Notes From the Margins…

Brexit: Springtime for Racists

  • February 03, 2020
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For anyone seeking inspiration in these dark times, I recommend the moving Storyville documentary My Italian Secret:  Italy’s Forgotten Heroes.  It tells the story of the Italian cyclist Gino Bartali and the Italians who saved more than 10,000 Jews from Nazi extermination during World War 2, by hiding them or smuggling them to safety.   Like Bartali himself, most of the interviewees were ‘ordinary people’ from all walks of life and from very different ideological and political persuasions, all of whom were equally modest about the courage and heroism that led them to risk their lives to save complete strangers.

These Italians all shared the belief, memorably expressed by one of the interviewees, that ‘we couldn’t see why people should be killed just for being a little bit different.’  This simple observation ought to go unquestioned, but there is a very real danger in the decaying democracies of the early 21st century that governments and electorates may not want people to killed for being ‘a little bit different’, but are nevertheless willing to tolerate the marginalisation and victimisation of difference in order to preserve hegemonic racial and national identities within their own borders.

Since the referendum, these tendencies have been particularly striking both in Trump’s America and in Brexit Britain.  Last week I was at my godchild’s birthday in Nottingham when his grandfather told me of a Brazilian neighbor who had just been  harangued in her local Lidl by a customer because she was speaking Portuguese on the phone in a supermarket queue.

This incident did not entirely surprise me.  Over the last four years there has been a constant stream of incidents like this, in which foreigners, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and people of colour have been subject to verbal and physical attacks in public places.  Statistics have shown a rise in reported hate crime since the referendum, both racial and gender-oriented, which has sometimes surged in response to key moments in the Brexit process. Many such incidents are not reported to the police, but emerge anecdotally, through social media and other fora.

Many of them contain the same language and assumptions: Foreigners are only ‘allowed’ to speak English in the UK.  This is ‘our’ country.  We voted for you to leave.  Go back to your hellhole, etc, etc.

These are some of the incidents that have I’ve become aware of in the last twenty-four  hours alone:

  • The two and half year-old daughter of a German woman was called a ‘Nazi’ by a mother at a playground because she spoke German to her own mother
  • At the village of Harbury in Oxfordshire, someone painted out the French twinned town Samois -sur- Seine
  • A group of Polish cleaners who clean holiday cottages was ordered by their employers not to speak Polish at work
  • A Romanian couple in Cornwall had their taxi vandalised three days running in the lead-up to Brexit Day.
  • This poster was posted in a Norwich tower block
  • A non-white British A&E doctor at St Thomas’ Hospital was racially abused while treating people who had injured themselves during the Brexit celebrations in parliament square

Go a little further back and you find images like this, from Blackheath South East London on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day:

It would be both  an exaggeration and an over-simplification to attribute these developments to the referendum, but it would also be dangerously naive and complacent to ignore the evidence that Brexit has given a new sense of emboldenment and entitlement to racists and xenophobes across the country.  Before 2016, it was difficult to imagine so many people having the confidence to tell someone in a public place that they are not allowed to speak their own language in the UK without fear of censure.

Brexit – and the language and messages of many of its leading exponents – has made these people believe that their time has come, and that ‘taking our country back’ means taking it back from foreigners and immigrants.  Politicians and the rightwing press have reinforced a sense of national/racial grievance and victimhood, in which the perceived differences of migrants – or simply the perceived difference of skin colour and religion – have been identified as cultural pollution or ‘invasion’.

Of course the authors of these messages will always deny that they intended anybody to be hurt by them, but when politicians like Farage complain about English not being spoken on the tube, or when Johnson accuses Europeans of ‘treating the UK like their own country’, or when newspapers pour forth a constant stream of hysterical headlines depicting migrants as parasites and cultural usurpers, you can’t be entirely surprised if someone further down the foodchain feels like bullying their neighbor or punching a Spanish woman on the tube.

In effect, Brexit has become a kind of springtime for racists.  It is the single biggest victory for the far-right in British history – not to mention the far-right outside Britain.  It has undermined hard won achievements in race relations and the treatment of minorities, and unleashed persecutory tendencies that will be difficult to contain.

It’s comforting to reduce all this to ‘ a few bad apples’ or social media rumour,  and deny the extent to which racism and xenophobia have become increasingly routine and normalised.  We are right to celebrate the Norwich tenants who publicly protested the fascistic Happy Brexit Day poster that went up in their building.  But we will not contain this poison unless we recognise where it came from, and treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

Few politicians are willing to acknowledge this.  The right, for obvious reasons, has no interest at all in taking responsibility for a phenomenon that they helped create.  In four years I have not heard a single Leave politician or voter acknowledge the new vulnerability that so many migrants and people of colour have expressed.  On the contrary, most of them seem more concerned with presenting themselves as victims by citing  the strawman argument that ‘all Leavers are racists’ than they are with denouncing the racists who are seeking to take their country back.

The left has not always been much better.  It’s far easier to denounce Trump or simply ‘stand up to racism’ than it is to acknowledge the extent to which the racism that we must now stand up to has been increasingly Brexit-related.

I can’t think of a single Labour politician, except for  Sadiq Khan ,who has acknowledged the extent of post-Brexit racism.

This needs to change – and quick.  Because the ‘cultural’ counter-revolution unleashed by Brexit has not ended by any means.  It will continue, and as legitimised hate tends to do – it will find continue to find new outlets,  in the disabled, in transgender people – in anyone perceived to be a ‘bit different.’

Unlike the Italians of World War 2, we aren’t looking at extermination, but the normalisation of attitudes and behaviour that – until recently – we considered unacceptable and beyond the pale.  Now, whatever happens in the next few years, it is incumbent on all of us to find a way to prevent this poison from spreading, to make it known to all those who want to ‘take our country back’ that they do not have exclusive ownership over it, and to stand together with our friends and neighbors, and to the strangers we have never met, and fight to make this country reflect the best of us, rather than the worst.

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1 Comment

  1. Mark

    3rd Feb 2020 - 10:25 pm

    Matt, typo, not boht, both. I presume.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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