Notes From the Margins…

Twilight in Brexitland

  • September 18, 2017
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Yesterday evening I shared a horrific post on Facebook about a tetraplegic woman whose disability benefits have just been cancelled, and has just been summoned to a job interview by her local job centre.  As shocking as it was, this dreadful decision was a fairly typical example of the cruelty and incompetence that has been repeated again and again under the brutal sanctions regime introduced by successive Coalition and Tory governments.  Most of the commenters were as outraged as I was, but there were also messages like this:

No shame when it comes to the white British benefits office. Maybe if she was immigrant that’s might of made a differance (sic).

It’s deeply depressing to know that someone took advantage of such an awful tragedy to express such thoughts.    Once upon a time I might have written off such comments as a occasional freak intervention from some semi-literate racist nurturing their Nazi memorabilia in some dank basement somewhere.   But such interventions are not occasional and they are not from the fringes.

They are all over the place.  You can find them, in below-the-line comments sections on any online forum that has anything to do with immigration – or not.  When a Frenchwoman living in Kent announced last week that she was leaving the UK because of racism and xenophobia, her comments section was sprinkled with racist and xenophobic comments and jeering invitations to go back home if she didn’t like it.

There is a lot more where that came from, and a lot worse too.  Twitter is seething with hatred of this kind, whether directed at foreigners. immigrants, Muslims or people of colour.   Diane Abbott gets hundreds if not thousands of such messages everyday. Gina Miller has been threatened with gang rape, lynching and acid attacks simply because she tried to ensure that Parliament had a say in the Brexit negotiations.

What’s happening on social media is also happening on the streets.  In July this year the Independent reported that incidents of race and faith-based attacks rose by  23 percent in the eleven months since the referendum –  from 40,741 to 49,921.    These incidents included acts of physical violence, acid attacks and verbal insults.  There are undoubtedly many more, since many victims of verbal attacks don’t go to the police.

What is striking about so many of the incidents that are recorded is that – like the comments and tweets on social media – many of their perpetrators clearly feel emboldened, empowered and legitimized by the referendum result.   They  feel their time has come, and some of them are clearly dreaming of some kind of ethno-nationalist reckoning in which all the people they don’t like ‘go home’ – even if this country is their home.

Once upon a time some of these people might have felt ashamed to say what they’re thinking; now they don’t.  And why should they?  When Gina Miller said she might have to leave the country, Arron Banks’s Leave.EU – a mainstream lobbying group – merely laughed and tweeted that it hoped other ‘liberals’ would go with her.  Why would people feel any reservation about expressing hostility to immigrants when politicians boast of their ability to turn the UK into a hostile environment?  When ‘commentators’ can tweet about ‘final solutions’ and call refugees ‘cockroaches’ and still get a slot on the Jeremy Vine Show?  Isn’t it all just free speech?

Every week and sometimes everyday, the Home Office – an institution which currently embodies everything that is most malignant about the British state and society – displays how hostile it is by deporting or threatening to deport another immigrant or group of immigrants.

Meanwhile politicians um and ah, or shake their heads about the public’s ‘concerns’.   Some, like the iniquitous and loathsome fraud Boris Johnson, mutter darkly about ‘dual allegiances’.  When they’re caught out deporting tens of thousands of students using false language tests, they don’t bat an eyelid.   When it’s found that their own estimates of students who ‘overstayed’ their visas are wildly over the mark, they just change the conversation and boast of their ability to keep more people out.

Left-of-centre politicians aren’t always much better.   Some talk of the need to exclude immigrants in order to win votes in their constituencies or prevent exploitation or the undercutting of British workers by migrant workers.  Others, like the dreadful Frank Field, celebrate the draconian proposals in the Home Office’s outline document for a post-Brexit immigration policy.

Few pause to wonder where all this is leading us.  It’s a truism to observe that you only stand a chance of curing yourself of an illness if your illness is actually diagnosed and recognised, and right now we are becoming  a sick society – sick with xenophobia, anti-migrant paranoia and unacknowledged racism hidden behind discussions about ‘culture’ and ‘numbers’ and ‘social cohesion.’  We slowly but inexorably poisoning our society with our own fears, prejudices and hatreds.   We are becoming mean, vindictive, callous, bitter and aggressive, constantly whining about what immigrants have supposedly done to us without thinking through what we are doing to them – or to ourselves.

Not only are our politicians ignoring and even pandering to these sentiments, but the government is actually instrumentalising the Home Office to act on them and turn them into policy.   We didn’t get to this situation overnight, and the referendum is by no means uniquely responsible for it.    But there is no doubt that in the last eighteen months, the UK has become a deeply unpleasant and threatening place for many foreigners and immigrants – and for many who simply look or sound foreign – and it may get a lot worse unless we can stop it.

So we need to recognize how serious this is, and we need to act.  The tendencies that have been unleashed these last eighteen months do not express the majority sentiments of the population, but too many of those who don’t share them have not condemned them – or have not argued forcefully against the arguments that foreigners and immigrants are responsible for the social problems of 21st century Britain.  Such arguments aren’t even restricted to the right – I’m constantly coming across them from sections of the left – albeit wrapped up in a veneer of progressive politics and concern for the working class.

We need really major mobilisations to counter these developments.   We need to make the positive case for immigration and diversity and we need to make it loudly.   We can’t pretend that we are too British and too intrinsically decent to descend into a racist and xenophobic swamp.  We can, because any society can.

We need the famous silent majority to stand up for the kind of society we have begun to build –  a society that is comfortable with diversity and open to the world, where foreigners are welcomed, not considered the enemy.  We need to push the xenophobes and racists back to the fringes and restore the shame that once forced them to keep their bitterness and rage to themselves.

Because if we can’t do this, then we will be complicit, and we will also be trapped perhaps for decades, by the dangerous forces that have been unleashed, and which will leave few people unscathed if things proceed along their present course.


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  1. markl

    19th Sep 2017 - 3:21 pm

    Oh Matt I have to take issue with the general theme and some points in this post of yours.
    i don’t recognise the picture you are painting of the UK becoming a 21st century version of Nazi Germany or Uganda full of racists and xenophobes.
    i don’t believe that the views expressed by sad people sitting alone on their computers in their darkened attic bedrooms is a fair representation of UK society as a whole.
    Can i just point out that its not just Gina Mille and Dianne Abbott who get online abuse. As i understand it every person in public life get it.
    Just because some sad dick gets to express extreme views on J. Vine show does not mean the UK public is like that. TV programs probably search out such people to make TV programmes. – I suspect that anybody who got up and shouted red was green and should be renamed something else would get on a TV program.
    the problem with the rise in race attacks you quote is that just as the current figure is low as people may not report the attack applies to the base figure as well, if not more so. So the absolute figures that can be used as an indicator of crimes, you cant use them to determine a trend.
    Migrants have always had it tough in a new country – it might not be right but its true. we don’t have the amount of prejudice we used to have when boarding houses put up signs saying no dogs no Irish no..
    Matt please, surely we want to be grateful for the country we have and the way we live. we want to be grateful we are not living in other parts of the world where ethnic cleansing is/has being performed.
    This country has always welcomed immigrants and now we don’t have the

    • Matt

      19th Sep 2017 - 4:01 pm

      Fair enough then Mark, you take issue. You think I’m painting a picture of a glass half empty, but I think you’re painting it as way too full. This ‘sad people sitting alone on their computers’ thing simply does not describe the extent of what is taking place, or the viciousness of it, or the sense of entitlement that comes with the current upsurge of abuse.

      Gina Miller and Diane Abbott are not just abused. They are racially abused in the most vile way. Leave.EU – a mainstream lobbying organisation – did not specifically abuse Gina Miller, but when she was threatened with acid attacks, it effectively celebrated it. I don’t understand the point you are making about the stats, which clearly demonstrate a marked increase in verbal and physical attacks since the referendum.

      You entirely ignore my point about the mainstreaming of xenophobic and anti-migrant hostility by newspapers, media commentators and politicians. Well ok, maybe you don’t believe this is happening. But the idea that all this due to the fact that ‘migrants have always had it tough in a new country’ is an astonishing description of what is happening, and really does not describe the new hostility that many EU migrants have experienced after living in this country for decades, in some cases.

      Read ‘In Limbo’ and you can hear what they’re saying.

      My writings on this subject – in books and in other fora – have always been based on recognition that no country can ever take its progress for granted in these matters. Any society, in a given set of circumstances, can become a society that defines itself through exclusion and victimisation of people deemed to be outsiders. All the trends are there in the UK right now, and the kind of complacency you exhibit does nothing to make me think otherwise. No, ‘ethnic cleansing’ is not taking place here, but no one said it was.

      Nor has this country ‘always welcomed immigrants’ – immigrants have often had to fight for their place in this society. Blanket statements like yours simply erase an entire tradition of popular and state racism. Nevertheless I am ‘grateful’ for the progress we have made towards a multiethnic society, and I don’t want to see it rolled back and destroyed.

      That’s why I will continue to warn of the dangers when I see them. And if this country really is as decent as you say it is, now is the time to prove it, by driving the racists and xenophobes back into their swamp, not by emitting bromides about how wonderful we are.

  2. Jenifer Wates

    19th Sep 2017 - 4:11 pm

    Thank you very much Matt Carr – you have spelled out the utterly distressing situation very well, and convincingly to me (if not to Marki) because I feel it too. Ashamed to be British if this is what Britishness means post-referendum. And ashamed of the pain we are causing to so many worthy people who have contributed so much. But what can we do?

    • Matt

      20th Sep 2017 - 11:29 am

      Well there are conversations to be had Jenifer, and campaigns to get involved in, both locally and nationally. I’m helping organise one which might interest you. Details at:

  3. David Pearson

    21st Sep 2017 - 12:18 pm

    This is good to read, Matt. As you rightly say, what we do negatively as a country affects not only those to whom the aggression is directed, but to the perpetrators themselves. Hatred corrupts the hater, until the hatred itself becomes habitual and self-gratifying. This feeds the self-delusion that something productive is being done, that some kind of ‘cleansing’ is taking place, with the implication that somehow the ‘cleanser’ is superior to those they are trying to intimidate…
    Thanks for info. about your campaign, too.

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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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