Why did voting to leave the EU give racism and xenophobia free reign on public sentiment?
My world, my vision, crashed a little a few days ago.
The UK’s population narrowly voted in favour of leaving the EU, and a well of racism and xenophobia burst open and poured onto the streets. People who have lived here for decades, or in some cases all their lives, have been told they aren’t welcome, to go home. “Foreigners” aren’t wanted. A friend who has lived in the UK for decades, and happens to have brown skin, was subjected to public racist abuse for the first time.
Some of you from outside the UK look on in bafflement. Why does voting to leave the European Union give racism and xenophobia free reign?
During the last few months, politicians have campaigned on whether to remain in the EU or to leave. Both sides made exaggerations; both sides stirred up fear. But the Leave campaign pushed things further. Several companies, including Nissan sued the Leave campaign over logos being used without permission – the companies involved actually supported Britain remaining in the EU.
The Leave Campaign was also widely criticised for claiming we send £350 million a week to the EU. It isn’t true, or even close, and various bodies, including the UK Statistics Authority said so. They continue to make this claim, right up to the last day. The day after the referendum, Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP (UK Independence Party) and the man who led the push for this referendum, said on television that it wasn’t true. When the interviewer challenged him he said that this was a mistake and that he didn’t make the claim.
In doing this, Farage was trying to distance himself from the official Vote Leave campaign, who he said, ostracised him. They had good reason to do so. On the same day as one of our MPs was murdered by a man shouting far-right slogans, Nigel Farage unveiled a poster of a queue of refugees that bore the slogan, “Breaking Point.”
This poster has been reported to police for inciting racial hatred. As well as being racist, the poster was misleading: the implication was that these refugees were about to pour into the UK, but the photograph was taken at Slovenia-Croatia border, not the entering UK. We have border control, and refugees cannot cross our borders in this way.
Then there’s another side to this. Back in the late 1970s, the UK voted in a Conservative government more right-wing than any we’d known in decades. They took away many workers’ rights and closed many coal mines, which had been government-owned and which had provided employment for decades. These areas have never fully recovered from the loss of the coal industry, with some families having been unemployed for generations. As the Political Economy Research Centre say in the article “Thoughts on the Sociology of Brexit“:
Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.
So we have in the UK many people who feel hopeless, and some of them want someone to blame.
Imagine this: if you feel hopeless and want someone to blame for it, and a politician offers you that someone, you’ve got half of what you want. You may still not have any hope, but at least you now don’t have quite so much self-hatred. Because until you had a specific person (or group of people) to blame, you often wondered if was your own fault.
When you went to the social security office and an official told you that you were not trying hard enough to find work (in a town with massive unemployment) or that you weren’t entitled to disability benefit because you could *probably make a sandwich or could *walk three feet or so, you felt shame.
As the government official asked you question after question, you felt fear.
And then, politicians tell you that if all these immigrants would stop pouring into our country and if we didn’t have to send money to some other countries–where these immigrants should be–then maybe, just maybe you are going to feel resentment.
When I close my eyes, I see a world where we love each other, where tolerance and respect win out over anger and hatred. I see a world where everyone has enough to eat, where every adult has fulfilling employment and every child has the education they need. I see a world where everyone has a home.
When I close my eyes, I see a world where the colour of your skin is of no more significance than the colour of your eyes, where the place of your birth has no more importance than its time of day. I see a world where you matter, whatever you look like, whatever your sexuality, whatever your abilities, whatever your health.
When I close my eyes, I see the world I’ve been dreaming of since I was a little girl.
That’s a lot of years to hold a vision, and sometimes that vision blurs. Sometimes it seems too much effort to hold it in mind; sometimes I grow tired and frustrated and feel like giving up.
Then something happens, and I realise that giving up is not an option. Unless I work for that world to happen, it never will. If I hope for someone else to make it happen, what does that say? It says I don’t care. It says I abdicate responsibility for my happiness to someone else.
And here’s the thing – when I expect someone else to make me happy, it never works.
When I close my eyes, if I do it to try to shut out the pain of others, I add to their pain. If I shut my eyes and mind, and simply blame those who blame, I add to the pain of the world.
On Friday, in frustration at the way politicians can tell lies or half-truths and then simply deny responsibility, I thought of starting a petition to parliament to make it illegal for politicians to lie. A friend on Facebook told me there was one already. It had been on the Petitions to Parliament website since January and had 20 signatures. Mine was 21. I have spent most of the weekend sharing this petition on social media and it now has almost doubled the 10,000 signatures needed for a response from the government. We’ll keep going till we get to 100,000, when it will be considered for debate in parliament.
Earlier today, poet, Fiona Owen posted this on Facebook:
I pledge myself to work even harder for the values that are dear to any civilised society: tolerance, hospitality, kindness, compassion, peace, care for the vulnerable. But I will not remain silent where their opposites are writ large. Silence favours the oppressors.
I join her in that pledge.
When I close my eyes, I will not look away. I will not close my heart.
Will you join us?
*Disclaimer: Please note that I am in no way suggesting that the people in the articles I have referred to have behaved in a racist way. I use these examples simply to show the extent to which officials have sometimes gone to deny people benefits they need to live.
Photo: Getty Images
This essay originally appeared on Yvonne Spence’s blog.
And thank you for sharing this!