Today is the 5th anniversary of the Brexit referendum. I remember it as the day I was aggressively told I was ‘not English’ by a Leave-supporting woman, as I stood outside a polling station in a sleepy Devon town – the first time in a lengthy life (as a white person in England) that I had experienced an ethnic slur, and one of several moments of political, racial and gender aggression which I witnessed that day. It was one week after the assassination of the Labour MP, Jo Cox, by a far-right extremist shouting ‘Britain first’, which was effectively the theme of Boris Johnson’s Vote Leave.
In this intimidating atmosphere, thousands of Europeans, black people, gays and others suffered worse verbal and physical abuse, as hatreds of all kinds recorded dramatic spikes which continued in the aftermath of the narrow 51.9/48.1 per cent Leave victory. ‘We voted to send you home’, was the message heard by many ethnic-minority and foreign-born residents, even doctors and nurses trying to help sick white Britons. If they had not won, the UK would likely have experienced – if not an organised insurrection – some of the political violence which the USA saw as Trump faced final defeat on January 6th.
Airbrushed from history?
Fast forward five years, and this hostility is airbrushed out, unsurprisingly, of official commemoration and also, more surprisingly, at least partially from academic commentary. In a Guardian op-ed, Anand Menon and Paula Surridge of the UK in a Changing Europe research programme correctly write (of Vote Leave’s slogan ‘Take Back Control’) that ‘for many voters, “control” was not an end in itself but a means to more substantive objectives’. But they fail to mention that the most important of these objectives – the prime meaning of control in Leave propaganda, tabloid Brexitry and Leaver public opinion alike – was immigration control.
Indeed 23 June 2016 was the culmination of almost half a century of Powellite racial nationalism in the Conservative Party as well as the far right, and specifically of a decade of Faragism which – fusing Europhobia with anti-immigration politics – had forced the Cameron government both to adopt a hopelessly unrealistic immigration target and to promise an in-out EU referendum. In the 2016 campaign itself, the mainstream Vote Leave, led by Johnson, Gove and the Labour MP Gisela Stuart and directed by Dominic Cummings, shamelessly borrowed Farage’s method and pumped out a billion Facebook messages, hyping the ‘threat’ of 76 million (Muslim) Turks coming to the UK, in the last week of the campaign, in a successful push to bring out racist ‘non-voters’.
The guiding thread
Following today’s commentary, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was all in the past, and Brexit has merely become a pointless nationalist exercise in economic self-harm which is aggravating benighted Unionists in Northern Ireland. But anti-immigrant racism has been the guiding thread of the five years of Brexit and the authoritarian nationalist regime to which it led. Why were first Theresa May and then Boris Johnson so adamant that the UK leave the Single Market as well as the EU itself? Above all, this was because Leave had identified the EU’s Freedom of Movement as the cause of immigration, and no Tory leader was prepared to defy this lesson of the referendum result.
If the UK had remained within the Single Market, today’s betrayals of fishermen, farmers and Unionists would simply not be happening. But after 2016 the Tory party became a radical Brexit party, hostile to all accommodation with the EU. By 2018, the two newish forms of racism, anti-Muslim and anti-European sentiment, which Farage had used to build UKIP, became Johnson’s own lodestars as he took advice from Steve Bannon on how seize the Tory crown. With his calculated ‘letterboxes’ column he first signalled to the Islamophobic Tory selectorate and then, doubling down on his remarks, to the wider electorate. In the 2019 election, he and Gove both expressed open hostility to Europeans in the UK, which they had studiously avoided in 2016 when, indeed, together with Stuart and Priti Patel, they formally promised EU citizens that nothing would change in their position.
Coming to ugly fruition
On this fifth anniversary, we are about to witness the consequences of that particular lie, ultimately a more serious one than the notorious ‘£350 million for the NHS’. Johnson, Gove, Patel and Stuart made no protest when May decided not to implement their promise; May’s Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has confirmed just this month that none of them came to see her to ask her to realise it. Instead, after leaving Europeans in limbo for 3 years, the Government introduced the Settled Status scheme; it has received over 5 million applications but 2 million have been granted only provisional Pre-Settled Status, thousands have been refused altogether, and even those with full status have been denied a document to prove it. Worst of all, barely a week after Johnson piously commemorated Windrush Day (while still denying most of the victims the compensation they are supposed to have), an estimated 200,000 of the most vulnerable Europeans will be left out of the scheme on the 30th June cut-off date, opening up the increasing probability of a new Windrush tragedy down the line.
Some will see this as bureaucratic excess rather than racism. But racist hostility is not just a matter of the resentments of ignorant voters and the aggression of street thugs. It is a strategic tool of politicians like Johnson and Farage and media like the Mail, Express and Sun, and is institutionalised in systems like the Settled Status scheme. The Euro-Islamophobia which Vote Leave orchestrated in 2016 is coming to ugly fruition in the fate of marginalised EU citizens in 2021.
Promise of resistance
Before 2016, institutional racism in the UK as indeed across Europe was directed mainly at immigrants, asylum seekers and minorities of colour; now it is enveloping a much larger non-citizen population from European as well as wider backgrounds. The last 5 years have gone mainly the way of the Brexiters, but the growth of antiracism in the last year or so holds out the promise of resistance. Commentators assert that the Tories are waging a ‘culture war’ or ‘war on woke’, but the core of this is an attempt to deflect anti-racist momentum, i.e. anti-antiracism. This is where their increasingly all-enveloping nationalism draws popular support, especially among older voters, but it is also where it is most vulnerable from a concerted campaign by all those affected and their allies across British society.