For years, the British left (or at the very least, a large swathe of it) has been quite clear on identifying a lot of the discourse around immigration, or even the fact that there has been so much discourse around immigration, as racist and xenophobic. We have had years of callous stories about asylum seekers barbecuing swans in the Sun, pictures of menacing queues of olive-skinned faces in the Daily Mail scaremongering about Eastern Europeans coming to take our jobs and ruin our lives. We have had a general climate in which “immigrant” is a snarl word, where bald assertions that immigrants have taken jobs and housing that rightfully belong to British citizens go completely unchallenged, feeding into a prevailing narrative that “immigrants have ruined the country”. All along while this has been happening, the left has been quite clear – you cannot do this without consequence. The media cannot build up peoples’ fear of immigrants without there necessarily being some reaction against people from abroad, or who appear to be abroad. You are not fomenting a proper debate over public policy, what you are stoking is racism, the belief that these people are not worthy, are worth less or are intrinsically worse people than British citizens.
We’ve watched as Ukip has gone from a tin-pot party of cranky retired colonels into a major fighting force with some 16million voters. They have talked a good game about sovereignty, about pulling back “control” (of what?) from an unaccountable Brussels elite, but their bread and butter has been immigration. When Farage made comments to the effect that he wouldn’t want to live next door to Romanians and that many migrants had been “forced into a life of crime”, there was uproar, but nothing really changed. This is the tone his party has taken, consistently, to a level that seems so incredibly obvious at this point that I’m not sure any further citation is necessary. He has been given free platforms by major broadcasters, newspapers and others to spew xenophobic rubbish on a daily basis, a platform which isn’t justified by either his reputation as a thinker (he’s a famous idiot), his party’s support (it had basically none before 2013) or his representation in Parliament (he’s never been elected to it), and has used these platforms to – if not out and out call for extermination, he’s stopped short of that – at the very least set the tone that immigrants are the problem, immigrants are a problem to be solved. He talks about implementing a “points-based immigration” system (which we already have) without specifying the many details – namely how you allocate the points, which is the most crucial thing since it speaks to the actual effects of the policy and who would be allowed into the country into it.
And all along, while that was happening, the left were clear; this man is not serving any actual public purpose, he’s not articulating any amazing new thoughts; he is stirring up xenophobia. He is putting things into a simple us-versus-them dichotomy and he is not getting anywhere near the level of challenge he should do. He can’t be silenced, it’s his right in a democratic society to speak, but by giving him repeated airtime on Question Time and on otherwise serious news programmes in complete disproportion to his actual support or relevance he has been given a platform to blow dog-whistles. This will have consequences. We should not be legitimising xenophobia by giving it a friendly, cheery, pint-swilling face. Nor should we believe his bullshit about the “points-based” system and think he’s not xenophobic – that’s not a policy proposal, it’s a buzzword, and he can’t give any coherent explanation of how it would work. People will listen to this idiot and think “you know, he’s right, since the immigrants came things have got worse” and then we’ll be going down a road we can’t come back from if we don’t explain that it’s not the fault of immigration, it’s the fault of government policies and try and put this all to bed once and for all. Please, rethink.
We’ve watched as this referendum campaign descended straight past the sewer and entered the pit. Do I really need to go over this again? Enormous queues of refugees portrayed, with a wink and a nod, as people coming to the UK. The official campaign for leaving the EU scaremongering, blatantly, about Turkey (oogabooga Muslims!) joining the EU, something that is vanishingly unlikely to happen, as being a route for millions of Turkish people to inevitably come to the UK. Farage, again, talking incessantly about freedom of movement as if it is a one-way street where swarthy foreigners travel here to steal jobs and claim benefits. And the left piped up, again; stop. This is not going to end well. You are stirring up hatred for a cheap political end, and once you have stirred that up it will never settle down. Please, think about the consequences.
Throughout all of this, the reply has come back loud and clear. Stop calling us racists. We have legitimate concerns about immigration, and we’re sick of being called racist for expressing them. Ignore that our manner of speaking is racist, that our concerns (that our lives are being ruined by foreigners) are intrinsically racist and that they aren’t borne out by any evidence other than our own prejudices. Listen to our legitimate concerns and don’t shout us down as racist to silence us. The political parties (with the notable exception of the Greens and the Lib Dems) have gone along with this, and in Ukip actively encouraged it; feeding grievances then not only with the foreigners themselves, but with the lefty metropolitan liberals who call them racist rather than listening to their legitimate (racist) concerns. The broadcasters went along with this too, and gave airtime to the legitimate concerns/racism. The newspapers have been printing these legitimate concerns for years, so they continued to do so, only now with the added tone of someone suffering unjust persecution – persecution for standing up for their country by elites who don’t understand what life is like for some people in areas with high immigration (never mind that you can understand what life is like for them without believing that immigrants caused all their problems).
Suddenly, on Friday, after 52% of voters elected to leave the EU, it was as if a boil had been lanced. A sudden, severe, and noticeable uptick in reported hate crimes, ranging from the minor (foreigners being shouted at to “go back home” in public settings) to the severe but mercifully rare (actual, random physical violence) has evidenced that casual prejudice and hatred of foreigners is now not only prevalent in our society, but thanks to the fact that the prejudiced think more than half the country is on their side, it’s now believed to be socially acceptable. Most of the accounts that have been publicised in the media and seen on social media have all been in public, with people suddenly almost proud to be vocally telling some poor soul they’ve never met before to get out of the country, and feeling bold enough to be able to do so in public without fear of censure or argument. The country is with them! The country voted with them! They want the foreigners gone too!
(I should make the obvious point that not everyone who voted or campaigned for leaving the EU is racist, or that wanting to leave the EU isn’t racist. However I should also make the equally obvious point that if you’re racist, you probably voted to leave the EU.)
Suddenly, at long last, the mask has slipped. Sorry, guys, but the left called it all along. It was never about jobs, housing and public services. It was about base racism and fear of foreigners all this time, and by pretending it was anything else, by pretending it was in some way a legitimate reaction to peoples’ circumstances, you’ve legitimised hatred. By political campaigns, including Vote Leave, trying to use these “legitimate concerns” to win elections they’ve fed the beast until it got too big for them to handle because they cynically never called out the “concerns” for the misdirected bullshit that they are. And why would they? Blaming immigration for peoples’ inability to get jobs, housing and medical treatment shifts the blame from the Government whose policies have caused those things. It’s a handy scapegoat, right up until the point you realise that by stirring up those feelings of grievance all you’ve done is created a significant number of people who blame foreigners for all their ills. And the left called it. We’ve been saying all along that the stances taken by media, by politicians, by public figures are feeding into resentment against and hatred of immigrants on flimsy grounds and that we need to do something now in order to stop it from spiralling out of control, but we were just told that we should stop calling people racist.
Well, I’m sorry, but that ends today. I’m not going to pull punches about calling racists racist, and that is what these people are and should be called – racists. We should have been bolder in doing so before. We should be in the future. And we shouldn’t allow it to be shouted down, when true, with cries of “legitimate concerns”. Because that doesn’t legitimise the concerns, it legitimises hatred.