Brexit Campaign Legitimized the Racism Now Trending in Britain

Whether it is the hijab or the kippah, or an over-accented pronunciation of English, in post-Brexit Britain suspicion has been cast against any identifiable ‘Other’.

A protestor holds up a flag that reads "Refugees Not Welcome" during a demonstration by far right protesters in the town of Dover in south east England, on May 28, 2016.
Justin Tallis, AFP

“Get a grip... whatever people voted is their choice. It's their right as a citizen of this country.”

That was a friend’s advice following Britain's vote to leave the European Union and my own support for the 'Remain' camp. For those of us 48% who voted to stay, there are two struggles: To come to terms with our own individual disappointment, as well as to understand why the majority of voters thought that exercising the ‘choice’ and ‘right’ to leave would really be in their best interests, and what the consequences and costs for British society will be.

In the immediate hangover of the vote, the economic shock has taken a front seat: the pound abseiled down to a 30-year low, France overtook the UK as the world’s fifth largest economy, and nationalist UKIP leader Nigel Farage admitted that his pro-Brexit campaign pledge to return to the National Health Service the £350 million a week he declared the UK sends annually to Brussels was a ‘mistake’ (read: outright lie). We're being told the situation will eventually stabilize – helped by the Bank of England’s willingness to inject £250bn into the economy.

But the social cost caused by the Leave campaign has no clear mechanism for stabilization. Who will take on the monumental task of repairing the social fabric torn by a campaign fuelled with the politics of hate?

Obviously those who voted for Brexit did so for many reasons, but the overwhelming engine of the leave campaign was the discourse surrounding immigration – and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster (a frightening echo of Nazi propaganda) became assimilated in the minds of many voters across the UK, particularly among those who live in regions that actually have lower proportions of migrant populations.

The social benefits, housing, and jobs that are the privilege of UK citizens were presented as being threatened by queues of ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ – even though political austerity is the culprit. A clip widely circulated across social media shows a proud Brexit voter in Barnsley announcing that this would now "stop the Muslims from coming into this country".

Concern about the effects of increasing migration is not per se racist, but the public discourse on immigration during the Brexit campaign was the epitome of racism and prejudice. What is worse is that xenophobic statements have evidently become publically acceptable.

This wave of anti-immigration discourse forms part of a historical current of opposition and fear towards the ‘Other’. The EU ‘migrants’ in the UK, who are enjoying the same freedom of movement as the British ex-pats who flock to Spain, or the different – but frequently wrongly conflated – issue of refugees escaping war-torn Syria, have become the scapegoat of what is a global issue of socio-economic insecurity.

You only need to look at Twitter to see how racism has been ‘trending’ in the UK since the referendum. The #PostRefRacism hashtag is replete with 140-character narratives of UK citizens being told "go back to your own country" because they are positioned as ‘Other’. Prejudice has risen to the social surface precisely because it was openly exploited as a political tool in the referendum. 

Britain has been here before. Anti-immigrant hostility was in full force when South Asian Muslims and Hindus started to arrive in 1947 as the Empire further unraveled.

Before them it was the hatred of émigré Jews who were escaping pogroms and anti-Jewish violence in Tsarist Russia during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My great-grandparents were among the so-called ‘foreigners in our midst,’ reviled for their difference yet also wanted for their labor and knowledge of professional trades.

Whether it is the hijab or the kippah, or an over-accented pronunciation of English, suspicion has been cast against any identifiable ‘Other’. I listen to my colleagues and fellow students describe how they come here from across the EU, bringing prestigious research grants to study and contribute to UK academia, but now feel unwelcome, unwanted, and vilified.

And what might happen, as so many Brexit voters hope, when these talented people have gone? Who will be the next scapegoat caught in the gaze of a reinvigorated anti-‘Other’ discourse?

The boundaries of internal and external – or who belongs and who does not – are arbitrary and never static. They shift and are constructed according to the cyclical waves of socio-political uncertainty over time.

One day you are a British Muslim or Jew, with family in the UK for generations, but the next day you might be positioned as an identifiable ‘Other’ – cast as a cause for voting Brexit.

Beside me, as I write this article, is a letter that my grandmother wrote to my grandfather many decades before I was born. In this letter, a relic of a post-Shoah era, she writes, “somebody asked if we were Jewish and I didn’t know what to tell them”.

The cycle can be seen when, on the day of the vote, I sat with a friend to discuss the referendum and the implications it would bring for us, as Jews, in the UK. We both hold UK passports, yet we both felt a sense of unease about our place in a country that is increasingly drawing arbitrary lines against diversity and difference.

A new prime minister must now negotiate and navigate the post-Brexit chaos, one, perforce, unelected by the UK population. No doubt this position will be filled by one of the faces of the Leave campaign who declared their aim was for more ‘democratic’ control for the UK. In his resignation speech, David Cameron announced: 

I will do everything I can as Prime Minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months but I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.

The UK will also need a captain who can prevent it from sinking under the waves of its own intolerance, while its minority populations, no matter how well-established, will continue to ask themselves: Will it be us next?

Ben Kasstan is a doctoral candidate at Durham University, researching the relation between the ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority and UK state healthcare services.