Opinion: Postcard from a British immigrant in Poland

As a Briton living and working in Poland I am ashamed of the small-mindedness David Cameron is encouraging in Britain by attacking Polish immigrants and insinuating that they are nothing but benefit scroungers. It is doing great damage to our image here and cutting deep into the trust and respect between our peoples.

I am a guest in this country, an economic migrant if you will. Since coming here to Warsaw in 2010 no one has ever uttered even the mildest criticism of my taking up the opportunity to work here (at an international college of European studies). Far from it – I have been treated with nothing but kindness and respect.

This is because Poles are utterly horrified at the idea of considering the indignity of an easy life abroad by sucking up benefits. That is why they would never think that of me.

Cameron’s crude words about the Polish (after his frankly racist rubbish about the Romanians and Bulgarians) show his ignorance. I am not sure that he really understands that he is talking about a major European nation of nearly 40 million people. It is a country with an excellent education system and impressive social mobility. It has pulled itself up by its boot straps from the disaster of foreign-imposed communism to become an economic success story. It is a country with a national history and culture which is as ancient and impressive as Britain’s.

And this is why the Polish people, my friends and colleagues, are genuinely hurt and surprised at what they are hearing from Mr Cameron. Politicians and media are scandalised. They never expected this from us.

This is because they believed that Britain was a country built on liberal values. Britain is widely and sincerely admired here. Not least, because in 2004 we lived up to the promises of the EU Single Market and welcomed thousands of hard working Poles to contribute to our success. A contribution which even the Prime Minister’s unpublished reports recognise has been entirely positive for the UK economy, helping pull it through painful recession.

I am confident that Liberal Democrats will remain true to our traditions and attack this ugly and shameful populism from the Prime Minister. I hope too, with our influence, Cameron will start once again to defend the liberal values for which, in its finest hours, even his party has been the first to defend. If he does not he risks losing the warm support of a natural ally in Europe.

* Richard Washington was a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Islington between 1998 and 2002. He is currently Head of Communications at the College of Europe in Warsaw

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  • Meral Hussein Ece 10th Jan '14 - 10:26pm

    Good article Richard.

  • Richard, I am afraid that you can expect more of this from the Tories. See this week ‘s Economist-


    Of course we could always pull the plug on The Coalition and stop propping up the xenophobes.

  • Richard … just what need to hear. Thank you for this great article. Keep up the great work.

    The doomsayers do not even stop to think about how their words and actions affect the perception of Britain abroad . Perhaps, more worryingly, they do not even care!

  • I am not sure Nick Clegg is on the right track either by having a pop at Poles, amongst others, for legitimately claiming child benefit for children being supported in their home countries. You could argue that’s a better deal for British tax payers which of course Poles working here are!

  • I’m not sure why paying UK Child benefit, set at a level relative to the cost of bringing up a child here, is appropriate for a child in Poland. Does anyone know if there are benefits payable in Poland for having children? Also what happens for example with UK citizens working elsewhere in the EU? If they leave their children in the UK are they entitled to child related benefits in the other country?

  • Richard Washington 11th Jan '14 - 11:34am

    Thanks for your comments! Great to hear from you Meral – I imagine that other immigrant communities are wondering who will be next on the list. I met recently with a high-ranking member of the EU diplomatic community in Warsaw (not Polish, but from another country with a large and very well established immigrant community in the UK) and he was totally confused and frankly horrified by Cameron’s comments. He even wondered today if his countrymen would be next on the ‘populist scapegoat script’ that Cameron has been reading from. I agree John (Innes) – all leaders in Europe have to be very careful what they say – in the EU decisions are made among equals, and Poland is an important partner for Britain in negotiations for EU reform (it is not a country in a hurry to become federalised, but at the same time it is very positive about the EU). John T – I have a non-political job so I won’t go too far into the politics of the issue, but the principle is a powerful one and it should make liberals whether political or not think hard about the future of British politics. Robert – I have to say that Nick’s position is a bit disappointing. Someone has to lead on this and present the liberal point of view and if he won’t who can? Maybe I shouldn’t be so confident of Lib Dem influence in these matters…

  • Richard Washington 11th Jan '14 - 11:34am

    Oh and David…I can find out about that for you.

  • Richard unfortunately you failed to notice in your article the difference between work related migrants and benefit claimants. I am migrant myself and have worked all my adult life, always paying taxes and putting the money back into the economy of the country I am residing in (this being now UK). It doesn’t help the economy when more and more benefit scroungers are being accepted into the country with no obligations or any sense of duty or care other than their pockets and even worse their foreign properties.

    After calculating all the benefits I would receive and legally claim I could have been better of quitting my job , for sure. Staying on benefit s I wouldn’t have to pay my council tax or rent I wouldn’t have to worry about the money I need to save every single month only to coverall my travel costs. Regardless of the above mentioned I have never in my life claimed a single penny in form of any public benefit. Do not get me wrong this is not a problem with migrants but this a problem with the system that failed to adapt to current situation.

    I’d rather see my tax money being spent on schools, hospitals roads and most importantly my local community …. than yet another mansion in one of The Countries I do not have to even name for the rest to know which ones I am referring to.

  • Richard Washington 12th Jan '14 - 6:02pm

    Marek – I hadn’t failed to notice that particular issue which I think can be discussed and dealt with without the need to stigmatise. I wanted to emphasise that it is highly irresponsible and unfair to insinuate that the people of one country have a general tendency to seek an easy life on benefits than ‘natives’. In my view, among Poles and indeed people generally, the hard workers heavily outweigh the scroungers. The problem of ‘letting in scroungers’ is much smaller than some politicians and journalists would like to pretend it is. Like you say – the strains on our benefits system and health service have more to do with a lack of reform and increasing costs of health care. We have a problematic demographic trend that is leading to a smaller active population. Of course, paradoxically, all this will be (partially) solved through more immigration – which is why wee need to encourage free movement of labour not return to some imagined isolation. But I get the feeling we agree on this. However, I must disagree with you with regard to those on benefits. Most people on benefits are not scroungers but people who need support, usually temporarily or partially. I was on benefits once in my life due to a number of difficult factors and I can tell you it was no picnic, but thank god the system was there because it saved me in a difficult time. I don’t think I was a scrounger, just a young(ish) guy in trouble – and I worked my way out of the hole I was in.

  • I don’t see a problem to get a CHB for kids living in Poland where the parent/s are working in UK. They pay tax as all the rest working class people’s and they should be eleligible for it.

  • Lee Catterall 11th Mar '14 - 1:54am

    Excellent article Richard! I holiday to Poland at least 3 times a year and love the culture, history and the people! It has been proved that there are more British citizens living in other parts of the EU than there are European migrants living in the UK!

    The debate over Polish migrants claiming benefits in the UK is still quite a sore subject amongst some Brits. The way I see it, we should be proud to live in a society that has a relatively generous benefit system and NHS that welcomes anyone regardless of age, race, creed, gender etc. Yes, there are EU migrants claiming these UK benefits but as the President of Poland recently said, “You are quite happy to take the tax of the working Polish community, but you aren’t happy to pay them benefits?”

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