Brexit has won. The people have spoken. Sadly, the British people have voted to terminate our historic relationship with the EU. The repercussions are already being felt throughout the world and will resonate for the next century. Today many are asking themselves: Why? and what next?
The reason this could happen - and why the populist right has yielded such an astonishing victory - is because the political establishment has, over the past thirty years, ceased providing solutions to a whole range of working class problems, specifically housing, low wages and job insecurity. It is far easier for them to promote a narrative which scapegoats immigrants than to accept the fair apportion of blame for creating the crises in which working class people now live, and which have provoked them to rebel against the elite in Brussels. The xenophobic populism of the right has been allowed to command the political centre and the result has been a growing mistrust of foreigners and foreign institutions.
Immigration dominated the referendum campaign because it is the prism through which most people filter their perceptions of everyday problems. But instead of being the focal point of a progressive debate, the issue was swamped with negative fear-mongering from euro-sceptic outlets - symbolized most negatively by Leave's "Breaking Point" poster - which, Twitter was quick to notice, had striking similarities to a piece of Nazi propaganda from the 1930s. Leave looked like it never wanted a broad debate about the truth of immigration. Instead it opted for the politics of fear, stoking paranoia, which is apt to create a misinformed, short-sighted electorate, who have elected to cut themselves adrift based on a knee-jerk reaction to propaganda rather than based on a balanced take of the facts.
Consider their tactics. The official pro-Brexit campaign issued a list of EU nationals who had committed rapes and murders in Britain, inflaming prejudicial beliefs that freedom of movement leaves us exposed to a wave of rampant criminality by foreigners. Moreover they falsely claimed that Turkey is joining the EU, arguing this would expose us to "Turkish criminals". A campaign supposed to be fought on hard facts and reason succumbed to base dog-whistle campaigning.
There were plenty of genuine arguments to make for Leave, but the Brexit campaign mostly whipped up resentment and paranoia. It's disingenuous to scapegoat immigration for our problems without explaining the positive contributions it makes too. The NHS relies heavily on European immigration and our cities thrive off diversity. Without freedom of movement many of our own expats would be required to move back.
How has hatred of immigrants become so socially acceptable? Our newspapers eagerly hunt down horror stories about them and pass the worst offenders off as representative of the whole community. Internet sites thrive with malicious comments directed at them. It seems as though immigrants are the one group in society people are most confident about ripping on.
Brexit is symbolic of a more deep-seated shift to the right, not only in Britain, but across Europe and the West too. From Trump to Le Pen, hard right elements have been deepening the divisions, preying on people's fears and prejudices, blaming our neighbours for problems created by politicians' mistakes.
It is a problem that migration has become politicised. The fight against it has become one of the right's great crusades, epitomised by the ascendancy of UKIP and its anti-immigrant rhetoric. It is seen as one of the definitive political issues of the day. UKIP have tried to savage the government with their notorious "Breaking Point" poster, which depicts a line of asylum seekers trying to get in to the country.
Because successive governments have manipulated fears about immigration and have tried to play it for electoral success, the terms of debate have been pulled to the right and groups like UKIP get to dictate the conventional wisdom, although research shows real levels of immigration are much lower than people believe. It becomes recast as a public security issue - and specifically about whether a sizeable chunk of immigrants are really genuine.
Working class people don't generally have a voice. They aren't represented in parliament, in the papers, or on the news; they're not the people who really get to influence things. The establishment doesn't even pretend to listen to them. So when they do get a rare opportunity to make their voices heard, they will raise the issues they think matter, and make sure politicians are slapped down. They are fed up of politicians putting the issues that matter to them on the back burner.
But voters have been misled in to thinking that Brexit is a vote against the establishment; it's only a vote of confidence in its lies. This was not a vote about the democratic accountability of the EU, but was instead about immigration. But let's be clear. It's the Tories who have driven down pay and working conditions. It's the Tories who voted for cuts. It's the Tories who have ramped up the racist rhetoric and preyed on people's paranoia. So let's not let them sit easy and pass the blame in the coming weeks and months.
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