Twilight in Brexitland

Yesterday evening I shared a horrific post on Facebook about a tetraplegic woman whose disability benefits have just been cancelled, and has just been summoned to a job interview by her local job centre.  As shocking as it was, this dreadful decision was a fairly typical example of the cruelty and incompetence that has been repeated again and again under the brutal sanctions regime introduced by successive Coalition and Tory governments.  Most of the commenters were as outraged as I was, but there were also messages like this:

No shame when it comes to the white British benefits office. Maybe if she was immigrant that’s might of made a differance (sic).

It’s deeply depressing to know that someone took advantage of such an awful tragedy to express such thoughts.    Once upon a time I might have written off such comments as a occasional freak intervention from some semi-literate racist nurturing their Nazi memorabilia in some dank basement somewhere.   But such interventions are not occasional and they are not from the fringes.

They are all over the place.  You can find them, in below-the-line comments sections on any online forum that has anything to do with immigration – or not.  When a Frenchwoman living in Kent announced last week that she was leaving the UK because of racism and xenophobia, her comments section was sprinkled with racist and xenophobic comments and jeering invitations to go back home if she didn’t like it.

There is a lot more where that came from, and a lot worse too.  Twitter is seething with hatred of this kind, whether directed at foreigners. immigrants, Muslims or people of colour.   Diane Abbott gets hundreds if not thousands of such messages everyday. Gina Miller has been threatened with gang rape, lynching and acid attacks simply because she tried to ensure that Parliament had a say in the Brexit negotiations.

What’s happening on social media is also happening on the streets.  In July this year the Independent reported that incidents of race and faith-based attacks rose by  23 percent in the eleven months since the referendum –  from 40,741 to 49,921.    These incidents included acts of physical violence, acid attacks and verbal insults.  There are undoubtedly many more, since many victims of verbal attacks don’t go to the police.

What is striking about so many of the incidents that are recorded is that – like the comments and tweets on social media – many of their perpetrators clearly feel emboldened, empowered and legitimized by the referendum result.   They feel their time has come, and some of them are clearly dreaming of some kind of ethno-nationalist reckoning in which all the people they don’t like ‘go home’ – even if this country is their home.

Once upon a time some of these people might have felt ashamed to say what they’re thinking; now they don’t.  And why should they?  When Gina Miller said she might have to leave the country, Arron Banks’s Leave.EU – a mainstream lobbying group – merely laughed and tweeted that it hoped other ‘liberals’ would go with her.  Why would people feel any reservation about expressing hostility to immigrants when politicians boast of their ability to turn the UK into a hostile environment?  When ‘commentators’ can tweet about ‘final solutions’ and call refugees ‘cockroaches’ and still get a slot on the Jeremy Vine Show?  Isn’t it all just free speech?

Every week and sometimes everyday, the Home Office – an institution which currently embodies everything that is most malignant about the British state and society – displays how hostile it is by deporting or threatening to deport another immigrant or group of immigrants.

Meanwhile politicians um and ah, or shake their heads about the public’s ‘concerns’.   Some, like the iniquitous and loathsome fraud Boris Johnson, mutter darkly about ‘dual allegiances’.  When they’re caught out deporting tens of thousands of students using false language tests, they don’t bat an eyelid.   When it’s found that their own estimates of students who ‘overstayed’ their visas are wildly over the mark, they just change the conversation and boast of their ability to keep more people out.

Left-of-centre politicians aren’t always much better.   Some talk of the need to exclude immigrants in order to win votes in their constituencies or prevent exploitation or the undercutting of British workers by migrant workers.  Others, like the dreadful Frank Field, celebrate the draconian proposals in the Home Office’s outline document for a post-Brexit immigration policy.

Few pause to wonder where all this is leading us.  It’s a truism to observe that you only stand a chance of curing yourself of an illness if your illness is actually diagnosed and recognised, and right now we are becoming  a sick society – sick with xenophobia, anti-migrant paranoia and unacknowledged racism hidden behind discussions about ‘culture’ and ‘numbers’ and ‘social cohesion.’  We slowly but inexorably poisoning our society with our own fears, prejudices and hatreds.   We are becoming mean, vindictive, callous, bitter and aggressive, constantly whining about what immigrants have supposedly done to us without thinking through what we are doing to them – or to ourselves.

Not only are our politicians ignoring and even pandering to these sentiments, but the government is actually instrumentalising the Home Office to act on them and turn them into policy.   We didn’t get to this situation overnight, and the referendum is by no means uniquely responsible for it.    But there is no doubt that in the last eighteen months, the UK has become a deeply unpleasant and threatening place for many foreigners and immigrants – and for many who simply look or sound foreign – and it may get a lot worse unless we can stop it.

So we need to recognize how serious this is, and we need to act.  The tendencies that have been unleashed these last eighteen months do not express the majority sentiments of the population, but too many of those who don’t share them have not condemned them – or have not argued forcefully against the arguments that foreigners and immigrants are responsible for the social problems of 21st century Britain.  Such arguments aren’t even restricted to the right – I’m constantly coming across them from sections of the left – albeit wrapped up in a veneer of progressive politics and concern for the working class.

We need really major mobilisations to counter these developments.   We need to make the positive case for immigration and diversity and we need to make it loudly.   We can’t pretend that we are too British and too intrinsically decent to descend into a racist and xenophobic swamp.  We can, because any society can.

We need the famous silent majority to stand up for the kind of society we have begun to build –  a society that is comfortable with diversity and open to the world, where foreigners are welcomed, not considered the enemy.  We need to push the xenophobes and racists back to the fringes and restore the shame that once forced them to keep their bitterness and rage to themselves.

Because if we can’t do this, then we will be complicit, and we will also be trapped perhaps for decades, by the dangerous forces that have been unleashed, and which will leave few people unscathed if things proceed along their present course.

 

Solidarity With Gina Miller

There was a time, not that long ago in fact, when ‘liberals’ and ‘leftists’ were blamed for the rise of Brexit and Donald Trump.   We – the ‘latte-drinking metropolitan elite’ had been too arrogant, the argument ran.    We hadn’t listened to ‘ordinary people’.  We’d become complacent and detached from the ‘concerns’ people had about ‘immigration’.   We’d become so ‘politically-correct gone mad’ that ordinary folk couldn’t say the things they wanted to say and had a right to say.  As one acquaintance told me this year – not without a certain hint of gleeful triumph – ‘ you thought you’d won!’

In one sense, these arguments were correct.  Those of us who grew up in the 70s did believe that the UK had made significant progress from the days when Tories could campaign with the slogan ‘ If you want a n****r for a neighbour: Vote Labour.’  We thought we were part of a society where overt expressions of racism were no longer acceptable, that accepted and even celebrated diversity.  It wasn’t that we thought we’d ‘won’, or that the UK had become ‘post-racist.’   The struggle against racism, xenophobia and intolerance is never definitively ‘won’ – it’s something that has to be waged by each generation, that requires constant vigilance regarding the complex ways in which racism changes its language and its targets and forms new tributaries.

So complacency was not in order here.  Especially over the last few decades, when ‘Muslims’ have become the new generic alien intruders and existential enemies to the far right and increasingly in mainstream conservative discourse; when words like asylum seeker, migrant and economic migrant have become tabloid codewords containing a range of undeclared and often covertly-racialised negative meanings; when ‘concerns’ about immigration suddenly made it ok to describe the entry of Bulgarians and Romanians as a potential ‘invasion’ by criminals and benefit scroungers.

But now, thanks to David Cameron, Nigel Farage, Aaron Banks, Boris Johnson and all the others who inflicted this grotesque act of self-harm on the nation, the box of monsters has been opened and we’ve found out that the progress we thought we’d made was really rather paper-thin.  Hyper-nationalism and xenophobia has infected the body politic like a virus.  It expresses itself in the streets, in social media, in below-the-line comments in newspapers, in the endless pandering of politicians terrified of losing votes and anxious to sweep up others, in the complete disregard for the millions of EU citizens whose lives have now been placed on hold while an unscrupulous and incompetent government seeks to turn them to its own advantage, in the disgraceful ‘leftist’ arguments that describe migrant workers as ‘scabs’ and commodities.

It’s comforting to tell ourselves that all this is due to a ‘few bad apples’ – an excuse that appeals both to the conservative Leavers and also to leftists who think the referendum result was a rebellion against the elite, or neoliberalism, or something.   But  it is difficult to ignore the fact that the referendum has empowered and legitimised the worst elements in UK society: the angry white men who think it’s ok to rip hijabs off Muslim women; who shout ‘ I voted for you to leave’ at people they’ve never met who simply look or sound different from them; who tell EU nationals ‘ my people have been here a thousand years, you’ve only been here for 10 minutes’; who break windows and scrawl graffiti on the houses of ‘foreigners.’

At the extreme end of this spectrum are  the sweaty keyboard fascists who threaten anyone who opposes ‘their’ Brexit or disagrees with their insanely overblown hatred of the EU, with rape and death.  Such sentiments often overlap with misogyny, because if there is one thing these ‘patriots’ absolutely can’t stand, it’s a woman who has the temerity to say things they don’t like or even to speak in public at all.

Lily Allen, Diane Abbott and Mary Beard have all been targeted by these knuckledragging trolls, and there are few people they hate more than the Guyanese-born Gina Miller.  At a time when politicians on all sides were so pathetically cowed by the ‘will of the people’ that they were prepared to allow Theresa May to drive through the hardest of Brexits without parliamentary scrutiny, Miller initiated  – and won – a court case against the British government to ensure that MPs would actually be able to vote on the outcome.

Throughout this process, Miller insisted on the simple principle – which had until Brexit been taken as an axiomatic component of British democracy – that parliament should have a say in a crucial decision of such unprecedented national importance.  For that she was mocked by the tabloids as the ‘millionaire Remainer’; condescended to by the ghastly Kwasi Kwarteng; subjected to a vicious hit-piece in the Daily Mail which described her as a fake and a self-publicist.

Naturally she has also been threatened with sexual violence and death, because for too many people in this country,  it is unacceptable that an ‘uppity’ woman of colour should stand in the way of ‘the will of the people’ and remind them that the country’s democratic institutions are supposed to act as a check on executive power.   After all, as the racist aristocrat Rhodri Phillips put it, while offering £5,000 to anyone who would run Miller over,  ‘If this is what we should expect from immigrants, send them back to their stinking jungles.’

So Miller has been threatened with gangrape, and lynching, and many other fantasies pulled from the most rancid sewers of white racism.  She has been told that she should be beheaded and burned at the stake.  And now she has been threatened with acid attacks, to the point when she and her family don’t dare go out onto the street, and she is  considering leaving the country.

That is  Miller’s reward for upholding the UK’s democratic institutions, and for showing more courage than the entire political class between them: she and her family must now choose whether to live under 24 hour security in a state of terror or leave the country. Too many people have been silent about this, perhaps because they don’t want to be associated with someone depicted by the Daily Mail as ‘the poster girl of Remain’.

That needs to change, and now.  Politicians and commentators need to speak out loudly and clearly in support of Miller and in loud condemnation of the racists and fascists who have tormented her.  Social media companies need to become more proactive in shutting them down.  We need to do this for Miller’s sake and also for our own.  No one should be subjected to such abuse, and the vileness directed at Miller is only the sharp end of a dangerous trend that poses a direct threat to UK society as a whole.  As Miller wrote last month:

Over the last year, as the hatred flooded into my inbox, I’ve watched as perpetrators have discovered a new boldness. They no longer hide under anonymity but openly sign their name. They no longer linger alone in their rooms, or at the end of some bar in a pub; social media amplify their vile voices and create echo chambers that reinforce their views.

This is happening because we have allowed it to happen.  It will take a great deal of effort to put these monsters back in the box, but  it’s an effort we have to make.  Today Leave.EU tweeted the following GIF celebrating the fact that Miller may be forced to leave the country because of the threats directed against her:

That is their response, and no one familiar with Arron Banks’s organisation will be remotely surprised by it.  If we are going to prevent the UK from sliding into the same swamp we need a different response.   Last month Miller asked ‘the decent people of Britain to come together in opposition to the hatred poisoning our country’.

That’s an invitation we will refuse to our shame – and also at our own peril.

 

Knuckle-dragger Nation

I’ve been very lucky these last few days.  On Thursday I was part of a panel at the Royal College of Art in London discussing culture, cultural identity and political crisis in a ‘borderless world.’  I was blown away by the passion, eloquence and thoughtfulness of my fellow panel members and so many of the students who participated in the talk back.  It was inspiring and uplifting to be amongst young people who were willing to grapple with the dire political predicament in which we all find ourselves, and so determined to find creative responses to it.

On Friday I took part in a discussion on ‘Paper Borders’ at my old university SOAS. Once again I found myself surrounded by men and women with a moral conscience, who were disturbed and alarmed by the humanitarian consequences of Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ and trying to think their way towards alternatives to the dystopian nightmare unfolding across the European border regime.

These debates and discussions were as far removed from the surface of British national politics as it is possible to be.   Look at the newspapers over the last fortnight and you will see tabloids working themselves into a lather of righteous indignation at the possibility that 14 teenage refugees might not be teenagers.  Fourteen people.   And still these paragons of journalistic integrity think they are justified in going into attack dog mode, insinuating – yet again – that our noble generosity is being taken advantage of by devious pseudo-refugees and NGOs colluding in our national destruction.

Make no mistake about it, these claims were intended to make people hate, and they immediately produced the usual spittle-filled outpourings that we have come to expect, from knuckle-dragging trolls who seem incapable of understanding that if you are under eighteen you are still a minor even if you look older – or that fourteen refugees is a less than impressive act of national generosity.

Much of this vitriol was directed against Gary Lineker, who had the temerity to suggest that the attacks on these fourteen refugee kids was not that generous at all.  Lily Allen also got some of the same for apologizing on behalf of the UK for its treatment of refugees at Calais.  One London taxi-driver refused to pick her up and told her to ‘find an immigrant to drive you’.

Then there was parliament refusing to uphold the legal rights of EU nationals – proving that the majority of its MPs shared Liam Fox’s description of EU citizens – that is living men, women and children – as ‘bargaining counters’.   And more than 100 Labour backbenchers who preferred to let Saudi Arabia go on bombing Yemen with British weapons because undermining their own elected party leader was a higher priority.

And then on Friday, we had British newspapers calling three British judges traitors and ‘enemies of the people’ because they ruled that – who would have thought it in a parliamentary democracy? – parliament should be able to oversee the UK’s exit from the European Union.  We learned from the Daily Mail – a newspaper that seems to be moving closer towards its pro-fascist past with each passing day – that one of these judges was ‘openly gay’ – a fact that has no relevance at all except as an invitation to homophobic hatred.

Such hatred was not lacking, because hell hath no fury like a certain kind of Brexiter for whom ‘sovereignty’ is only significant if it means that they can do exactly what they want without any scrutiny or legal brakes of any kind.  Naturally there were calls for the judges should be hanged.  From the Ukip Society Facebook page we learned that most leading opponents of Brexit were Jews or influenced by Jews.  We could read charming recommendations such as ‘ Open Hitler’s gas chambers: Jews know the way in‘ and ‘ Rothschild. Soros. Rockefeller. Warburg. Du Pont. Morgan.  ALL JEWS.  It isn’t a coincidence they run the world.’

Oddly,  such observations received little attention from the British media or the MPs who had previously been so concerned about Labour’s ‘antisemitism crisis’.   The vile racist and sexist abuse directed at Gina Miller – the Guyana-born British citizen who had the immense courage to remind the country that its elected representatives should have a say in how the country exits the EU – was impossible even for the Sun to ignore.

Miller was brutally trolled, with all the licence that Twitter and social media have given to the knuckle-dragging troglodytes who are determined to transform the UK into a racist swamp.  She was threatened with rape of course – de rigeur for these brave keyboard patriots whenever any woman sticks her head above the parapet.  One Facebook user declared  ‘Who’s going to help me rape this b****? Sign up here’ – a post that even offended the Sun, regardless of the malignant role played by this newspaper in whipping up the hatred against Miller and the three judges.

As always, much of these venom emanated from Ukipland.   One post on the Facebook page, Ukip – The Peoples Forum 2020, read: “Kill her! 2 behind the ear. Throw her in the garbage. Dustbin, whatever…” and “I hope she gets f*****g killed”.

Another observed that ‘Miller should be hung as a traitor.  Crazy total s**m. ‘

Weird how these would-be executioners get so hung up about swear words isn’t it? But let no one say that knuckle-draggers don’t have a sense of propriety.   And before you accuse me of snobbery towards the ‘white working class’, let me say that knuckle-dragging is not a class pursuit.

A posh accent and an Eton education don’t make you intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive or moral, as Boris Johnson continues to demonstrate almost every time he opens his mouth.  The hapless Lord Chancellor Liz Truss has not even had the guts to criticize the newspapers that depicted High Court judges as traitors.   Liam Fox continues to shamble around from one conference to the next with his fists very close to the ground without any indication that he actually understands the rules and obligations that he is trying to tear apart.

The great tragedy of our country is that it is not only responding to knuckle-draggers.  It is actually being led by them and no one can say they are leading us to a good place. So we can only hope that there are enough men and women of good will out there, like those I had the privilege to spend time with over the last few days, who can stop them and remind the nation that it still has a brain, and that it would a really good idea to use it soon.