Brexit’s Aftermath: Xenophobia and the Rising Right

Economists predicting renewed hardship.  A resurgence in racist attacks. The resignation of a Prime Minister. The leader of the largest opposition party in the country attempting to fight off a coup attempt. This picture, more or less, sums up some of the more glaring repercussions of the British vote to leave the European Union.

The fallout from the UK’s decision to “Brexit” is, predictably, both tumultuous and convoluted. When a vote turns out to be so close, it would seem inevitable that many strong opinions would clamor to be heard, often markedly partisan in character.

But what has emerged are not necessarily just “strong opinions.” According to police sources, there has been a sudden increase in racially motivated hate crimes across the UK. Xenophobia and outright racism, having long been a facet of certain elements of the Brexit camp, is now on the rise, with the vote against the EU apparently being received in some quarters as an endorsement to, in the style of Trump, “make Britain great again” at the expense of those not suitably “British.”

This is hardly an exaggeration. Of those being targeted for having the temerity to not look, sound or act “British” enough are certain members of the Polish community, some of whom have received threatening notes delivered to their homes that call upon them to leave the country due to their new found status as “scum” and “Polish vermin.”

Incidents of overt and public abuse of ethnic minorities also appear to be on the rise, with one recently released amateur video depicting several youths threatening an adult male for allegedly being a “f*cking immigrant” who needs to “get back to Africa.” While this kind of language is, unfortunately, hardly novel, this incident needs to be considered in light of the rise in such criminal acts across the UK following the Brexit crisis.

An easy rebuttal may be that such evidently racist individuals do not represent the millions of others who voted to leave the EU. There are, of course, myriad reasons why an individual might be opposed to the European Union, none of which necessarily entail a burning hatred of any and all foreigners. Yet racism is not exactly something new when it comes to the question of Britain’s role in Europe, with the actual murder of a Member of Parliament, Jo Cox, just weeks ago, being carried out in an undeniably political context. “Freedom for Britain”, (to quote the murder suspect, Thomas Mair) in this sense might signify the literal death of “traitors” such as Ms Cox.

Brexit leaders cannot just walk away from this. Over the previous months, they have incessantly positioned themselves on a distinctly nationalist, xenophobic platform, making the referendum about foreigners and migration rather than any real analysis of the European Union or regional economics. In what is quite unique even for mainstream British politics, Nigel Farage, as leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party, managed to excel himself through the deliberate employment of openly racist propaganda, at one point endorsing a poster strongly inferring that refugees from Syria and North Africa will destroy Europe.

Not to be out done, Boris Johnson, as de facto leader of the pro-Brexit camp within the ruling Conservative Party, fixated on the possibility of Turkey joining the EU, presumably in an attempt to whip up further hysteria among right-wing voters at the prospect of renewed immigration. Johnson, while being known for his frequently eccentric behavior, wasn’t shy in this case about engaging in his own brand of fear-mongering, at one point making the peculiar claim (among others) that, if Turkey joins, then the EU will now have expanded into the territories of the old Eastern Roman Empire, with the inference being that modern Europe is somehow as expansionist an entity as ancient Rome. While such a statement may seem simply outlandish to anyone but Boris Johnson, the point is that we’ve reached a situation where such arguments are being employed as if they ought to be taken seriously, regardless of the evidently idiotic content.  

What is remarkable, however, is how both elements of the left and right of the political spectrum proved so hostile to the EU. “Lexit” – itself an ad-hoc coalition of myriad elements of the far left – campaigned against renewed British membership on an ostensible anti-capitalist platform, citing (at times correctly) the EU’s status as a distinctly neoliberal entity and, unarguably, an institution that has shown a frightening willingness to strong arm it’s members into obedience. What with the unpopular and distinctly immoral treatment ofGreece over the course of its economic woes, this perspective is understandable and, in principle, correct.

But the sad fact of the matter is that many of those who campaigned for Brexit most certainly didn’t do it out of solidarity with Greece. They didn’t do it as part of an in-depth critique of neoliberalism, and they certainly didn’t do it because they intend to join with the left to fight against renewed austerity policies. The majority did it, in large part, because the political narrative in the UK has become fixated on both nationalism and xenophobia, with political discourse becoming increasingly uniform on the apparent need to rekindle concepts such as British sovereignty and identity at the expense of any and all contenders. There is precious little in such sentiments that are remotely desirable.

The British far left is in no position to capitalize on the anti-EU victory. Pragmatically, radical leftist politics in the UK are notoriously factionalized, with myriad small groupings often expressing intense hostility to one another. For instance, the UK has multiple communist parties, the bulk of which trace their origin back to the original Communist Party of Great Britain founded in the aftermath of the October Revolution of 1917. Yet in their modern incarnations they display an entrenched level of enmity towards each other, something akin to much of the UK’s far-left that makes a habit of splits, expulsions and a general inability to tolerate any and all partners not immediately willing to share a uniform ideological outlook.

The end result is, quite often, a leftist movement marked more by intrigue and mutual resentment than effective politics. As such, despite good intentions and at times very good arguments, the “Lexit” camp was always bound to be swept aside by a tidal wave of rightist sentiment, with any hope of striking a blow against the EU as a specifically neoliberal, pro-austerity institution at risk of being drowned out by stronger forces eager to capitalize on the virulent xenophobia that has characterized much of the Brexit vote. In this sense, a vote to leave the European Union in the hope of sparking a resurgence of anti-capitalist politics woefully underestimated the balance of political forces in this country.

Corbyn, Coups, and Blairite Resurgence

In a similar theme, the growth in right-wing sentiment has found an echo within the corridors of power at the House of Commons, albeit it this time via an attempted coup against the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn, despite having won last year’s leadership contest with the support of over two hundred and fifty thousand voters, has proven unpopular with peers in Parliament. Why this is the case is a complex matter, although much of it appears to involve resentment from Labour MPs at a potential left-turn in British politics that they find distasteful.

A difference of opinion is one thing, but it’s something else entirely to attempt to take advantage of political turmoil to unseat a leader put there by the express will of your own party members. Indeed, the politics of some of Corbyn’s opponents are distinctly right-wing in orientation, with some of his most stalwart adversaries having previously voted for actions as egregious as the 2003 invasion of Iraq to British military bombardment of Syria. In this context, it’s not exactly a surprise that such individuals would find a man such as Corbyn to be intolerable and seek to move against him, whether he enjoys the support of rank and file Labour members or not.

Yet they may have a fight on their hands. In a recent show of Corbyn’s grassroots popularity, around ten thousand of his supporters appeared in Parliament Square in less than twenty four hours. Corbyn has not shown any signs of willingness to step down from the leadership, evidently viewing his election mandate and mass support outside of Parliament as sufficient grounds to remain. If a renewed leadership contest is somehow forced through, there’s no indication that Corbyn would not attempt to compete, with it likely that he’d again enjoy the support of the majority of party members and huge swathes of the trade union movement.

This “coup”, however, can only be understood within the context of Brexit and the rightward shift in British politics in general. While Corbyn’s opponents cite his apparently lukewarm performance over the course of the EU referendum as reasons for their move against him, it seems that this coup has been months in planning. Indeed, the resentment evident in the upper echelons of the party are so pronounced that there was even talk of ignoring the results of the original leadership contest last September, ending Corbyn’s tenure on day one and defying hundreds of thousands of voters for having the audacity to elect a leader the right didn’t like. Claims that the coup has been triggered by Corbyn’s performance during Brexit are thus simply dishonest.

Dishonesty, however, is no stranger in mainstream politics. What we are seeing is an attempt by elements within the Labour Party to capitalize on the rightist shift brought on by Brexit to defame their democratically elected leader and force home an agenda that has been in the works for some time. If Corbyn is defeated, it will be a defeat for the majority of the Labour party that directly voted for him, in the process destroying any notion of democratic accountability within what remains Britain’s largest political organization. Coupled with the Brexit victory swiftly being capitalized on by the likes of Nigel Farrage and Boris Johnson, we are indeed seeing a darkening of the political mood in British society.

A solution, for lack of more sophisticated alternatives, may be to simply hold our ground. If Corbyn is able to retain the leadership through the rallying of the mass, democratic support on which he was elected, we may yet see a final defeat for the sorry remnants of Blairism within the party. If that happens, a renewed impetus to combat the myriad and far-reaching problems now brought to light under Brexit may be in the cards.

Daniel Read is a UK based journalist. He has a BA in journalism and an MA in human rights, and is currently finishing an MSc in global politics at the University of Southampton. Follow him at his blog and on Twitter at @DanielTRead

Also see these related articles by Dan Read for

Britain: The Politics Behind Jeremy Corbyn’s Grassroots Popularity

Left Turns in Britain: Jeremy Corbyn and the Battle Over the Labour Party