Christopher McMillan: Brexit and the perils of schadenfreude

Writer Christopher McMillan says the consequences of the Brexit vote when it comes to hate crime - and the dangers for wider Europe - must be recognised

IT has been said repeatedly and there is no harm in saying it again: the vast majority of people who voted to leave the EU are neither racist nor xenophobic. 

Nonetheless, the wider Brexit campaign was a fundamentally hard-right movement, which shamelessly employed racist rhetoric, imagery and propaganda to secure its victory. What’s more, the reluctance of squeamish Remainers to properly and plainly engage with the crucial and complex issue of immigration, and its satellite issues of inequality and austerity, exacerbated the situation.

The combination of the two has generated a surge in hate crime in Britain. Hate crime monitoring organisations such as TrueVision, Stop Hate UK and TellMAMA have reported an increase since the EU referendum, and allowing for the number of police complaints, third party reporting and unreported incidents, the overall picture makes for distressing viewing.

The wider Brexit campaign was a fundamentally hard-right movement, which shamelessly employed racist rhetoric, imagery and propaganda to secure its victory.

Such incidents, especially in England, are symptomatic of the rise of emboldened far-right racist groups and nativist propaganda across continental Europe. In Europe, however, attacks are primarily focused on Middle Eastern or North African immigrants and refugees, especially Muslims. 

British racists have a considerably more eclectic hatred, extending to Asians, African-Caribbean and southern, and particularly eastern Europeans. In London, racist graffiti was daubed on a Polish community centre while a Polish community near Cambridge received laminated cards through the letterbox that read: "Leave the EU – no more polish vermin." 

In Walsall, a halal butchers was firebombed and in Manchester an African-Caribbean community centre for pensioners was closed after a threatening and racist call. Migrants, refugees, commonwealth citizens, EU members and British nationals are all being subjected to hate crime.

In an effort to calm what many call a crisis, we are repeatedly told that a spike in hate crime is to be expected during and following tumultuous national and international events. The supposed transitory nature of the current spate of jingoistic and racist schadenfreude unleashed by Leave’s victory is illustrated by the description of it as 'celebratory racism'

Yet we should be careful not to detach the recent racist attacks from the everyday far-right extremist views that make life miserable, frightening, insecure and lonely for thousands of people across Britain. 

The reluctance of squeamish Remainers to properly and plainly engage with the crucial and complex issue of immigration, and its satellite issues of inequality and austerity, exacerbated the situation.

Yes, many of the thugs parrot the racist soundbites and slogans put forward during the EU Ref by unprincipled politicians and parties, but to view present hate crime solely through the lens of the EU referendum is to suggest that it will blow over. But it never goes away; it seethes until the next opportunity to vent.

'Celebratory racism' implies a latent racism in society, which is largely tolerated because it is seen to be the province of the poor and uneducated and only manifests itself at certain times. Racism should always be challenged but requires both forthrightness and nuance.

One depressing aspect of the recent verbal and physical racist attacks is the number of victims who claim that no one intervened on their behalf or sought to question the attacker. It is understandable if people are reluctant to become a target, but don’t be a bystander.

Take the less confrontational option, if a hate crime takes place on public transport inform the driver or conductor, contact the police, or simply check that the target of abuse is ok.

When someone stands up to racism it shows the target of abuse that you don’t support it and in turn it supports them. It also challenges the perpetrator's prejudices. Just as disreputable politicians and the Brexit result empowered racists, we have to empower victims of racism by taking their experiences seriously: put ourselves in their shoes, and not condescend to call it anecdotal evidence.

In an effort to calm what many call a crisis, we are repeatedly told that a spike in hate crime is to be expected during and following tumultuous national and international events.

Voting to leave the EU was not a racist act but it nonetheless appealed to a lot of racists. I empathise with Leave voters who are sick of being found guilty by association; but Leave voters, dry your eyes and recognise that you have as much responsibility as Remain voters - if not more - to ensure that the people in Britain who were denied the right to vote and who are now insecure, fearful and othered are given due consideration and not subject to racist attacks.

It must be said that the vast majority of post-EU incidents of hate crime have occurred in England. As Scotland voted overwhelmingly to Remain, one would expect fewer incidents, and Police Scotland has reported no rise in hate crime since the referendum - with the caveat that hate crime is "a widely unreported problem in Scotland"

Following the Paris attacks, Scotland witnessed a significant spike in hate crime, suggesting that latent racism exists but requires a different trigger. Between 2014 and 2015 there were 3,785 reports of racially motivated hate crime, but on a positive note this was a decrease from the previous year and the lowest since 2003-2004. Scotland is making progress but cannot be complacent.

Racism in Britain overall has been permitted to fester because it suited the Tory agenda, then Ukip's and subsequently the Tories as they sought to attract voters back from Ukip.

More recently, in a misguided attempt to 'reconnect' with its traditional voters, centrist Labour MPs have taken up the issue of immigration but consistently fail to condemn or provide solutions to the inequality and austerity that fuels it.

The British Government is about to enter negotiations with the EU in which immigration will be a crucial issue. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has explicitly stated that the current marriage between free movement and access to the single market cannot be divorced. 

We should be careful not to detach the recent racist attacks from the everyday far-right extremist views that make life miserable, frightening, insecure and lonely for thousands of people across Britain. 

The ruthless political assassination of Boris Johnson was not solely predicated on his unsuitability as a leader but rather his elasticity when it came to negotiating a deal with the EU; as Johnson - now no doubt regretfully - admitted in his Telegraph column: "British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down." 

More hard-line Brexiters - and Rupert Murdoch - viewed Johnson less as a bumbling oaf and more of a stumbling block to 'taking back control' - a task Michael Gove, Murdoch’s preferred choice, would gleefully undertake.

Another contender for prime minister following David Cameron's resignation is Theresa May, who, following a speech in October 2015, was accused of "fanning the flames of prejudice" when she said that immigration makes it "impossible to build a cohesive society". During her candidacy speech, May stated that "Brexit means Brexit". In short, limits on immigration.

Britain’s vote to leave will echo across Europe, and if its renewed hard-right government succeeds in negotiating a cap on immigration, others will follow. Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party - who wants to stop Muslim immigration to "defend the identity and civilisation of the west" - is seeking to mobilise 'Nexit', while in France Marine Le Pen, the president of the National Front, is preparing for 'Frexit'.

Britain’s vote to leave will echo across Europe, and if its renewed hard-right government succeeds in negotiating a cap on immigration, others will follow.

As with Brexit, such movements will inevitably appeal to considerably less democratic far-right racist groups, and if hate crime can increase in a relatively well integrated country like Britain, consider the implications for Europe’s many less well integrated states. 

Popular opinion might win referendum but that does not make it right.

Picture courtesy of Viewminder

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.