THE BLOG

Brexit Has Revealed Britain's Racist Underbelly

04/07/2016 14:01 | Updated 04 July 2016

2016-07-03-1467548661-9925740-ClGrnSzWAAAcqxw.jpg
Cartoon by Steve Bell for The Guardian

Since the decision to leave the EU, there has been a fivefold increase in race-related hate crimes, not just against people from EU countries, but also from all parts of the world. So has Brexit peeled back the veneer of decency to reveal a racist British society?

Alongside the drastic surge in reports of hate crimes, lots of people have experienced racism in the form of verbal abuse, sometimes for the very first time.

It could be argued that racism has become less prominent over the last 30-40 years, but it seems that Brexit has unleashed the xenophobic views that had previously been bubbling under the surface.

I have read about numerous accounts of people on the streets of Britain, some of them born here, having been subjected to cries of "Go back home!" So much for multicultural Britain.

The tabloid press spreads fear, resentment and panic by demonising immigrants and refugees to form this identity of the other, against which people are supposed to rally, and for which society's problems are blamed.

The Leave campaign was littered with moments of this ilk, from Nigel Farage posing in front of a poster depicting refugees as if they were queuing in their hordes on our doorstep, to implying that Britain could suffer a repeat of the Cologne sexual assaults if we allowed refugees into the country.

But it was not just the pub landlord-come-politician who employed these dirty tactics. Other figures in the Leave campaign may have been subtler, but harboured similar intentions. For example, focusing on the unlikely event of Turkey joining the EU with maps designed to show Syria and Iraq in a menacing light.

While figures who used immigration as the main issue of the referendum campaign wouldn't condone actual acts of racism, they must realise how their words have vocalised, legitimised, and even normalised anti-immigration sentiment.

The closet racist, who wouldn't have previously felt able to spout their abhorrent world view in public, seems to have now been given the confidence to do so.

As Michael Keith at Oxford University's migration research centre, Compas, told The Guardian, "The unspeakable became not only speakable, but commonplace."

2016-07-03-1467548906-9656543-2016062113.08.27.jpg
The front page of the Sun two days before the referendum

Parallels must be drawn with the tragic murder of MP Jo Cox on the eve of the referendum. The likes of James O'Brien and Polly Toynbee brilliantly summed up the similarly poisonous, ugly atmosphere that contributed to the MP's brutal murder.

Toynbee wrote that, "Something close to a chilling culture war is breaking out in Britain, a divide deeper than I have ever known."

Jonathan Freedland also said on Newsnight that if you have all that venom injected into the bloodstream there will be consequences.

It appears that, just like with Jo Cox, the venomous anti-immigration rhetoric has been successfully injected into the bloodstream of parts of the British public, and now we are again witnessing the sad consequences in the form of racial hatred and abuse.

Recently the Pope called for Europeans more than ever to build bridges and not walls, but this must have fallen on deaf ears in Britain, where an inward-looking, nationalist, anti-immigration mentality won the debate.

As I went to France in the aftermath of Brexit, I've never felt so proud to be European. As French people expressed how sad they were that Britain had voted to leave, we desperately tried to make it clear that we had voted to remain along with the vast majority of young people.

As I read about the news of the two main parties in complete turmoil, and the wave of racist abuse and hate crimes, never have I felt more ashamed and reluctant to return home.

Even if racism remains a minority view in the UK, it appears that after a campaign dominated by anti-immigration rhetoric, Brexit has exposed Britain's grotesque underbelly of intolerance, ignorance and hatred. For the moment, post-Brexit Britain looks not just bleak but downright ugly.