of vulnerability and rejection that I’ve heard so many EU citizens in the UK express:

“It’s just ten months until “Freedom Day” — next March — and I — and my fellow EU citizens, many working in the UK book industry — are still living in uncertainty. We have, so far, no guarantee that we can still live and work here in the future. In a worst-case scenario, I might not be allowed to stay here by the time my next book with Julia Donaldson is launched.”

It is easy to say for Brexiters that he and others will be fine, if there is no certainty about what settled status would look like, or even if there will be a deal at all.

Now perhaps good immigrants like him don’t need to worry. But we may ask, what is a good immigrant? Someone who generates money for the British economy, apparently. But even if we use this definition, which — questionably — reduces the worth of a human being to their economic value, there are plenty of good immigrants who are being deported on a daily basis.

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Scheffler generated, according to Nielsen Bookscan (a conservative estimate) sales of £9.5m in 2017 alone. Surely that is good enough for the UK?

Well, not exactly, as Scheffler pointed out, he didn’t come to the UK as a famous illustrator. He came to the UK as an unknown art student, as he said:

“There would have been no Gruffalo without the EU facilitating my study here. And, even if I had, somehow, studied in the UK, I would have had to leave after my studies ended in 1985.”

Indeed. The successful post-study work visa scheme was closed in 2012 by the government, a scheme that offered international students the opportunity to seek employment in the UK 2 years after the end of their studies.

Just a few days ago, the UK government spread a survey among UK students about how they felt about international students (see screenshot below). This survey was met with dismay due to its wording (see here for an excellent analysis).

The survey is since pulled, since anyone with an Internet connection could fill it out, multiple times, but the message is clear: if you, very diverse heterogeneous group of people, are anything less than morally impeccable or make our home students feel a bit ill at ease, we don’t want you anymore. Let’s not forget Theresa May wrongly deported nearly 50,000 students as Home Secretary, on the false grounds that they weren’t genuine students.

The bullying of international students — who pay large fees and thus help to subsidize British academia and British students — continues relentlessly. The Home Office has since told thousands of international students to leave in error.

As a result of restrictions international students face, the UK is already now missing out on opportunities. Those serendipitous successful ventures like the Scheffler-Donaldson illustrator-writer teams cannot emerge anymore for international students.

You cannot install a hostile environment for immigrants* and hope that the brightest and best — those good enough to come to the UK in spite of their funny accents or darker skin colour (or God forbid, both) — will come anyway. They won’t. Prior to 2016, Axel Scheffler and many other non-UK citizens living here believed the UK to be a civilized, tolerant, outward looking nation.

Now it turns out that, as Scheffler put it, “after the Brexit vote it feels, despite our contribution, [it feels] as if this country is saying, ‘It was all a mistake! We don’t really want you after all.’” The fact that the UK isn’t even willing to abandon the hostile environment after the Windrush scandal is very telling, and does not spell well for its future, in the arts, in science, sports, or any other field where the UK has benefited tremendously from the contributions of immigrants.🔷

*Note: to those who say that the hostile environment only applies to illegal immigrants: this is incorrect. The hostile environment puts heavy scrutiny on all immigrants, or people presumed to be immigrants, including those who are here perfectly legally, even British citizens. Evidence for this is legion: the Windrush British citizens, the white British-born KFC worker who was almost deported to Uganda, and so on.

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(This piece was originally published on The Blog!)

(Cover: Dreamstime/wabeno.)



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Belgian philosopher and Senior Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University who specialises in philosophy of religion, experimental philosophy, and philosophy of cognitive science.