Britain is mired in limbo land after the Brexit vote. What Brexit stands for is Britain`s exit from the EU. But exactly what it means is unclear. For the moment, everything is in abeyance, and what awaits is a slow reckoning with the consequences of Brexit. The airwaves and the print media are full of endless speculation, advice and commentary on what to expect, how to negotiate our way out of the EU, and a myriad attendant questions, with no clear answers. It is a work in progress.
But let us take stock of what has happened. This year has undoubtedly been dominated by Brexit and will continue to do so for an indefinite period. In February, the then Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a referendum would be held on 23 June to decide whether the UK would remain in the EU – seen as the biggest political decision the nation was being asked to make for generations. The legislative machinery for such a referendum had been laid down a year earlier, because all through the previous several years, a huge momentum had been building up for a once-for-all showdown on the question. This was mainly driven by UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party), under its charismatic leader Nigel Farage, on a mounting wave of anti-immigration fervour in the population at large. Its focus was the free movement of EU citizens into the UK, which had accelerated after a large-scale expansion of the EU in 2004 that brought in an additional 10 new members, including Poland and Hungary, followed by the admission of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. The result was a steady influx of migrants, from Poland and Romania in particular. This then was the catalyst for widespread hostility towards them that has simply not abated.
The locals complained that the migrants were taking up their jobs or undercutting wages; they did not speak English; they did not integrate; they sent their earnings back home; they lived in overcrowded conditions or they occupied houses meant for the indigenous Brits; they were responsible for petty or other forms of crime – a damning catalogue of grievances. There may have been an element of truth in some of them but there was also much prejudicial oversimplification involved. This was taking place against the background of the downturn of the economy following the 2008 global financial meltdown, with dire consequences in the areas of employment, housing, schools, health and social welfare services and income distribution, giving rise to the phenomenon of popular discontent with the ruling establishment that has spread across both sides of the Atlantic. And predating and underlying all this was a growing disenchantment with the whole European project on account of its overbearing bureaucratic structures and mission creep, which made many British people uncomfortable. So it was little wonder that the majority verdict turned out to be for Brexit.
During the referendum campaign, an ugly mood was developing but what the vote to leave the EU precipitated was an explosion of pent up emotion into downright violence, abuse and other acts of unpleasant behaviour towards not only Poles and Eastern Europeans but other foreign looking or sounding people also. A graphic report in The Independent of 28 July - headlined: `Racism unleashed: Incident by incident – the grim litany of post-Brexit hate crime`, with the sub-title `Exclusive: At least 500 incidents in the last five weeks have included racist letters in Tunbridge Wells, swastikas from Plymouth to Glasgow, chants in London of “First we`ll get the Poles out, then the gays!” and violence in Yeovil` - featured such incidents from all over the country and deserves to be fully read at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/racism-unleashed-brexit-eu-referendum-post-referendum-racism-true-scale-of-post-eu-referendum-a7149836.html
It began with the case of a woman, Karen, who had called a national radio phone-in programme, and was heard sobbing, barely able to contain her fear, or bewilderment: `I am so scared ... I am German. I have been here since 1973. My [late] husband was British, a GP. I have lived here for 43 years ... I have had friends of mine saying they can`t be friends any more ... I am so frightened ... have had dog turd thrown at my door ... told to go back home ... neighbours told me they don`t want me living in this road and they are not friends with foreigners ...`, plus much more. The programme host tried to calm her, saying that no matter how they had voted, `the huge majority of British people were on her side`. He told her she was not alone and indeed social media soon rallied with expressions of outrage at the racists and support for Karen. `But the grim truth [was] Karen wasn`t really alone [because] there were hundreds of other victims` including, as we learn from the report, some people of Chinese, Indian, Muslim and other ethnicities and descriptions as well.
While there was no actual violence involved in Karen`s story and, according to the report, `the vast majority of incidents analysed by The Independent have stopped at verbal, not physical abuse`, that was little comfort to those at the receiving end of such treatment, with implicit threats of worse to come. This was the state of play some barely 5 weeks after the referendum result. The climate of fear however has scarcely lessened since. Indeed towards the end of August, there was a high profile murder of a Polish man in Harlow, just north of London and, as if that was not enough, two other Polish men were savagely attacked in the same town within hours of a memorial service for the murdered man. These developments so shocked the Polish community that their home government despatched a ministerial team to hold urgent talks with their counterparts the Home and Foreign Secretaries in London, and at other official level meetings, followed by a phone call from the British to the Polish Prime Minister expressing her deep regret and an assurance that `hate crime has no place in UK society` – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-has-called-the-polish-prime-minister-to-express-deep-regret-over-post-brexit-attacks-a7235046.html
But race hate crime in the UK is nothing new nor quite dead, for there is undoubtedly a streak of xenophobia deeply embedded in the character of the British. As Robert Winder in his mammoth 2004 study (of) `Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain` (ISBN 978-0-349-13880-0) put it: `We know little of those who came unstuck at the wrong end of an unsolved clubbing down at the docks, their skulls broken when a sudden flash of anti-foreigner fury possessed some drunken English roughs, and their bodies tossed thoughtlessly into the slimy brown river`! He was taking a longer view and writing about the Huguenots (the 17th century French Protestant refugees), but the targets of hatred have of course varied and shifted from time to time. In the last hundred and fifty years alone, Jewish, South Asian, Caribbean and African folk too have suffered the same fate. These successive waves of newcomers also were accused of taking jobs from the locals, not speaking English, not integrating, living in squalor, and being responsible for crime and prostitution. They have long since become part of the national scene (see `Culture Shock`, AwaaZ Issue 1/2016).
In short, what the Brexit vote has done is to give to the perpetrators of violence of the kind described above a sense of legitimacy, whether warped or not, to behave in that way. To outsiders it may appear as if Britain is in the grip of a mass purge of Polish migrants and immigrant bashing generally. The optimist however will argue that the reality is quite different and mundane, that daily life goes on as before for the vast majority of the immigrant population despite the increase in the reported and other cases of violence and abuse. But though there have been predictable condemnations of such acts, the fact is the country is poised at a cross roads, and things could turn nasty. Historically there have always been periodic outbursts of tension and conflict with people of foreign origin. The difference this time is that there is a rising tide of identity politics and nationalism sweeping across Europe and flowing in from the other side of the Atlantic as well. How all that is going to pan out remains to be seen. So whatever Brexit may ultimately look like, one can only hope that British pragmatism will ensure that harmony prevails over discord.
Ramnik Shah © 2016