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:
Gina Miller says she may need to leave the UK. pic.twitter.com/cs1gIFgbRf
— LEAVE.EU 🇬🇧 (@LeaveEUOfficial) August 9, 2017
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.