We all know that phrase: ‘I’m not a racist, but…’, invariably followed by a deeply insensitive racist comment. It used to be a bit of a joke, something said by a grandparent who is out of touch with modern society.
Since the referendum result was announced, racism in Britain cannot be joked about any more. Against most predictions, the side which wants to isolate the United Kingdom from the rest of the continent won with a 4% margin, and Remain voters have been left wondering where the fierce anti-European sentiment has come from. Is it purely xenophobia, or are there subtler roots for our apparent dislike of our global neighbours?
A darker side
In the political and economic chaos of the last few days, a darker side of Britain has emerged. In the pre-Referendum week social media reacted with shock and disgust to the UKIP anti-immigration poster which eerily echoed Nazi propaganda, but that now seems like a minor scandal compared to the sudden outpouring of anti-immigration vitriol. Perhaps feeling vindicated by the majority vote, the right-wing group the English Defence League held a march in Newcastle demanding the repatriation of immigrants. A Polish Social and Cultural Association in West London had hate graffiti sprayed over its doors. The Mayor of London has appealed for calm after a reported surge in hate crimes. For British residents without a British passport, who were already feeling unwelcome and isolated by Leave rhetoric, these incidents have been deeply frightening.
Not everything is doom and gloom. Newcastle responded to the EDL with chants of ‘Refugees Welcome’ and ‘Nazis Out’. The Polish centre has been receiving cards and flowers from the local community. Still, the more sheltered parts of Britain are suddenly having to come to terms with a legacy of division and hatred which did not disappear after the 1980s, but just became less socially acceptable to vocalise.
It is easy to tar all Leave voters with the same brush, particularly for Remainers angry at the result of the vote. Leavers are accused of voting us out of Europe because they wanted to stop the free movement of people, because they did not like other nationalities, because they are xenophobic and tied to the days of Empire when Britain stood independent and proud while repressing much of the rest of the world. It is easy, and it is wrong.
We have learnt now, that the Leave campaign’s promises were hollow, immigration probably will not reduce, we will not get that £350m for the NHS, our economy really is suffering. But in the pre-Referendum battle, those promises were the ones which tapped into real fears and anxieties about the state of the UK. We know it’s no coincidence that far-right political movements have surged across Europe since the 2008 recession. When people feel that the established political order is no longer protecting their jobs, homes, health, or way of life, they look elsewhere for representation.
In the UK, welfare cuts and unemployment have hit the poorest sections of society first – who were also the people most fiercely targeted by the pro-Leave tabloids. The upper-middle classes inherit, by way of expensive educations, the confidence to second-guess and analyse political statements, and often deride other voters for failing to do the same, but not everyone has the time or the resources. People are not stupid or inherently racist for buying into the Leave campaign’s arguments; they are forming their opinions from their own experiences and the opinions of those around them, as we all do. It is no secret that the older voters, who did not grow up in a multicultural, globalised landscape and find it less comfortable than the young, were more likely to vote Leave, while areas with high education and income levels almost all voted Remain – look at Kensington and Chelsea, with a 69% In vote. Leave promised to ease the pressure on the welfare state by reducing money sent to the EU as well as by limiting immigration, and reduce the red tape of EU legislation to make it easier to succeed in business, all without damaging our trade partnerships – an enticing prospect, if you believe it will really happen.
The genius of the Leave campaign was that it managed to pin all our social and economic problems onto the EU, to target all the country’s dissatisfaction in that direction. Politicians will not admit that the country is in a state of rumbling anger at the status quo of inequality and social division because of the flaws in their own work – so they pin it onto our neighbours, channelling that disenchantment away from themselves towards a system which is foreign, hard to identify with, and whose machinations are complex and opaque even by the standards of international organisations. This goes some way to explaining the Scottish and Irish results, they have, in England, a closer neighbour at which they direct their anger and sense of underrepresentation.
So was the Leave vote a racist decision? Perhaps, for some. The divisions and intolerance of Britain today have now been given a platform and have risen to the surface. The scale of hatred among British people is not easy for the middle class to ignore any more – and it is obvious that racism is still very much a reality. Still, as a country, to tarnish the whole Leave bloc with the label of racists is to take the easy way out.
A vote to Leave was a vote to escape our current situation, whether or not the problems we face are truly caused by Europe or are part of a wider failure in the system. The idea that Britain is 52% racist is insulting for Leave voters, it is reductionist, and it is a cowardly way to avoid discussing the real problems behind the need for change. Remain and Leave voters alike need to accept that we cannot blame the xenophobic few for all our problems: the UK has real issues for which we are all responsible.
What do you think? Have your say in the comments below.