I went to sleep on Thursday, June 23 on a continent, and I woke up Friday on an island. The country that I had lived in for three years, a place that had begun to feel like home, had voted to leave the European Union. And while friends, family members, and financial markets shared my shock, my reaction was also a deeply personal grief. A country that I had found welcoming, a country that recognized my civil partnership long before the country of my birth, had once again become a strange and estranging foreign land. The EU referendum reverberated through all levels of British politics, removed a prime minister, and upended the Labour Party. But the effect on British society, once an experiment in multiculturalism, could be even more disastrous.
From the start, the Leave campaign had racial implications. Motivated at least in part by a desire to end free migration from Europe into the UK, Leavers stressed the increasing numbers of “undesirable” Eastern European migrants in British cities and towns. Politicians also used the spectre of Turkey joining the EU (an uncertain possibility) to demonstrate the dangers of unchecked migration from an ever-expanding Europe. The campaign to leave was run by a host of Tories tripping over each other to be the next Prime Minister (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove) and the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage. The Conservatives let Farage do most of the racist heavy lifting while sitting back and talking about trade deals and economic opportunity. Just days before the referendum, Farage unveiled a billboard showing a long queue of Syrian refugees under the words “BREAKING POINT,” as if people looking for better economic opportunity and refugees bombed from their homes posed a threat to British society. Farage was not alone in his racist dog-whistling, former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, penned an op-ed in The Sun criticizing President Obama for backing the Remain campaign. Boris wrote that Obama’s decision was possibly rooted in the “part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire,” recalling Dinesh D’Souza’s accusation that Obama’s patrilineage instilled an anti-colonial opposition to Western culture.
The success of the Leave campaign left many worrying that the racist vitriol deemed politically expedient in the run up to the campaign would be difficult to contain in its aftermath. People had reason, it seems, to be worried. There is evidence that hate crimes have increased since the vote, including flyers calling Polish families “vermin” in Cambridgeshire, a 57% increase in calls to a hate crime reporting hotline, and dozens of witness accounts of racist verbal abuse. Here in Manchester, three young men were arrested after video of them telling a man to “go back to Africa” circulated on social media. Just days after the referendum, in an June 27 interview with Jonathan Rugman on Channel 4 News, Farage had to be asked four separate times to condemn the racist violence and threats. “The real prejudice has been the prejudice against anybody who dares to say that we shouldn’t be a part of the European Union,” he said.
Like most events in our electronically mediated era, this rise in hate has inspired a hashtag. #PostRefRacism documents incidents of racism post-referendum. This is not a newfound racism where there before had been none, of course. Over the last five hundred years, the British Empire has been responsible for exporting racist violence across the globe (a fact conveniently elided by Farage’s incendiary remark that June 23rd will be “our independence day”). Incidents of racial unrest are not uncommon in contemporary times, including the violent protests and riots in cities across England in the summer of 2011. What is significant about the current wave of hate is that it possesses the imprimatur of political legitimacy, derived as it is from “the will of the people.”
Readers in the United States should pay very close attention to the socio-racial dynamics at work in post-referendum Britain. As Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer has written elsewhere on Public Seminar, Brexit and the Trump campaign are part of larger feelings of distrust of political institutions in liberal democracies. With prominent Leavers presently backtracking on claims that money saved from the EU will be used to fund the National Health Service, or that immigration will be curtailed, it is clear that politicians have no plans to deal with the underlying economic issues that motivated Britons to vote Leave. As a result, their feelings of distrust will only be exacerbated, fueled as well by an impending recession. Similarly, when all of those angry voters wearing “Make America Great Again” caps realize that there is no way Trump will be able to deport 11 million people, or prevent an entire religion from immigrating to America, their rage will also smolder and they will turn increasingly against American society’s most vulnerable. Even if Trump loses, he has unleashed racial resentment and victim-blaming that will only fester in these austere times.
Pointing the finger at voters is not an effective strategy. Obviously, not all of the people who voted to leave the EU are racist. I have no doubt that well-intentioned people who feel alienated from the British political system latched onto a narrative about reclaiming sovereignty because it appealed to their anti-establishment feelings. The problem is that there are racists in British society, as #PostRefRacism makes clear, and those individuals now feel emboldened by the apparent support of 52% of their fellow countrymen.
The real cost of this referendum has been social cohesion, a sacred resource that cannot be replenished by another general election, or even another referendum. For now, those of us who believe in collaboration, unity, and interconnectedness must work even harder against the forces of isolation and fear. We have our work cut out for us.