Notes From the Margins…

‘Foreigners Like You Have No Right to Interfere’

  • January 16, 2019
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Just after the referendum in 2016,  I got a message on this site from an anonymous fascist,  which I wish I’d kept.  The gist of it was that the people like me had lost, and that people like the writer were now going to take their country back.

The tone was  quietly triumphant and determined, and it was clear that the writer saw the referendum as the beginning of something much bigger.   I thought of that letter yesterday, when Professor Tanja Bueltmann posted the following screenshot on Twitter, listing the abuse that has been directed against her on Twitter, email and in person:

Most people who read this will be disgusted by the savage misogyny, violence, bigotry and racism and racism on display here, and it’s worth bearing in mind this is just abuse that has been directed against Bueltmann  for the last two weeks.

There are three main reasons why Dr Bueltmann was singled out like this.  Firstly, she is a courageous and extremely effective campaigner for EU citizens rights.  Secondly, she is German national, who has been living in the UK for many years.  And lastly she is a woman.

Anyone who has spent much time on Twitter knows that women who speak out against Brexit or happen to be on the left/liberal spectrum and speak about anything at all are frequently targeted with rape threats and comments about their physical appearance.

It’s tempting to attribute this litany of abuse to a few ‘few bad apples’ hiding behind their avatars, but just because it’s convenient doesn’t mean we should fall into that temptation.

Because insults like ‘traitor’, ‘EU traitor’, ‘foreign bitch’ and ‘Go to the EU if you love it so much’ have a political salience that goes way beyond a few sweaty keyboard warriors squatting in their dank basements.

In a country where newspapers depict high court judges as ‘enemies of the people’ and government ministers compare the EU to the Soviet Union and the Third Reich we can’t be entirely surprised if self-professed ‘patriots’ accuse their political opponents of treason and threaten them with death.

And if such opponents happen to be foreign and have the temerity to actually live here, they are clearly fair game in some people’s eyes.  After all, as a vox pop pointed out to Sky News yesterday, many immigrants don’t ‘enhance’ our country and are actually ‘bloodsuckers.’


The interviewee apologised for being ‘blunt’, but the Sky interviewer mollified him that it was ok.  And why not?  We are accustomed to describing immigrants as intruders and parasites who do nothing but freeload at our expense, and we have been doing it for some years now.

Back in 2015, the UN Special Envoy for Human Rights accused the British tabloid press of perpetrating  ‘ a vicious cycle of vilification, intolerance and politicization of migrants’, and it’s not only our newspapers.   There is a reason why Tory politicians accuse EU nationals of ‘jumping queues’ or describe them as ‘bargaining chips’, why Theresa May hailed the end of free movement as the greatest achievement of her withdrawal agreement.

The politicians who play this game know what they’re doing.  Sometimes it’s a calculated political strategy.  At other times it exudes from the same sense of British (English) superiority that led a ‘senior Tory’ recently to wonder why the Irish don’t ‘know their place.’

Many other people think foreigners in general should ‘know their place’,  and after Brexit they now feel able to express thoughts and ideas that were previously kept private.  You can see this sense of empowerment in the attacks on foreigners for speaking their own languages in public, in the increase in hate crime  since the referendum.

Once again, we can tell ourselves that it’s just a few extremists and lunatics.  We can hide behind meaningless and elusive statements like ‘not all Leavers are racists’ or ‘it’s not racist to be concerned about immigration.’

Look more closely at these attacks and you find the same refrains repeated over and over again ‘We voted for you to leave’,  ‘You need to speak in English, you’re in f***ing England’,  ‘ Why are you still here?’

To the right, the suggestion that Brexit has emboldened and legitimised xenophobes and racists is just another underhand Remain strategy.   To Lexiters, the idea that such behaviour is a product of  a reactionary ethnonationalist political project fuelled by imperial nostalgia and English exceptionalism doesn’t fit well with the image of Brexit passed on by John Pilger and so many others as a courageous anti-establishment rebellion.

Even when organisations like Stand Up to Racism and Stop Trump acknowledge the dangerous rise of the far-right, they tend to overlook the role of Brexit in facilitating it, or the centrality of Brexit to far-right/populist movements both here and abroad.

That needs to change, because we are in a real emergency here and it’s likely to get worse.   Already, post-Brexit economic stagnation, a powerless and disintegrating political class, a polarised and rudderless country, have created a breeding ground for fascism, as the popularity of the hatemongering grifter Tommy Robinson and the James Goddard ‘Westminster mob’ attest.

The treatment of Tanja Bueltmann is just one more example of an ongoing dynamic, in which the populist rebellion against the ‘dictatorship of Brussels’ and the ‘traitors’ who supposedly collude with it, overlaps with loathing of ‘immigrants’ who are already here.

I have the feeling that all this is pretty much what my anonymous correspondent had in mind when he wrote to me two and half years ago.  It was certainly not the ‘anti-racist Brexit’ that Socialist Worker called for today.

And now the beast is out of its corral, and we need to see it for what it is and find a way to put it back.

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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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