I was one of you in the beginning. The EU is a mess, Brussels is breaking the back of the southern nations and it was nice to see the establishment taking chunks out of each other instead of us for a change. Having spent most of my political life campaigning against austerity and having watched people drowning at the doors of Fortress Europe, in a different time I would have stayed with you. I believe in sovereignty, self-determination and bringing decision making as close to our communities as possible. And yes, we all know the EU is a deeply undemocratic and inefficient banker’s club that changes our lives every day behind closed doors.
But then again, so is Westminster. And when it became clear the right had managed to take complete ownership of the referendum debate, and the fog cleared to reveal their vision for Tomorrow’s Britain, the prospect of Brexit filled me with fear.
Now you’ve won the vote, it’s time to take a long hard look at who’s really won the fight and what that means for us. And there are a couple of things I want to say.
1) It’s not enough to know the EU was a threat to democracy – you need to know why.
The big problem with referendums is that they assume people know what they’re talking about, while making no effort to keep us properly informed the rest of the time. And we so rarely get them that once they’re in full swing, it’s pretty much impossible to get a coherent, honest argument out of either side. Many people made their minds up based on the eruption of propaganda around the referendum itself – or considered the whole debate so suspect, they kept their heads down and went with a ‘gut instinct’ that we’ve lost control over the political system, and leaving the EU might help. On that level, the outcome is understandable; my ‘gut instinct’ would be to scramble out of Europe, too.
But if you’ve been paying attention for more than two months, you will have noticed that Britain was a key player in making the EU what it is today. The secret meetings we complain about are invariably dominated by British, German and French representatives as the most powerful stakeholders in the European project. It has been Britain leading the charge on austerity, pulling us into armed conflict and undoing all the gains Europe made on everything from protections for the environment to labour and civil rights.
The EU is a lobbyist’s arena where money talks loudest. Much like the Tory party. And so wealthy Britain has in fact profited massively from the EU at the expense of poorer countries within it. It’s just that we don’t feel the benefits because our nation is more unequal than ever, with the wealth staying at the top while the rest of us drown in debt & unemployment.
Brexit isn’t going to fix any of that. What it has done is stick a megaphone in front of all the voices telling you to blame immigrants instead of the rich and powerful interests running the EU from the City of London. Maybe you’re ok with that because you are a little bit racist after all. Or maybe you just think it was a risk worth taking. If the latter, the question now becomes: what are you going to do now for those who’ll pay the price if you were wrong?
2) This is not a ‘Journey into the Unknown.’
It’s pretty clear where we’re heading. At home, the racist right is gathering strength, rising on a tidal wave of anti-establishment, anti-cuts outrage. It has no solutions, but by aggressively scapegoating refugees, migrant workers and those on welfare it serves a vital and powerful function for the establishment it claims to oppose: it lets them off the hook and keeps our communities divided. Violence against people from ethnic minority backgrounds and those with disabilities is at record highs in Britain, which sees an average of 130 racist hate crimes every single day.
As bad as things are, they pale in comparison to mainland Europe. Right-wing nationalist parties have taken power again in Poland and Hungary and are gathering strength in Austria, Greece, France, Denmark and Sweden. Let’s hope they won’t follow our example. The last thing we need is a clique of renegade fascist states on our doorstep.
This is an explosive moment in history. My grandparent’s generation knows this because they remember World War II. That’s why they overwhelmingly voted Remain. It’s why my 84 year old grandfather, who is a cancer patient who really should have been in bed, pulled himself all the way down to the polling station to vote yesterday.
“It will probably go badly in the beginning,” a lot of progressively minded Brexiters confessed to me in recent weeks. “But if we leave, at least we’ll be fighting our battles on home turf. This is a journey into the unknown and it’s up to us what we make of it.”
That’s a nice idea, that notion our destiny will be our own now. But unless we can shift the balance of forces fast, it’s fantasy. We are years away from a general election, living under the most ambitious and aggressive Tory government in living memory which is hell bent on destroying our public services, the welfare state and any legislation defending human rights and civil liberties. This was the single worst time to take power from Brussels and give it to Westminster. We haven’t taken our destiny into our own hands – we’ve given it to them. And now we really don’t have much time to take it back before things get ugly.
4) Stop criticising us for ‘playing the race card.’
Firstly, it’s the right wing that played the race card. They destroyed a potentially vital debate about national sovereignty and democracy and reduced it to a single issue propaganda circus complete with hate speech and murder in our streets. And now the votes are in, the fact is that if you don’t challenge that, you’re part of it. So if you really wanted a win for independence but not for Farage, now is the time to start shouting about it.
Also, what we often forget is that we’re all playing ‘cards’ all the time. The difference is that if you have some degree of priviledge, because of your bank balance or the colour of your skin, you get to be seen as an individual talking about their interests. You don’t have to play the same card over and over because life gave you access to the whole deck, while the most vulnerable members of our communities are reduced to a label dismissed. And there is a very real relationship between that and the rise of racism and fascism. Let’s not forget that in Nazi Germany, race cards were literal cards that people were forced to carry and that playing the wrong card could mean death.
The Holocaust didn’t happen because one day, millions of Germans (and many Brits don’t forget,) just woke up one morning in the 1930s and decided to be Nazis. It is a long and insidious process in which every single one of us plays our part every day. And it starts with shouts of ‘Britain first’, newspaper headlines calling refugees cockroaches, ‘British blah for British people’ – and accusing anyone standing up for themselves or each other as just ‘playing the race card’. There’s going to be a lot of this in the months to come, and how we respond to it will define us as an entire society.
5) Start Listening
My final complaint is that I’m really tired of listening to white people on Facebook saying the referendum isn’t about race. A lot of these people aren’t consciously racist (I know this because they say so about 50 times a day: “I’m not racist, but…”)
Here’s a crazy idea: has it occurred to any of you that we might not be best qualified to assess the racist threat if Brexit, given the colour of our skin? Just because you don’t think you’re racist, doesn’t mean your ignorance isn’t paving their route to power.
Since when is ‘not being fussed’ a comendable position? Is it enough, in 2016, to just ‘not be racist’? Shouldn’t we all be actually, actively anti-racist? And surely that is all about having the humility and respect to put your hands up and say: “you know what? I’m not subject to the daily oppression, the stop and search, the surveillance programmes, the bullying and violence. I don’t have to live that every day. So maybe I don’t know everything about what’s threatening and what’s not.”
Insisting you’re not racist while ignoring all the fear and injustice around you to focus on what you think this debate was about – it’s just not good enough. So if it sounds like I’m talking about you, do us all a favour and start listening, or you’ll end up the unwitting builders of a world you never wanted to see.
What happens now?
“The dawn is breaking.” – Nigel Farage.
It was strange going outside this morning to see everything look exactly the same. To be fair, I live in Dorset, where everything always looks the same. But there’s an important truth there. We can’t actually leave Europe, because we are part of Europe. We still need to find a way to live together; I’ll still be able to see France from the coast on a clear day. For many of us, life will pretty much go on as normal, getting gradually more unbearable as austerity marches on.
But it won’t be like that for everyone. This morning a friend shared an anecdote on facebook that a mixed race primary school student had been told by her classmates that she had to leave the country now. I can’t stop thinking about that.
The reverberations of this vote will rock some lives more than others in the coming months and years. And it’s a bit much to take, since we’re already up to our eyeballs in crises: the economy, the climate, the war… The only silver lining I can see for the progressive movement is that we don’t need to argue about joining the dots between them anymore. The right has done it for us.
By scapegoating migrants for pretty much everything, they have built bridges between all these issues. They capitalise on exploitation and inequality to hijack our social justice issues to an aggressive racist agenda at home and abroad. In doing so they have inextricably linked the ‘us’ and ‘the other’.
So we can no longer talk about one issue in isolation without betraying it. We can no longer advocate for ‘the majority’ or for ‘minorities’ because our destinies, severed from Europe, are tied to each other much closer than before.
What the tragic murder of Jo Cox symbolised more than anything is thay we’re now facing the greatest threat to our values since World War II. We win on all these fronts together or we lose ourselves.
So they’re the stakes, progressive Brexiters. You wanted independence, you said it wasn’t about race but that you wanted to build a Better Britain. Well, here’s your chance. And while wanting to take back control is a healthy instinct, and voting for Brexit was both understandable and forgivable – being silent in the face of what comes next is not: the hate crime, the institutional racism, the mass deportations… So just don’t for a second feel like you’ve crossed your ballot and done your job, because the work has only just begun.