Notes From the Margins…

Taking Our Country Back: Brexit and the Seeds of Hate

  • June 27, 2016
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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:

[stextbox id=”alert”]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.[/stextbox]

[stextbox id=”alert”]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.[/stextbox]

[stextbox id=”alert”]Getting my nails done when a man pops his head in the door & shouts at the therapists “you lot better fuck off home” aarggh![/stextbox]

[stextbox id=”alert”]In the aftermath of #Brexit, neighbors we’ve never spoken to before confront us with ” Do you even speak English? #PostRefRacism[/stextbox]

[stextbox id=”alert”]Gloucester : ‘this is England, foreigners have 48 hours to f**k right off. Who is foreign here? Anyone foreign?’ [/stextbox]

[stextbox id=”alert”]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.[/stextbox]

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.

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  1. Nigel Hunt

    27th Jun 2016 - 10:39 am

    We went shopping in Boston yesterday to the eastern European food shops, and had a meal in a Lithuanian restaurant. Very much enjoyed showing that the British can be pro-European. On the other hand, the result of the vote has impacted significantly on my identity. I no longer want to be associated with the English to the extent that I have lost all interest in going to watch England play Iceland!

  2. Jen Wates

    27th Jun 2016 - 2:12 pm

    Thank you for highlighting this catastrophic aspect of Brexit – I was afraid before, but am now utterly horrified, and determined to fight back for our hard-won civilisation and culture of welcome. What can we do?

  3. Andrew

    27th Jun 2016 - 2:56 pm

    If one quickly reads through your essay – without giving it too much critical analysis – one finds oneself nodding approvingly at your exhortations that we should love our neighbour as our friend, whilst tut-tutting at the egregious examples you give of thuggish, racist behaviour.

    And the ‘common thread’ throughout your article, ironically-enough entitled ‘Taking our country back,’ is that you never ask ‘Why’?
    ‘Why’ do some sections of our populations feel so angry?

    Could it be that in the UK – as in so many European countries – the locals feel disenfranchised and ignored by an uncaring political and business elite whose allowance of wholesale immigration was to pursue their narrow agenda of demographic change (for party-political advantage, as in the Blair/Brown years) and commercial advantage, (as in the case of cheaper wages and a pliable workforce sought by factories and farmers, for example), throughout Europe?

    Might it also be that locals feel disadvantaged and discriminated-against when it comes to such things as hospital care, social housing and the provision of utilities?
    (Here in Athens, this morning, I spoke to an unemployed Greek woman (who cannot find work at anything other than slave wages…wages driven down by the abundance of immigrant labour, whether you care to acknowledge that economic fact-of-life or not), who attended a public hospital the other day, to find herself only one of three Greek women in a large waiting room of apparently-immigrant folk.) Yes, the ‘niqabs’ ‘hijabs’ and ‘burqas’ probably gave them away.
    What angered the Greek lady was the fact that she had to pay for both her consultation and medication – despite living on a pittance of ‘Social Security’ monies – whereas the immigrants did not.
    (And, you should also know, Greek citizens receive this tiny monthly sum – deliberately and constantly slashed by EU/German dictate in pursuit of ‘internal devaluation’ – for a period of only 12 months after losing their job.)
    After that, they are on their own…which is why you see men and women, young and old, scavenging through rubbish bins looking for food.
    They don’t receive housing benefit or help with utilities, either.

    Compare the above treatment of it’s own citizens with what Greeks witness immigrants receiving:
    Free housing
    Free hospitalisation
    Free medicines
    Free utilities, (electricity, water, etc)
    Free help from foreign NGO’s (‘non’-governmental organisations – IF you believe that cover story).
    And more…

    Is it any surprise that Europe’s ethnic citizens feel discriminated against in their own land?

    Of course, you might say that ‘two wrongs do not make a right’…but it has been the failure of those who claim to ‘govern’, as well as the convenient Nelsonian-eye of those who purport to impartially and truthfully comment, to allow legitimate discussion and criticism of migration that has led to this pent-up explosion of anger and invective.

    Is it any surprise that the ethnic citizens of the UK should want to ‘take their country back’?
    (Which, I suspect, is not what you meant at all…)

    Until you – and other commentators – throw your columns open to a fair and balanced appraisal of the day-to-day reality, experienced by both Europeans and immigrants alike, instead of comforting your readers with an emollient mixture of soothing metropolitan-elite lullabies and balm, the tensions and anger will only grow.
    And, yes, they will be exploited by extremists.

    It is often said that we, the ‘hoi-polioi’, get the government we deserve; i.e. the government that our often-apathetic political nature delivers to us.
    That perhaps being so, it behoves us all – especially those who would seek to commentate and inform, such as you – to ensure that the public get to read a broadly-balanced narrative, and not the (dare I say it?) propaganda that merely chimes and supports our own panglossian, Utopian view of the world.

    Might I suggest that a reading of this Guardian article will make my points far more eloquently?

    • Jenifer

      27th Jun 2016 - 4:25 pm

      Actually I think a lot of people including Matt have acknowledged that there is justified anger at the dispossession, which urgently needs addressing…this was cynically exploited by the Brexiteers and sadly, there will be great disappointment that their promises won’t be fulfilled – we must somehow join together to deal with this.

    • Matt

      28th Jun 2016 - 6:59 am

      A great deal of fakery here, which despite its seeming nuance and attempt to be ‘broadly balanced’, might just as easily have been written by a member of LAOS or Golden Dawn. Having spent some time with migrants and refugees in Greece before the crisis began, I don’t even begin to recognize the picture of their lives that you paint. Most of them never wanted to be in Greece in the first place, but were not allowed to leave it. They received nothing for free, let alone housing, except some medical assistance from MSF and other NGOs, mainly because nothing else was available. They were ruthlessly exploited by Greek employers, lived for the most part in absolute squalor in shantytowns or shared flats – or the street. They were routinely subjected to vicious violence not only from the police but by Golden Dawn fascists. They were even shot by their employers when they tried to claim backpay – and have since been failed by the Greek justice system that acquitted those responsible. Many of them had endured hell on earth only to find themselves trapped in a country that did not want them. Many of them had spent years in detention, in some of the worst immigrant detention facilities in Europe.

      Many of them, for example the ones I met living in the hills above Igoumenitsa were also ‘scavenging through rubbish bins looking for food’ – and all that was before the Troika subjected Greece to a brutal ‘austerity’ program that has reduced many Greeks to a similar state of penury. And you still have the gall to blame migrants for this? You should be ashamed of yourself. Instead of recognizing the combination of geopolitics and neoliberal austerity economics that has reduced both migrants and Greeks to a state of nearly mutual misery – while simultaneously enabling the scapegoating of the former – you prefer to rehash stale old fascist cliches about foreign usurpers (in niqabs, hijabs and burqas naturally) versus ‘ethnic Europeans’ and talk claptrap about ‘an emollient mixture of soothing metropolitan-elite lullabies and balm’ in order to not-so-subtly legitimize the violence and racism that I have condemned in the UK – and which, as you probably know, is far more serious in Greece and has been for some time.

      Yes it is true that the lethal cocktail of the refugee crisis, neoliberalism and austerity – promoted by uncaring governments which have no more respect for their own working classes than they do for migrants – has helped create a toxic and combustible atmosphere in which immigrants can be scapegoated and racism can flourish, but you are making a very different argument, aren’t you – in your attempt to portray ‘ethnic Europeans’ as the victim of this process. As for ‘panglossian, Utopian view of the world’, I shall treat that with the contempt it deserves, and simply point out that intellectually dishonest Daily Mail-style analysis such as yours is far more likely to be ‘exploited by extremists’ than anything I could say.’

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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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