UKIP on tour. Owen Humphreys / PA Wire
Siren calls emitted from the campaigns urging Britons to leave the European Union appear to have seduced many voters. These swirl around the slogan of “taking our country back” from what has been portrayed as a rogues’ gallery of characters: ungrateful immigrants coming in their millions to change the face of the country forever, unelected Eurocrats in Brussels who have imposed their will on a once-great nation and a sneering and disconnected political and media elite who are to blame for the country’s current woes.
Vote Leave’s is a cultural war, writ large. It is no surprise that it has found traction with the public because it is guttural and makes “common sense”. Immigrants have changed the face of the country, the EU has changed laws and the political and media elite are disconnected from the experiences and struggles of the many. But the spectacle of progressive politicians, institutions and media attempting to address these claims from Brexiters with appeasement – arguing that immigration does indeed need to be reduced – is as short-sighted as it is unedifying.
Long history of unease
In truth, Britain has been a country that has long been uneasy with immigration. The current antipathy towards people who are different from the “norm” may feel recent, but it has deep roots. Concerns about competition for jobs and housing and the impact of immigration on national identity and local neighbourhoods have been running sores for more than 150 years. First it was at the Irish who came to Britain as cheap labour to build the railway network, then Jews escaping persecution in Eastern Europe and Russia in the 1900s who began to play a key role to support all aspects of the economy. After 1945, there was distrust of the colonial migrants from the Caribbean and India who helped fill vital gaps in the expanding health and transport sectors, and now at migrant workers from Europe who are doing the low-paid and unskilled work that British workers have long vacated.
These major migrations have been accompanied by a cacophony of protests inside and outside parliament, much of it characterised by virulent racism and hatred. Let’s not forget the 1958 race riots in Notting Hill, the popularity of Enoch Powell in 1968, Margaret Thatcher’s comments on TV in 1978 about people being afraid of being “swamped” by immigrants, and the rise in support for the ultra right-wing views of the British National Party in 2009.
Seen through this historical lens, the 2016 campaign is not so much an outlier but part of an unhealthy facet of the politics of race and immigration in Britain.
Appeasement not working
The uncomfortable truth is that this toxic Britain has been brewing for many decades. And rather than waging a campaign against racism, our political leaders have at best tried to find a compromise with the sirens of anti-immigrant sentiment.
Sadly, it is not surprising that politicians have appeased rather than attacked. Progressives are up against the vast super-tanker of anti-immigration in the media, across TV and in and around football stadiums. Black players were being routinely racially abused as recently as the 1980s and problems persisted with racist chants by some of England’s support base at Euro 2016.
Progressive Britain is unravelling. It is time to take our country back – not from immigrants or the EU, but from the extreme right wing minority who have held sway for too long.
The referendum rhetoric has eaten away at the progressive tissue of the country. But it has been under attack for more than 150 years with waves of racist narrative and knee-jerk policy interventions. Immigration is now at the crux of this cultural war that will shape the type of country we will be in the 21st century.
Of course, not all those who support Britain leaving the EU are racist, but the wilder fringes of those in the Brexit camp will not be content with an independent Britain. The bandwagon will roll on to smash social reforms on discrimination, demonise minority Britons as being problematic and launch campaigns against “political correctness”.
Appeasing narrow nationalism does not work. It is time for a deep clean of the racism that clings to the fibre of the UK. Whatever the outcome of the June 23 referendum, we must launch a cultural campaign against those who want to kill the progressive and compassionate heart of this country. They cannot be allowed to succeed.
Originally written for ‘the Conversation’.