I’ve been struggling to write this post ever since last Friday. There are too many things to say. This morning, however, all I want to say is this. The Leave campaign was fought and won, largely on the back of fears about immigration. People worried about immigration come from all sections of British society – including those who are more recent immigrants to this isle themselves. Not all of these views deserve to be called racist or even xenophobic, although they are often summarily dismissed as such. People are worried that there are not enough jobs to go round, not enough houses, not sufficient capacity in the NHS and other services. The country is ‘full-up’. Sharp practices on the part of some employers have meant that it is sometimes true that British people have lost out to cheaper workers from elsewhere. Unions that could show both groups that they lose out from this arrangement, and help fight a common cause against exploitation, are missing. A lack of ready access to any facts concerning immigration, jobs, and the economy, makes it difficult for people to assess the situation. Then, of course, there are the views that count as racism.
Perhaps like people everywhere, there is a xenophobic streak in British culture. I’m mixed race. My coat was flushed down the toilet at school every day for weeks for being ‘a Paki’. A school friend stopped playing with me and called me a ‘brown streak of shit’ after taking me home to meet her parents for the first time. On holiday with my best friend’s family, they derided the driver of a car in front for being ‘a proper Paki, one of the really dark-skinned ones’. The local church choir where I croaked a wobbly soprano through a brief religious phase, loudly stated ‘they didn’t want to sing at a wog wedding’ upon learning that the bride and groom were black. A co-worker once came in boasting that he’d smashed up a BMW on his way into work as it was a German car (ironically, he was clad head to toe in Adidas). A friend’s mixed-race, three year-old daughter, was called ‘a filthy mongrel’ by a group of lads in a passing car. A black friend reports that every single time he goes into the centre of the town where he lives, someone calls him ‘a nigger’. The Spanish friend told to ‘speak English’ in the local supermarket. The lady at the bus-stop who tells me that the town was a lot better before ‘our friends – you know who I mean’ arrived. The disproportionate amount of black and minority ethic people who die in UK police custody (yes, that’s a thing here too). I could go on.
There is a spectrum of views from rational fears about immigration, non-racist fears that are nevertheless misguided, and views that are actually racist or xenophobic. By lumping all these together as ‘racism’ and refusing – in some sense – to address them – the legitimacy of certain fears starts to confer legitimacy on those that are not.
It’s nonsense to think that the 52% of people who voted Leave are racist, but as many people have pointed out, those who are racist, including Britain’s small but significant far-right, now think that 52% of people agree with them, and as the rash of xenophobic attacks illustrate, are emboldened as a result. The National Police Chiefs’ Council states that there has been a 57% increase in reported hate crime since the EU referendum vote. Anecdotes shared online and in the press show that a number of people have taken ‘Leave’ to be, not (just) what UK should do with respect to the EU, but a command to anyone who is not white and English – including recent EU migrants, British Muslims, and others who are, or who are merely perceived as, ‘foreign’.
There is a well-known correlation between economic hardship and the rise of Fascism. (Presumably, not all people in Fascist societies were racist. Take note.) If economics experts are to be believed, leaving the EU has the potential to plunge the UK headlong into another recession. Moreover, promises made concerning immigration – and those implied, intentional or not – cannot be kept. Immigration will not immediately stop. ‘Foreigners’ will not immediately be deported. Conditions of austerity will not immediately lessen. Public services will not immediately improve. Employment will not immediately rise.
Fearful of such consequences, many people think the way forward is to ignore the results of the Referendum. As far as I can tell from the many analyses now doing the rounds, this would be both legal, and have precedent, given the ways in which various governments have used referendums on different occasions. There is also perhaps some moral grounds for such action, given that the country is split almost down the middle in its view on Europe, anecdotal evidence suggests at least some Leavers now regret their vote, and the lies peddled by the Leave campaign are now being revealed as such. But this is also a risky business. There is likely to be a racist backlash against such a move, the brunt of which would be borne by ordinary folks. It also promises to extinguish what little remaining trust there is in politicians, further increasing the power vacuum currently threatening to engulf Westminster.
The UK is in a serious double-bind. The politicians who got us into this mess – Cameron for holding this Referendum; Gove, Johnson and others who, seeing it as an opportunity to seize power, lied outrageously to the public for an outcome they seemingly didn’t believe would happen and didn’t actually want – are beyond contempt.
But as ordinary citizens, no matter which way we voted, or which class of people we belong to, or where in the country we live, our most important work now is to try and reach out to each other across the yawning chasms that have opened up beneath our feet. We need to do our utmost to stamp out racism where we see it, and not let racial abuse and harassment become normalised. But we also need to treat each other with kindness and respect. Zero tolerance of racism does not mean abusing online, anyone who voted to Leave. We need to talk to each other. Try to hear each other’s concerns. And the ‘others’ I am referring to here are our neighbours, our friends, our families, the shopkeepers, the people we pass in the street.
The picture I have painted here is, of course, the worst-case scenario. I do not mean that this will inevitably come to pass. Instead, the message here is a call to vigilance. Nip this thing in the bud before it properly gets going.
Let this not be the moment when the history books state that Fascism came to Britain.