It is an uncontroversial and inconvenient truth that there has been a rise in racist incidents in a post-Brexit climate that has nurtured anti-immigrant sentiment. The Independent recently gave the most detailed account of this rise, reporting on a database of over 500 racist post-Brexit incidents. As is to be expected with crimes so culturally and morally repugnant, the pointed finger of blame was out in full wag, but as is also often the case, the culprit is never simply the individual. The Institute of Race Relations responsible for the report concluded: “If a hostile environment’ is embedded politically, it can’t be a surprise that it takes root culturally,” whilst suggesting that “Theresa May helped to create the hostile environment that paved the way for post-referendum racism.” They single out a 2012 interview from the then Home Secretary in which May calls for this ‘hostile environment’ to be created for ‘illegal immigrants.’
But why must we accredit May with manipulation powers beyond her scope, powers that extend to a few hundred incidents out of millions of Brexit voters, in a climate where racism and opportunism have convened disturbingly. Try as we might to connect Brexit rhetoric to individual actions, the credulous, ill-educated lower classes – as some steadfast Remainers might characterise them – are still not sufficiently stupid to turn ‘go home or face arrest’ into a mandate that compels them to actually go out and threaten people in public. There is no justification for patently racist behaviour – so why are we giving bigots even a sniff of an excuse?
The rhetoric that marked the Brexit campaign did not convince otherwise tolerant people to engage in racist behaviour. The worst that the Brexit campaign can be accused of is a lack of clarity, direction and control in the post-referendum climate, including the uncertainty around the status of EU nationals. But those who are brazen enough to shout abuse at strangers in public, engage in threats or enact physical violence on the basis of perceived racial difference were likely already afflicted with such poisonous beliefs. The Brexit rhetoric may have galvanised anti-immigrant sentiment in opinion polls and public discourse, but it is a stretch to imply that it created abusive racists instead of providing them with a timely excuse to indulge in their bigotry. This adds to the worrying pattern of ironing over the agency of the individual, the unit that the notion of personal and legal responsibility was designed for, the unit supposedly imbued with the free will to make their own choices, for better or worse. Individuals, with all their biases, prejudices and penchants for tribalism, are entirely responsible for their actions and words.
If we look at the details of specific incidents, it becomes clear that we shouldn’t give the Brexit campaign the compliment of having such motivating influence. The report showed that incidents included “racist abuse from children as young as ten.” Could it be any clearer that the hostile environment that paved the way for racist hatred was an environment already in full bloom, reverberating through families and communities who felt most impacted by immigration policies. Either the Brexit campaign is not to blame for these unfortunate classroom incidents or ten-year-olds paid much more attention to the referendum news than we’d expect.
The crowd that marched down a street in London chanting “First we’ll get the Poles out, then the gays!” most clearly indicate that it was not the politicians that galvanised racism, but that deep and long-held bigotry surged along with the rise of grassroots politicking. As far as I’m aware, the sloganized rhetoric that marked the Brexit campaign comprised of no official stance on the status of gays in the country, yet homophobic hatred abounded as the opportunists took to the platform that Brexit constructed for them. It is disheartening that of the voices that Brexit has amplified – from across the political spectrum and throughout the class strata – hateful ones will always ring out the loudest.
Hearteningly, the most gripping nationwide political conversation for many years, one that lead to the highest turnout (72%) and the biggest political mandate ever to be voiced, brought the seemingly outdated pro-democratic liberal mind-set to the fore in the form of the ‘Trigger Article 50 Now’ campaign by Spiked magazine. The activists calling for democracy and calling for it now could even be faintly heard chanting slogans in the background as May made her first speech from downing street as prime minister. No noise as faint has ever sounded more inspiriting. For all the time lamentations and celebrations, Brexit has opened up a dialogue about democracy, accountability, internationalism, open borders and free-market policy that has for too long only echoed meekly through the house of lords, in the boardrooms of Brussels and in the minds of the ineffectual bureaucrats and technocrats that reside there.
But it is much easier to blame May and Brexit’s luminaries than it is to confront the sour truth that a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment is created in an environment where fractured communities and the disenfranchised are looking for someone to blame and find a fitting scapegoat on their doorstep. But such disdain for tory politicians is now commonplace, continuing to ring out in an arena that rewards it for the thoughtless populist nonsense it is. This is a socio-political climate where otherwise politically disengaged people assume default lefty posturing and capitalise on the surging exchange of ideas. These are the people who need not think about the complexities of the conversation that must be had on open-border policies or on the horrific migrant deaths in the Mediterranean that have resulted from the EU’s ring-fenced free movement zone, one that discriminates at the expense of African migrants. But it’s tantamount to trendy to be frothing-at-the-mouth hateful of everything the Tories touch and to denounce Brexit as if there were not a single liberal tenet grounding the leave vote.
The reality is that there are still too many eligible voters who just aren’t interested in the musings of the political class on either side. Over a quarter of potential voters did not turn out to vote. The white working class electorate is fed up with a fractured labour, rightly unnerved by Corbyn’s principled but scarcely pragmatic approach. Equally, there are scores of disinterested people who don’t much care what Theresa May writes on the side of a campaign bus or what Farage zealously croaks on Newsnight. Don’t give these pandering politicians the credit or the compliment of having a coherent political message or impactful political influence.
You don’t have to agree with anti-immigration sentiment, varying in coarseness along the right-wing, to notice the self-sabotaging stupidity on the left when it comes to immigration policies. As an unedifying list of migrant-related crime across Europe grows ever longer, as Merkel tentatively whispers sentiments of what must be titanic regret, Corbyn fails to persuade us that all of those coming to establish their livelihoods here in Britain are engineers and nurses just like you and me. The reality of failed integration across communities from Glasgow to Rotheram has hidden itself remarkably well from a man so engaged in grassroots campaigning. In bloated communities warring within themselves over their political and personal identities, anti-immigration sentiments turned nasty are an unedifying sign of the plight of those who truly feel there is no party left to represent them.
Yet people still raise eyebrows and wring hands voraciously, wondering how on earth multiculturalism and integration hasn’t taken hold in a society with such low social mobility and a deepening class chasm. We can’t even abate the advance of home-grown class hatred that has been laid bare post-brexit, as liberals construct a world in which it is a virtue to be so blindingly out of touch with a voting populous that represents majority British public opinion. We’re trying to unite immigrants with the people of already disenfranchised places, and doing it on a playing field that pits those with degrees against those without, that re-energises the north-south divide and ring-fences London’s internationalist intelligentsia off from the roaring underbelly of the anti-establishment-elsewhere. With a parochial mindset so rife, did we really expect our naïve multiculturalist dreams to come to faultless fruition? The saddening truth is that both these racist incidents and the continuing migrant crime-spree in Europe override platitudes about ‘them’ being just like ‘us’. Some of them are evidently better than us, and are far from racist and parochial, and some of them much worse.
The irony runs clear then, as the commenteriat middle class see themselves as planets away from the uncouth Brexiters they love to denigrate. They fail to understand how those they despise so much could harbour equal hatred for those immigrants they too feel so incompatible with. They wouldn’t so much as share a taxi fare with a Brexiter, but can’t understand why someone would be reluctant to share their communities with immigrants! The often cited anti-immigration rationale for Brexit continues to be no surprise, especially in a society that all too often places ‘cultural authenticity’ above secular, democratic, liberal human rights, leading to segregation and alienation for those separated.
Even whilst tolerance on all sides seems illusive, the subtle insistence that racists were motivated into their hatred by Brexitese marks a much more alarming decay of responsibility. It cheapens deplorable racism with trickles of excuses. It unites misguided ten year olds and repulsive homophobes under one racist banner. It demonstrates that our focus is both myopic and misplaced, as we obsess over the horrific acts of a few individuals instead of address the genuine concerns of non-violent, tolerant people who are rightly concerned with immigration’s impact on their livelihoods. It turns a small mob of racists into the mob, defining the collective voice of 17 million voters with the hateful characteristics of a few.