Last week I wrote about the EU referendum. I wrote about how it was not a contradiction in terms for someone who, like me, supports an independent Scotland to vote for remaining in the EU. I spoke about the power of the collective and about the differences between the UK and the EU.
What I did not speak about was racism and the migrant debate. I did not do so because I know that many people who are voting for the UK to leave the EU are not racists. I also know that there are concerns about immigration held by people I know well. Ordinary people, mums, friends, colleagues. I know that concern is not necessarily racist. I thought about it, I thought about how hurtful it would be if people felt that I was tarring them with the racism brush, relationships could be damaged in the real world and I would hate for that to be the case. And so I avoided the issue.
I was wrong to do so.
Last week was profoundly depressing. The “Breaking Point” advert for UKIP had made me shake my head in disbelief. I watched film of Nigel Farage suggesting violence was an option if we voted to remain in the EU and it placed an icy hand on my shoulder. I could only watch in horror as the terrible terrible events of Thursday unfolded on the television in my hotel room. At the news of the death of Jo Cox I found myself in tears and not only of sadness and futility but of fear too.
The evidence is piling up to suggest that Thomas Mair was a home grown, right wing, fascist terrorist. His statement in court when asked his name appears to confirm this and added to reports of nazi regalia allegedly found at his home and a grainy picture bouncing around the internet of someone who may, or may not be him, standing behind a “Britain First” banner, add weight to the theory of a far right terrorist. (The irony of Britain First complaining bitterly on social media that one man’s actions should not define a whole group, when they do exactly that with Muslims, appeared to be lost on them, if not to the wider world of social media) The suggestion is that his views have been nurtured and allowed to grow and develop in the political environment that includes the hate fuelled, fear driven focus on foreigners which has characterised much of the press reporting over the last couple of years and has been apparent in the last few weeks of the EU campaigning. I do not know if that is true, or if we will discover some other reasons for the attack on Jo Cox. It will not be up to me to decide on that.
What I know is that most, if not all of my own leave voting friends feel the same way as I do about the issues I have just mentioned. I know many of them who are Labour voters, Labour members who will have cried when they heard the news about Jo Cox. I know that my wonderful friends do not espouse the racist or the xenophobic views we have been hearing in the press and on television over the last few weeks. I know that many of them have embraced #lexit, rather than #brexit. And whilst they advocate leaving the EU, voting leave does not make them racists or fascists.
Much has been written about migrants, not simply during the referendum but over the last few years. The Internet has stoked fears over Daesh, over refugees fleeing the terrible violence of their homes, fears even of EU migrants coming here to work. Right wing organisations have manipulated and shared films of cricket crowds and suggested they are Muslims celebrating the Paris deaths , hiding amongst them terrorists who will flood our streets, our public services and bring death to our front doors.
The Leave campaign has been characterised by the demand for Britain to “take back control” . IT has been repeated ad nauseum about all sorts of things but is primarily about taking control of our borders by preventing people from the EU coming here and by ignoring our responsibilities to refugees. We have been encouraged to see our country and ourselves as too good for the likes of them. They portray Britain outside the EU as strong, unconquerable by foreign invasions, impregnable against the world pretending this is not isolationist, xenophobic rhetoric but “British values” – desirable and necessary if we are to avoid the catastrophic effect that too many “foreigners” have on our society.
These voices have been shouting out for so long that people believe what is wrong in our society is the fault of poor people trying to come to live here, work here and build their lives here. The media, after all tell us that, and people do not look behind the rhetoric and see what is really happening. They believe that immigration is out of control, with EU migrant workers claiming benefits left, right and centre and costing us millions of OUR pounds, when the truth is they contribute to our economy more than they take out; they believe the reason that we have insufficient public housing or problems in the NHS is because people from Poland are taking all our houses and Romanians are filling up our hospitals when the reasons for these failures are that we have had governments for years who have failed to build enough social housing and are failing to invest in the NHS properly,largely because because they are ideologically opposed to it.
And so we have Boris, and Farage and the voices of intolerance telling us to vote to leave the EU and it will all go away. Billions of OUR pounds will come back and will be philanthropically spent on the NHS, hospitals and housing. And lurking behind these slightly bumbling, almost foolish caricatures of cheer leaders and their ridiculous antics on the river Thames are the dark, dark voices of racists and fascists, holding their breath for a time when they can cheer at the closing of our borders to immigrants.
And yet, THAT is not what the majority of my friends who are voting to leave the EU are voting leave for. They are absolutely not voting for the isolation of the UK as a tool to ban all foreigners from our shores, to “take back control” of our borders, to, suspect and demonise the Turks as they attempt to gain access to the EU. They are not xenophobes, voting for the racist bile or the fascist ideology that we see on Twitter. They are voting for the fight against austerity and neoliberalism, the fight against “fortress Europe” and TTIP, the fact that voting leave could bring the Tory party down. They ask us to imagine a Britain outside of the EU with a Labour government not a Tory one stating that “it would wipe the smile off David Cameron’s smug rich privileged face. Possible worth it just in itself.”
They are wrong.
A vote to leave the EU would not in itself be a vote for right wing ideals, nor am I suggesting that it will usher in a fascist government in double quick time although some believe that it will. It would, however, result in those politicians, those newspapers espousing right wing views on immigration, clamouring to rid us of our human rights, desperate to drive out trade unionism, not caring one iota for people dying whilst waiting for the country they love to look after them in their old age, those politicians those newspapers – becoming even more of a dominant voice.
A vote for leave may mean leave will win. Your vote will have contributed to that and all that comes after. Your vote will have helped to give a legitimacy to the vile views and behaviours we have seen in the press and in our politics. The views expressed by that disturbing UKIP poster, the views of Boris and his manipulative lies by omission will be given validity. A win for leave will bolster newspapers like the Daily Express and the Daily Mail and encourage them to increase their hate filled headlines. A win for leave would allow these people to say “See, we were right. The British people have spoken”. Despite good people with honourable intent, jumping up and down at the back saying “But that’s not what we meant” the voices for a tolerant, fair society will be drowned out by ugly voices shouting for the immigrants to leave. Your anti-racist stance will be trampled upon and there will be nothing that you can do about that. They will claim that the votes they receive – your vote- the vote you made with the best intentions, with your ideals, your own choices and your heartfelt beliefs, they will claim it as theirs. They will claim you as part of the “Millions of Britons who have spoken up for taking back control”. They will enact policies to isolate Britain, to exclude people, to withdraw human and other rights, they will enact those policies in the name of all those who voted to leave – in your name. When that happens you may remember last week and you may well be ashamed. You may feel that it was worth it. Whatever you are fighting for, that fight may go on but it will be less effective, less respected, less attractive because you helped the worst voices in our society speak louder.
I should have said this last week but I didn’t. My voice is shaking, but I’m saying it now.