Taking Our Country Back: Brexit and the Seeds of Hate

There was a time, in the country that so many Brexit voters would like to take ‘back’, when it was commonplace to have signs in the windows of rented accommodation that read ‘no dogs, no Blacks, no Irish. ‘  We have spent decades moving away from the society where such discrimination was semi-respectable;  through painstaking work on the ground; through slow shifts in attitudes; through open resistance to racist violence and intimidation from the men and women who have frequently had to fight for their place in British society; through myriad acts of solidarity by the many individuals and organizations who have welcomed them and stood alongside them.

Did we made racism disappear from the UK?  Are we a ‘post-racial’ society?  No, because racism can never be entirely eliminated from any society, and keeping it at bay requires a constant effort, and a constant willingness to pay attention whenever it manifests itself.   Nevertheless, we made considerable progress towards creating a society in which overt racism was marginalized and drained of its lethal legitimacy and respectability. .

As a result of the Brexit referendum, that achievement is under its gravest threat since the rise of the National Front in the 1970s.    In little more than 48 hours since Friday’s result, it is already becoming disturbingly clear that immigrants and foreigners in the UK are now facing a vicious and widespread epidemic of racism and xenophobia that is unapologetic and openly celebratory.

Reports are pouring through social media from up and down the country of verbal and even physical abuse of anyone foreign, speaking in a foreign accent, or who looks ‘foreign.’  On Facebook I have seen stories of an 80 year old Italian woman who has been living here for 50 years, who was told that it would be better to go back to her own country; of a woman attacked on the tube by a man who became enraged when he heard a foreign accent on the tannoy; of a Polish man and his son beaten senseless and left in the street; of leaflets in Huntington put through letterboxes telling ‘ Polish vermin’ to go home.

Social media is filled with tweets like these:

Italian person I was w/ last night was assaulted for asking how someone voted. Knocked out w/ a bottle, lost a tooth, stitches. I’m scared.
Disgusting RT @fionaand: Older woman on the 134 bus gleefully telling a young Polish woman and her baby to get off and get packing.Horrific.
Getting my nails done when a man pops his head in the door & shouts at the therapists “you lot better fuck off home” aarggh!
In the aftermath of #Brexit, neighbors we’ve never spoken to before confront us with ” Do you even speak English? #PostRefRacism
Gloucester : ‘this is England, foreigners have 48 hours to f**k right off. Who is foreign here? Anyone foreign?’
Our neighbour is a deputy head and she said there were Polish kids crying because they were scared that they were going to be deported.

There is a lot more where this came from here and here  Today the Independent reported hundreds of hate incidents.  Since Friday, the website Thisiswhatyou’vedone uk has received dozens of reports of verbal and physical abuse directed at foreigners and immigrants or men and women perceived to be immigrants.  Many of these attacks have cited the Referendum and the decision to leave the EU as a justification and a carte blanche, such as the reports of strangers stopping people in the streets to tell them to tell them  ‘ We voted Leave, it’s time for you to leave.’

To date not a single major politician has condemned these incidents.  The Brexit politicians, who did so much to stoke up and pander to anti-immigrant hostility in the last weeks of the campaign, have been absolutely silent about it.   Clearly not all those who voted Leave were racists and xenophobes, but racism and xenophobia were crucial and indispensable components of a campaign that persistently played on fears and prejudices about immigration, whether these ‘immigrants’ were EU workers, putative Turkish immigrants, or the refugees who Nigel Farage said were a threat to the ‘security of British women’, who he portrayed in his atrocious poster.

Not all Leavers voted because of immigration, but many clearly did, and the Leave campaign’s flagging up of immigration in the last two weeks of the campaign had a decisive impact in shifting the momentum away from Remain.   It is now becoming clear that these developments have unleashed forces that will be very difficult to put back in the box, and that many of those who voted Leave did so in the expectation that the immigrants they feared and loathed would a) stop coming and b) leave the country.

The explosion of racism and xenophobia that we are now witnessing is not simply the result of the campaign itself, but the campaign has crystallized and brought to the surface all the toxic currents that have percolated through British society for the last fifteen years or so in response to ‘mass migration.’

Of course those who fanned the public’s ‘concerns’ about immigration always insisted that they were not ‘racist’, just as Leave campaigners get uppity if you suggest that their campaign had anything to do with racism.  But here’s the thing; racism isn’t just about skin colour or biology.  It doesn’t only apply when you talk about ‘race’ or accuse Jews of polluting the German ‘reservoir of blood.’

Racism can constantly adopt new justifications, new disguises and assumptions, in its attempt to marginalize and discriminate.      If you spend decades telling the population – as various politicians and our disgraceful tabloid press have done – that immigrants are a problem, that they are benefit scroungers and health tourists, thieves and criminals, intruders, parasites, cultural aliens, and a threat to our security, then you can’t be entirely surprised when the dregs of the nation take to the streets to demand ‘repatriation’or push leaflets through peoples’ doors calling them ‘vermin’ or demand to know why foreigners ‘don’t speak English.’

Johnson, Gove and Farage all pandered to these sentiments, and it is clear that some members of their audience now feel more empowered and more legitimized than they did before, and that ‘taking their country back’ means driving out anyone they don’t think belongs to it   The result is a truly dangerous situation, for immigrants first of all, and also for the culturally and ethnically diverse society that we have so painstakingly constructed.

No one can be surprised that Farage & Co have nothing to say about this, but sections of the left have also disgracefully continued to marginalize or play down the importance of racism and xenophobia in driving the Leave campaign, or else, as John Pilger did, they have simply ignored them altogether

The rest of us can’t afford to be so sanguine.   We need to remember the words of Linton Kwesi Johnson once wrote back in the 80s: ‘ Asian/West Indian/ an’ Black British/stan firm inna Inglan/inna disya time yah/far nuh mattah wat dey say/com wat may/we are here to stay inna Inglan/in disya time yah.’

Now, in these new times, we can add Poles, Romanians, and many other nationalities to that list, and we need to stand firm with them, because the monsters are out of their box, released by the outrageous frauds and liars who played their dark political games in order to con the nation.

It’s up to all of us to put them back, and show our solidarity with the men and women who have made this country their home, who have us much right to live in it as anyone else.

They may not be part of Brexit country, but they do belong to the nation that the rest of us inhabit, and we need to fight for them, and alongside them, for their sake, and our own.

Freaky Friday

In  the Jamie Lee Curtis comedy Freaky Friday, a mother and teenage daughter wake up to find themselves trapped in each other’s bodies as a result of a magic spell.  Yesterday I underwent a similar but even more disturbing transformation.   On Thursday night I dreamt that Remain had won the referendum.  Early on Friday morning I woke up to find Nigel Farage crowing about ‘Independence Day’ and celebrating a victory for the ‘real, decent people.’

Over the next twenty-four hours, along with millions of my unreal and indecent fellow-citizens, I found myself trapped in a country that I didn’t want to be in, facing a horrible future that I couldn’t escape from.

No one can say the country was in good shape before Brexit.  Large swathes of the population were clearly not doing well.   Food banks; zero hours contracts; worsening labour conditions; wage stagnation; cuts and atrophied public services; pressure on schools and GPs surgeries; high rents; social cleansing’ gross social and regional inequality; a lack of affordable housing; a succession of paedophile scandals involving high-level institutional collusion; and the near-collapse of the British steel industry – it wasn’t Shangri-la and it wasn’t Jerusalem.

At the same time, the country wasn’t exactly hell on earth. .It wasn’t in recession. Unemployment was at a 10-year low (even if that outcome was partly due to a rise in part-time work and austerity-induced precarity).   Our much-loathed immigrants came here to work, not in order to drain the nation’s bodily fluids,  and they did so because there was work available.   Contrary to what many of us have been told, their presence, according to a 2014 UCL, was good for us, providing a net gain of £20 billion to the country’s public finances. Northern Ireland was not at war with the British government or with itself, partly because of the money provided to the region through the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation and other structural funds. .

As a result of Thursday’s decision, none of that can be taken for granted.   We now face the possibility of  a national and possibly international recession, at a time when the global economy has barely recovered from the last one.  We are likely to witness the breakup and collapse of the United Kingdom; the secession of Scotland; the disintegration of the European Union on terms set entirely by the far-right.   We might also see the collapse the Irish Peace Process and the Belfast Agreement, as EU funds disappear and the reappearance of Ireland’s neutral border reopens sectarian divisions that have been held in abeyance for nearly two decades.

After decades of painstaking agreements and negotiations that have made it possible for Britons to live,work and study anywhere on the continent, and for Europeans to do the same here, we now face the curtailment and elimination of these rights.  We face years and years of painful negotiations as a succession of almost certainly weak governments attempt to disentangle themselves from the agreements that their predecessors voluntarily entered into.

No one can say for sure how all this will turn out, but it is difficult to imagine that the dangerous clowns who led us into this mess can negotiate their way through its consequences, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the final outcome will be worth the massive waste of energy and the turmoil and uncertainty that it is almost certain to engender. .

Already their efforts have divided and polarised the nation, after what is perhaps the dirtiest, ugliest and most dishonest political campaign in British history.   After decades of moving away from a society that once had signs up saying ‘No blacks or Irish’, this campaign has unleashed and legitimized toxic hatreds, prejudices and expectations that will be difficult, if not impossible to put back in the bag.

Brexiters – both left and right – would like to pretend otherwise – but xenophobia, bigotry, and outright racism have been the decisive components of this referendum, which produced the dramatic shift towards Leave in the last two weeks.  The fake promises from Boris Johnson to ‘heal’ the nation – the same Johnson who profited politically from Farage’s dogwhistling and engaged in it himself – would be laughable if they weren’t contemptible.

This was a campaign in which an MP was murdered because she supported EU membership, supported refugees and immigration, yet more than half the population chose to vote for the exact opposite of what she stood for.  Faced with arguments from Nobel Prize-winning economists and political scientists who warned of the calamitous consequences of Brexit; they chose to follow instead a motley crowd of mountebanks, chancers, ideologues and demagogues who engaged in what legal expert Michael Dougan called ‘dishonesty on an industrial scale.’

These same politicians told the public not to believe in the ‘experts’, and when their arguments came apart they coolly, cynically and willfully stirred up fear and hatred towards everything foreign, whether it was ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’, rapist refugees, Turks or ‘immigrants’ in general.

It’s clear that some of those who listened to this siren song are already beginning to regret it.   Even Cornwall, which voted to leave, is now asking for the government to replace their EU fund.  They won’t be the only ones, when other regions discover that the EU actually gave them money as well as taking it.  For all the Christmas hamper promises that Brexiters made during the campaign, there is about as much chance of bailouts from the gaggle of rightwing libertarians and Tory free market zealots who brought you Independence Day as there is of snow falling in the Sahara.

It’s also questionable whether there will even be much wealth to redistribute.  China is already looking askance at further involvement in the UK financial services industry.   The EU has made it clear that the UK won’t get the same access to the single market that it had before.   The creepy fraud Farage has already been rowing back on the campaign promise that the EU’s mythical £350 million per week will go to the NHS.  Those pensioners who voted in such high numbers for Brexit may well see their state pensions decline.

And as for immigration – that great obsession of the British public, don’t expect miracles there either. Many of those who voted imagine that the 13 percent of the population that is immigrant will miraculously vanish.  But if ‘control’ over immigration means bringing numbers down to the ‘tens of thousands’, that won’t happen unless Britain withdraws from the single market.

Even then it will require even more draconian enforcement measures than those we already have to stop people coming and strip the rights from immigrants who are already here.  Expect tougher restrictions, curtailment of rights, exclusionary practices.  Expect an escalation of immigration raids, deportations, detention, ID checks etc, so our newly-independent nation can make that distinction between insiders and outsiders, natives and aliens, absolutely clear.

We might also expect an increase in street-level violence as the openly fascistic and belligerent chauvinists who welcomed Brexit see their hatreds legitimized.   There is also likely to be more anti-immigrant scapegoating as ever-more embittered sectors of the population watch the economy nose-dive  and their Brexit dreams turn sour.  We can expect an increase in verbal and physical attacks on people of colour and people with foreign accents who aren’t ‘like us.’

One of the great lies of the Brexit campaign was the notion that a post-Brexit government would welcome immigration from outside the EU – a promise that ignored decades of legislation intended to prevent entirely that outcome.  No one should hold their breath and expect this phony cosmopolitanism to be realised any time soon.

This is what we voted for on Thursday, even if we didn’t know it, thanks to a reckless gamble carried out by the most useless and destructive prime minister in the history of the country, a PR man who epitomises the arrogance and fecklessness of the British ruling class.

Some historical tragedies and catastrophes are not chosen but are inflicted by others. Like an invasion by a foreign army, say.  Others are the result of specific decisions taken from a set of options and possibilities that were also available.  The British public did not have to do what it did on Thursday, and I suspect that historians in the future will ponder for many years over the massive wound that the electorate inflicted on itself, and will struggle to understand rational reasons for that choice.   Some have described the triumph of Brexit as a victory of the ‘quiet people’ against arrogant Brussels ‘elites’.  Others have characterized it as a rebellion against the ‘establishment’ in this country.

Some sections of the left have seen Brexit as a revolt against neoliberalism and austerity. Never mind that the EU didn’t dictate the austerity policies inflicted on the country by two extremist Tory governments that used the 2007/08 crisis as a pretext for an all-out class war and an assault on the welfare state.   Never mind that many of the newspapers and politicians who supported that process are also part of the ‘establishment’ and the ‘elite’ that supported Brexit.

As anti-establishment rebellions go,  this was the political equivalent of shooting yourself in the head, or wrenching the wheel of a truck because you don’t like the direction of travel, simply in order to drive it off a cliff.

Of course there are many who don’t believe this, who think that Britain has recovered its national ‘destiny’ – as if there is such a thing.  The Daily Express – a paper that would have fitted comfortably into Nazi Germany, if you substitute the word ‘migrant’ for ‘Jew’ celebrated the triumph of its ‘glorious crusade’ today.

Brexiters may raise their glasses and jeer and tell me and others to leave. the country – I expect that we will hear a lot more of this kind of talk in the months and years to come.   Lexiters may dream of a brave new world of internationalist struggle, but I see nothing good whatsoever about the decision that was taken on Thursday and the politics that made it possible.

‘ Make good choices, ‘ Jamie Lee Curtis tells her teenage daughter in Freaky Friday.  On Thursday, the British electorate made a very bad choice indeed. Some of those who made it will be dead before these dreams and fantasies come crashing down.

The tragedy is that millions of people who didn’t make that choice will also pay for it, and will remain trapped inside a country that is now locked into a very bleak trajectory of conflict, disintegration, bitterness and anger that will dominate its politics for decades, and is likely to transform the country into something far nastier than many of us once thought possible.