Responding to Brexit: Consequence, Optimism and Racism

David R. Howell explains his anger and concern at the EU Referendum result.

I’ve been enjoying the contributions of my friend and erstwhile colleague, Mat Mathias, over the period of the EU Referendum. There are few as enthusiastic as young Mathias, few as eager to roll up the sleeves and dive face first into the murky stew that is Welsh politics. He is also an optimistic sort, perhaps more optimistic than I allow myself to feel these days. You see, I was one of those Remain voters to feel the rage, to feel the anger and, I have no hesitation in saying, to feel a degree of irrational hate. I know not in what direction it was turned, but that emotion was certainly felt. Perhaps though, my sentiments were born out of a feeling of inevitability, that the consequences I had been warning everyone within earshot about, were about to be manifest.

To some extent, I was a “Project Fear” man, in the respect I expressed informed concerns about the consequences of leaving the EU. Then again, I am (I like to think) an historical expert, so the current climate has little time for my thoughts and reflections. Nevertheless, I had concerns and felt they needed to be shared. My reservations though, fell not so much on economic concerns or notional ideas of sovereignty (and after a month of this I’m still not much clearer as to what people thought they were talking about when they mentioned sovereignty), but on lies spread and, as Mat rightly points out, the issue of race.

Whatever statistics might be shared on the matter of why Leave voters voted the way they did, it is quite clear that the issue of immigration, borders and all related themes, were pervasive arguments. As with all aspects of this referendum debate however, these discussions were poorly informed and routinely manipulated. Some have criticised Leave voters for a lack of education in this regard, but I have felt this to be harsh. Voters respond to what they are exposed to, and a corrosive centre right media pushed an irrationally aggressive anti-immigration narrative, built on foundations of sand, the majority of which they were forced to retract in the small print sections of their publications. Yes there is a responsibility on voters to inform themselves, but when so many avenues of information are undermined by subversive agendas, it can be impossible to avoid that which is simply untrue.

So it was, that in many regions of Wales, notably those to have significantly benefitted from EU financial support, while simultaneously being largely isolated from any real immigration based impacts, the rallying call was against the EU (“it’s our money anyway” being the buzz phrase) and targeting those pesky immigrants stealing all the jobs. It all had echoes of St. Patrick, considered in a literal sense, taking the credit for driving all of those non-existent snakes out of Ireland. Yet, as daft as these motivations might have been when things such as evidence (I know, I know, it’s the EU Referendum, and we don’t deal with facts here) are concerned that really worry me. When an electorate are motivated by undeniably xenophobic concerns regarding a barely existent immigrant population, how will they react when that “foreign” element cannot be removed (both because retention of free movement between the EU zone and the UK seems an inevitability, and the simple fact that there is not that much of an immigrant population in Wales to be removed in the first place)?

We have already seen the anger, but not from the Remain vote. It is, what we like to reassure ourselves as being the fringe of the, Leave voters who have expressed most rage. Violent racially aggressive outbursts are now being witnessed on a daily basis, partially reported in the national media, while social media would appear to reveal a much wider narrative of hate crimes. The irrationality of the rage is all the more concerning. Perhaps there is some logic to intimidating Polish people, if you hate migrants from the EU, but when Welsh business women are told to pack their bags for Pakistan, and non-specific Muslims are ordered to go back to where they came from, logic goes out the window. I was at a ‘votes for 16 and 17 year olds’ march at the Senedd on Monday, speaking to an enthusiastic young campaigner. She was Caucasian, born in London, and she had been subjected to racial abuse following the referendum. The “make Britain white again” crowd seem so backward that they can’t even recognise the racial groups they stand to defend.

Now, we like to reassure ourselves that these voices are in the minority, that these expressions of hate are just one of those things that happens following a major political change. However the circumstances are fundamentally different. For on this occasion, there has been a national mandate given to the politics of the far right. Anger and unbridled hostility towards migrants living and working in the UK has been given political legitimacy, and that should terrify us all. This, though, is where the lies come in.

I maintain that it is Leave voters who should perhaps be angrier than Remain voters. Promises made by the Leave camp and its wider followers have systematically been shown to have been lies. Notions on immigration, movement of people, financial pledges and even the speed with which an exit from the EU should happen, have all been revealed as deceptions. It is only a matter of time before wider financial pledges, to support farmers, infrastructure in Wales, research, Universities, and anything else Gove committed EU money towards, will also be shown as fabrications. Then what?

With a Conservative government, potentially led by Leave campaigners who made impossible promises, and a Labour party intent on self-immolation, the “establishment” as it is branded, will be seen as toxic by many of those who voted on the grounds of immigration and border control. This in turn will lead to a swelling in support for UKIP, a party which masterfully orchestrated a referendum while managing to largely stay on the sidelines of the fighting. Any fall out from a failed Brexit, will fall on the Tories and Labour, and no one else. Filling in the gaps in traditional party support, it seems an absolute inevitability that UKIP will exploit and stoke the flames of immigration concerns that have ignited in the last year. And what if UKIP are revealed for what they are, just one more branch of the same establishment they cry foul against? Will this open the door to the true extremes of the far right? An optimist would say no, but then, I’m no optimist.

The race issue is real. Of course, not every Leave voter is a racist, not every UKIP voter is a racist. This referendum campaign has however, given voice, platform to and legitimised an anti-immigration, anti-migrant, anti-foreigner manifesto. Racism has been legitimised and as the broken promises of the Leave campaign become more apparent, those anger filled sentiments will only harden, strengthen and expand. A perspective given a platform, however vile that perspective might be, has the capacity to grow. Our economically deprived regions, targeted by an unscrupulously ambitious right wing political community, are the ideal breeding ground in which hate can thrive. Mat is right, we surly can unite to fight racism. Will we though? The infighting that defines the Conservatives and Labour of the present, that divides Remains voters between acceptance and denial, and drives a wedge between communities split 50/50 on the referendum result, all suggest that we might just be looking in the wrong direction, when the hate of the right rises up. I want to share Mat’s optimism. I don’t.

Dr David R. Howell is a lecturer in Heritage at Cardiff University and Early Modern History with the University of Gloucestershire.

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