An unexpected future in which the United Kingdom no longer remains a member of the European Union is suddenly, shockingly imminent. Moreover, it may no longer be the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” for much longer.
The United Kingdom’s referendum on whether to remain in the European Union was non-binding, but its consequences have already been immediate, global and drastic. British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced he will step down before October, but those of us who would like to celebrate the departure of the man who took an axe to the National Health Service cannot, since he is likely to be followed to by someone even worse, from his party’s further-right wing. Meanwhile, leaders in Scotland and Northern Ireland, whose residents overwhelmingly voted to remain within the EU, are now openly calling for independence from the UK, which in the latter’s case could mean a united Ireland. And the British pound has sunk to its weakest value against the US dollar in more than 31 years.
Americans trying to understand the Brexit dynamic should know that there’s a very Anglo-Saxon form of racism at work here, in which the parameters of Anglo-Saxon whiteness exclude not only the refugees from the global South who are supposedly coming to the UK via Europe, but also continental Europeans usually understood to be white by Americans. The noxious continuum of this long-standing Anglo-Saxon racism is apparent in everything from The Sun’s coverage of any football match against “the Germans” to the fact that respectable liberal broadsheets offer a platform for pundits such as Julie Burchill to complain about immigrants from within Europe — specifically Albanians, Poles and other Eastern Europeans, whose whiteness is questioned.
This explains why the pro-Brexit rhetoric tends to bundle together and conflate tropes of “lazy and irresponsible” Greeks, “Brussels bureaucrats” and “scary” refugees. EU power is antagonistic to refugees and to the people of Greece, but these distinctions are irrelevant to English nativists. The prospect of the definition of Europe being widened to include Turkey instills even more racist animosity among these nativists, and this has been exploited and propagated by the “Vote Leave” campaign.
So, who is responsible? The generational and regional divides evident in the results might appear to point to one answer, but as ever, more blame lies with those institutions and individuals who hold more power and influence.
Firstly, we can blame the mainstream parties. This includes not just the Conservatives — who have always been a force for nationalism, prejudice and ahistorical nostalgic folly even on their best days — but also the right wing of the Labour party: in other words, its dominant wing from the time when Tony Blair made it “New” until Jeremy Corbyn clawed back a tenuous hold for its embattled left.
For 20 years, Blairism and the Tory party have combined xenophobic rhetoric (sometimes dog whistles, sometimes blatant) with economic policies that have put the screws to the British public. Blair himself really perfected the modern art of scaremongering about immigrants (“We know we have to tighten the asylum system further,” he said in 2005) and about the EU imposing its allegedly soft-on-terror human rights laws, while cozying up to people like Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi was and remains among the most flagrantly corrupt of Europe’s rich and powerful: Blair’s closeness to the then Italian Prime Minister was as off-putting an example as any of UK elites working closely with their continental European equivalents to line the rich’s pockets and impoverish everyone else. Yet Blair posed with a sign reading “I’m voting Remain!” in the run-up to the referendum, still shameless as ever about the consequences of his time as prime minister.
Secondly, we can blame the British media across the political spectrum that have either tolerated or encouraged racism while obscuring the real causes of economic misery. The “across the political spectrum” part of this statement cannot be emphasized enough, because while a driving force for the “Leave” campaign has been the UK’s powerful right-wing newspapers (The Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International; The Daily Mail; The Daily Express), more reputable media sources often enviously revered by US progressives have also been complicit.
The BBC’s international coverage may still be far more reliable than that of US cable news, but in reality the BBC has pandered to Nigel Farage, leader of the nationalist UK Independent Party, as much as anyone has ever pandered to Donald Trump, inviting Farage onto its flagship political discussion show Question Time more often than any other politician between 2009 and 2013. The BBC helped create Farage as a prominent figure, then claimed to only be responding to his popularity. Meanwhile, liberal and left-leaning publications like the Guardian and Independent have delighted in giving column inches and pixels to “contrarian” pundits such as Nick Cohen and Julie Burchill, eager to tell us that it’s not actually racist to say that the UK has too many immigrants and that we’d better keep an eye on Muslim immigrants especially, and so on.
Thirdly, the European Union itself should not escape blame for this turn of events. It is an undemocratic, business-class institution with blood on its hands from imposing punitive austerity measures on member states like Greece. As George Monbiot puts it, it is “a festering cesspool of undue influence and opaque lobbying,” though the alternative offered by the political forces driving Brexit is worse. Anyone under any illusions that the EU represents a shiny beacon of democracy and progress should have that dispelled by the petty, punitive response from its leaders: EU president Donald Tusk, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and others have said the UK must quit “as soon as possible,” even as Cameron and Johnson insisted the actual process of leaving would not be rushed. Yet it’s the handful of EU laws that are preferable to those the UK political class would impose on its own — health and safety regulations, some degree of protection for refugees, and other human rights laws — to which the “Leave” camp has most objected, despite occasional forays into denouncing European bankers.
Finally, of course, we can blame the rising English nativist parties and tendencies within parties themselves. From UKIP to Britain First, these borderline fascist and explicitly fascist groups are very bound up with anti-EU sentiment and are demonstrably violent: They have already claimed the life of UK parliament member Jo Cox. However, without the factors above, these groups would have much less traction. They have been emboldened every time the media and mainstream parties adopted their talking points while claiming this was necessary to keep them on the margins.
Lessons for US Onlookers
What lessons can those of us residing in the United States take from this?
The first is that it is always a mistake to underestimate the forces of right-wing nationalism and nativism.
Much like Donald Trump, several of the winners in the “Leave” campaign have previously been dismissed as national jokes, whilst simultaneously being coddled and celebrated by the media. Boris Johnson has been called the British Trump, but he actually predates Trump in politics — he became mayor of London after fusing media-savvy and deliberately clownish antics with very real racism and putting the super-rich first. Now he may be the next prime minister. Meanwhile, Farage, once seen as even more of a fringe outlier than Trump, gave a horrifying speech claiming the “Leave” vote as a victory for “the real people, for the ordinary people, for the decent people.” The fascism here is barely coded, and the actual decent people of the UK — those who oppose this fascistic and anti-immigrant turn — will need to scramble to protect those defined by Farage as not “real.”
The second lesson for US onlookers is that when far-right nationalist parties, figures and campaigns are successful, there are immediate consequences, and it is extremely reckless for the left not to oppose them. There is a left-wing case for leaving the EU. That is not what triumphed yesterday. Farage, like Trump, sometimes produces rhetoric that sounds anti-corporate: “We have fought against the multinationals, we have fought against the big merchant banks,” he said in his speech on Wednesday night.
But it is not the multinationals who will feel the painful results of an emboldened UKIP and an emboldened Britain First. Nor is there any guarantee that the damage this result does to the Conservative Party will create any opportunities for the left in UK, not when some Labour MPs are already using it as another pretext to call for Corbyn’s head. There are lessons here for people on the left who swallow Trump’s isolationist and protectionist flourishes, for those who would like Trump to win just to spite the political establishment and accelerate a political shakeup, and for the Democrats who cackle over Trump’s rise, believing that the GOP is being “destroyed.” All should pay attention to what happens next in the UK and how it actually affects the most vulnerable people living there.
Thirdly, and perhaps the toughest pill to swallow, is the fact that centrist political parties will reap what they sow if they pursue a course in which they slyly invoke nationalist and racist sentiments when it suits them. Voters will not subsequently be convinced by professed outrage at the rise of political demagogues for whom racism and nationalism are the unchecked primary driving forces. This is especially true if the political center continues economic policies that pile on the misery and increase the likelihood that voters will be looking around desperately for someone to blame.
How was anyone supposed to take pro-EU Conservative David Cameron or the Blairites seriously as opponents of nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and nostalgia for British imperialism? They had gone back to that well far too often to credibly claim it was poisoned. The US parallels are clear: How are US voters supposed to take it seriously when Democrats decry Trump’s Islamophobia and anti-immigrant values as “not American values,” when the Democrats have been so willing to support policies steeped in xenophobia and fear mongering?
The prospects for both US and European politics were already looking bleak before Brexit, but the urgency is now undeniable. Those who would oppose white supremacist nativism, imperialistic nationalism and violent xenophobia on both sides of the Atlantic will need to move quickly, boldly and resolutely to protect the people vilified by these resurgent right-wing forces and avert a truly grim future.