It does make one despair that with the Christmas just upon us and Mandela barely cold in his grave such a whipped-up froth of small-minded bigotry gets so many column inches. It’s gone bananas even on the Guardian’s website where numerous comments have been taken down for reasons of common decency. Andy Street of John Lewis has attempted to twist the knife in M&S’s side and Richard Dawkins has had a Tweet. The whole thing is almost as depressing as the inability of the Northern Irish to get over fighting about flags a full 15 years after the Good Friday agreement.
The punters have been falling over each other to get onto the Telegraph and Mail websites to make fulsome outraged comment. M&S customer Matt Syson wrote: 'If you have Christian workers who wish to refuse the sale of ladies' garments to male homosexuals or men's trousers to lesbians, I do hope you will stand by those workers' religious or personal beliefs. My family and I shall no longer purchase any goods from your company due to the implementation of this "one rule system" that creates further division and hatred within our communities.'
The truth is, Matt, that any hate problems are entirely yours, being the kind of Little Englander who clearly thinks all girls should wear skirts. It’s poor old Marks and Spencer I feel sorry for as they may actually have suffered a bit as a result. I suspect the unusually squeamish young Islamic woman is normally kept off the food/booze till through an informal arrangement but there was a slip up.
The M&S spokesman said: 'Customer service is our priority. Where we have an employee whose religious beliefs restrict food or drink they can handle, we work closely with our member of staff to place them in a suitable role, such as in our clothing department or bakery.
'We regret that in the case highlighted today we were not following our own policy.
'As a secular business, we have an inclusive policy that welcomes all religious beliefs.This policy has been in place for many years, and when followed correctly, we do not believe that it should compromise our ability to offer the highest level of customer service. We apologise that this policy was not followed in the case reported.' This has to be the correct mature and responsible attitude to take in 21st century Britain.
In truth I’m growing heartily sick of our relentless xenophobia which is what this is all about. When are we going to wake up and realise that one of the reasons we are recovering from the slump faster than France and the rest of Europe is almost certainly down to the levels of economic activity partially provided by migrants. In a laudable piece last week the Economist dared to post a welcome to the UK letter addressed to Romanians and Bulgarians.
'Politicians claim they [Eastern European migrants] are a burden on public services already stretched thin by austerity. Nonsense: being young and able-bodied, they don’t use them much. And because they contribute more to the Treasury in taxes than they take out in benefits and services—about 35% more, according to a plausible estimate—they save our schools and hospitals from deeper cuts. They don’t depress wages much, and mostly among other immigrant workers. They make our economy bigger, lowering our debt-to-GDP ratio. If you are even remotely like them, you will be an economic boon.'
On Saturday our au pair left to go back to see her parents in Romania. Only 22, she hasn’t seen them since Easter. She paid UK plc for a degree – gaining a First in Psychology – at one of our British universities. She’s now paying for another course at another higher education institute while volunteering in order to gain experience working with people with mental health problems. She’s a first class member of our society who also happens to be brilliant looking after our four and six year-old kids after school each day which is no easy task I can tell you. (Try telling my daughter Marnie she can’t wear a pair of her manly blue trousers when she fully intends to, Mister Syson.)
The grotesque images that are painted of our au pair’s country folk as comprised entirely of work-shy, theft-addicted, wall to wall unwashed Roma is quite shameful. It embarrasses me and I just hope that it doesn’t mean she gets fed up and leaves. Her predecessor who was from Slovakia was equally great. (She also refused to go to the dentist in London, not trusting our dentists but waited until she was at home in Bratislava.) She’s now had enough of the UK and is planning to make what I’m sure will be a bright future in Vancouver. Her departure was our loss.
The sooner we all stop dancing to the unsavoury Farage tune, the better. If the next election degenerates into a battle about migration it would be a disaster. There are far more pressing issues to concern ourselves with. In the meantime have a cool yule. Good will to all men and women, even those who regard a bottle of Marks and Spencer Grand Cru 2007 and a packet of maple smoked streaky rashers as an abomination.