The Summer of Hate: Part 3. Leave, Remain, Left and Right
By Greg Scorzo –
When the 2016 Leave and Remain campaigns began, there was a general worry that the entire referendum wouldn’t even capture the public’s imagination, it’s issues too complex and ideologically nebulous to galvinise the left or right in any straight forward way.29 As the referendum neared, the public interest in the EU debate soared, disrupting conventional ideological expectations. The conservative party was split on whether Britain should remain in the EU. David Cameron was in favour of remaining, while his former education minister Michael Gove and arch rival Boris Johnson were both campaigning for Leave.
On the Remain left, there were passionate supporters of the EU, alongside more EU critical supporters who thought Remain was, on balance, the better position. Reluctant Remainers were a huge thorn in the side of the Remain campaign. The EU-critical perspective exposed some of the divisions within the left over Brexit. Leftist figures like George Gallaway, Dennis Skinner, and Giles Fraser were Brexiters. The Blairite wings of the left were generally the most enthusiastic supporters of Remain.
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn was a Remainer coming from Labour’s more Marxist, anti-corporate wing. However, his support couldn’t translate very well into a terribly enthusiastic Remain campaign. During his public appearances, Corbyn would typically preface his endorsement of Remain by acknowledging some of the ways he thought the EU was problematic. Moreover, Corbyn himself had been anti-EU for over thirty years, and many suspected his late change of heart was a result of political pressure, rather that genuine conviction.
Other leftist proponents of Remain like Owen Jones had, as late as 2015, written anti-EU articles for New Statesmen and the Guardian. In a July 2015 article for the Guardian, Jones explicitly endorsed a left-wing Brexit for the Uk.30 At the time, Jones was motivated largely by his distaste for the EU’s strong-arming of Greece into accepting Austerity measures during it’s recent financial crisis. Yanis Varoufakis, who was the finance minister of Greece during this time, also (quite bizarrely) became a relucant Remainer by 2016. Varoufakis’s defence of the EU was extraoardinarily half-hearted, as he conceded much of what the opponents of the EU had claimed: that the EU was essentially undemocratic and unreformable.
Verifiakas nonetheless defended Britain’s membership, claiming that the EU kept the extreme right from coming into power.31 What’s interesting about this argument is it’s “bottom line.” If the myriad of considerations for leaving the EU are completely unimportant compared to the EU’s clamp down on the extreme right, this suggests political debates are less important than aggressively marginalising dangerous people. Injustice, and even social deprivation may be desirable, if they are part of a wider campaign to block fascists from influencing politics. This argument, interestingly, could be used to defend staying in an organisation far more undemocratic and right-wing than the EU. One can imagine an organisation that forces the UK to carry out the death penalty, ban abortion, and run 19th century style workhouses for the poor. If this organisation kept fascists out of power, many Remainers might claim that Fascism is the dangerous risk of widening democracy, abolishing the death penalty, protecting abortion rights, and creating humane conditions for workers.
And in saying this, they wouldn’t be wrong. Fascism is not just a risk of democracy, but any political project whereby one tries to make things better. What’s less obvious is that paranoia over Fascism is what tends to jeapordise many projects that actually do make things better.
Guilt By Association
Although surveys showed that Brexiters were most concerned by the lack of EU democracy, it was EU immigration policy which became the focus of both the Leave campaign, and the media coverage of it.32 This is partially what created the media narrative that Brexit was an expression of right-wing populism. The inference was that Brexit was happening because of small minded, racist, and xenophobic voters who wanted to kick out all the EU immigrants residing in Britain. Because the Labour party was so stridently Remain, the mainstream media largely ignored Brexiters who wanted more, rather than less immigration.33 Futhermore, there was an assumption in the media that anyone who wanted to lower immigration numbers must be either racist or xenophobic. This assumption is false.
None of the major political parties in Britain have been anti-immigration in the last ten years. However, by 2015, there was a consensus among both the Conservative and Labour parties that immigration rates needed to be more heavily controlled. The reason typically given was that the presence of too many low skilled immigrants was bad for society, as well as damaging to British institutions like the National Health Service.34 Of course, there were other parties (The Greens) who disputed the official consensus on immigration numbers being too high.35 But the reason many Brexiters were concerned with excessive immigration was because the consensus in mainstream politics said they should be. That is, Brexiters trusted the very experts who made claims about immigration that Labour and the Conservatives presupposed leading up to the 2015 general election. If the UK had voted to remain in the EU, it’s likely this immigration stance would still have continued to be the dominant one in mainstream politics.
This doesn’t mean the Brexit campaign was thorougly non-racist either. It’s an obvious truism that old fashioned racists and xenophobes will certainly glob onto a campaign that announces itself as lowering immigration numbers. But these elements are not interchangeable with either the entire Brexit campaign or the majority of it’s supporters. Yet the reaction from disgruntled Remainers was to do a “guilt by association” politics where the important obligation was simply to be on whatever side was opposite old fashioned racists and xenophobes. This attitude was crystalised well before the vote itself in the famous Will Self quote:
“Not all Brexiters are racists but all racists are Brexiters.”36
A few people on the extreme right have been very useful in making this perspective seem much more compelling to people. In the weeks and months after the referendum, the rise in racist hate crimes has been one of the dominant elements of the media narrative where Brexit is still portrayed as a dangerous victory of the extreme right.
One would be crazy to deny that there has been a spike in racist incidents after the referendum, incidents which range from annoying to terrifying. But because these events are often filmed on iphones and become media soundbytes, their presence in the media can be psychologically misleading. They can, in one way, give the impression that these incidents are more widespread in British society than they actually are. They can also give the impression that somehow if Remain had won, these racist incidences would be less frequent. The reality is, we can’t know if Remain winning would have galvanised people looking to express old-fashioned racism to a larger degree than a Brexit vote did.
But we do know there is a problem with some of the data on hate crimes. Hate crime, after all, is legally defined in a way where an event can count as a hate crime if the victim interprets the event as a hate crime.37 This means police organisations collecting hate crime data don’t always conclusively verify whether or not the crimes have actually happened. It’s often a matter of interpretation, and hence, a matter for which due process is not conventionally applied. This creates a situation where we are told that there is an epidemic rise in hate crime, while the very mechanisms supposed to tally those incidents sometimes do nothing more than collect the accusations.
During the aftermath of something like Brexit, it’s certainly feasible that accusations of hate crimes will sky rocket. After all, if a population is told by the media that Brexit represents a mainstreaming of far-right racism, many events will be interpreted as racist that might otherwise not be. But let’s suppose every reported racist hate crime is one any sane person would interpret as such. Brexit vindication may not be the only causal explanation of this spike in hate crimes. Another causal explanation might be the attitudes of Remainers towards Brexiters.
This is because in British culture, it became very apparent on June 23rd that many Remainers held Brexiters in absolute contempt. The contempt contained such a visceral rage that Brexiters were casually written about as though they weren’t human beings. They were described as something more like a public health problem; a virus that needed to be contained. Metaphors like, “lizard brain” and shit emerging from bursting sewers were used to describe them.38 Facebook statuses like “Welcome to Chav Britain” became a popular injoke for angry Remainers. Ideas which began as online jokes were taken seriously by many, like the suggestion London become it’s own country, or that people over 60 should be deprived of the right to vote.39 There’s no reason to think all of this would galvinise hate crime less than Leave’s victory.
More importantly, the spike in hate crime is useful not just for demonising Brexiters. It’s also useful for amping up a middle class identity politics which insists that bigotry is omnipresent. This politics insists that the progress Western society has made on civil rights issues is largely an illusion, and that in nearly every area of social interaction, women, ethnic minories, muslims, LBGT people, and other vulnerable groups are being oppressed. This politics, to a much greater degree than the left’s economic politics, has dominated the mainstream media. The speech codes in television and radio are largely informed by an attempt not to cause offense. Not causing offence means largely catering to people who want identity politics prohibitions of words and imagery to be etiquette, rather than a contested ideology. This is why hysteria over far-right hate crime is easy to create in an age when the supposedly neutral mainstream media often casually endorses the oppression politics of the middle class left.
It’s understandeable why the mainstream media does this. Identity politics is a left politics where you can keep your money, as long as you watch your language. And on top of that, it makes you feel good about yourself. Especially if you are middle class and white. It makes you seem not just more empathetic than other white people. It also makes you seem more cynical about society. This raises your coolness points, because you can then display to your chums how your education has made you someone who “sees through it all.” In this way, you get to feel like the vanguard of society. Everyone else (especially people with less money and education) can thus appear comparitively mindless (or racist) when they give common sense the benefit of the doubt.
In the Britain of 2016, common sense tells us that old-fashioned racism is deeply unpopular. Old-fashioned racism is racism against ethnic minorities. Of course, the unpopularity of such racism doesn’t imply that there aren’t large amounts of people who are racist in this way. Nor does it imply that there are no racist political parties that sometimes get a respectable vote at elections. Rather, you can see the unpopularity of old-fashioned racism when you observe just how much Britain likes to punish old-fashioned racists. In the UK, people lose partners, friends, money, jobs, and are often publicly humiliated when they display old-fashioned racism. Even racist political parties feel the need to bend over backwards to prove they aren’t racist.
Celebrities who aren’t racist are frequently accused of being racist, and the experience is both psychologically distressing, and potentially career ending. Careers are routinely ruined when people so much as suspect the presence of old-fashioned racism in the psyche of an otherwise wholesome individual. This is why so few old-fashioned racists feel strongly enough to commit racist hate crimes. It’s just too risky. It’s risky because there is nearly no political stance more deeply disapproved of by the British public than the endorsement of racist hate crimes. Yet this is also why the world view expressed in those hate crimes has virtually no political power. To call those committing them “fringe” would be an understatement.
Bigoted views which are not fringe are those views there are no public sanctions for expressing. It’s not offensive to want to redistribute wealth upwards as a means of generating economic growth. It’s not offensive to speak about working class people like they are a dangerous mob. It’s not offensive to force them to either be wage slaves or endure the indignities of homelessness. It’s not offensive to express bigotry towards men. Or Cisgendered people. And especially not white people. That’s why these are the forms of bigotry which actually have political power. Views like this might fundamentally alter the political landscape in the coming decades. Old-fashioned racism doesn’t have this power anymore.
What has even less power are political views which imply that it’s ok to racially abuse ethnic minorities or commit acts of violence towards them. Not even far-right political parties condone that stuff. However, middle class paranoia over racism within white working class communities often creates a feeling that far-right racism is always just a few steps away from turning Britain into a fascist state. This paranoia certainly doesn’t originate with all Remainers. However, disgruntled Remainers have relied on this paranoia in painting far-right hate crimes as the inevitable result of Brexit support. So if you hate the far right, you’re again, supposed to immediately support whatever the opposition is. Even if the opposition is David Cameron.
If you are on the economic left, this creates a huge problem. Guilt by association politics frequently stops you from being able to challenge any kind of capitalist practice that the far-right also challenges. After all, if one should do whatever the far-right is against, the left should support the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. That partnership came from the EU, and it happens to be opposed by right-wing populists like Donald Trump.40 In the UK, right-wing populist Nigel Farage supports free tuition fees for a range of students.41 If alliances with Farage are forbidden, the left should also demand those students pay tuition fees to attend university. The left should additionally oppose Socialism. It was the extreme right, after all, which gave us National Socialism.
This is all absurd. If the goal of left politics is to do whatever the extreme right hates, the left might as well endorse gulags, political purges, kidnappings, and public rituals where Christians are fed to lions.
But guilt by association politics is more than Remain’s post-referendum framework for understanding Brexiters. It’s also the media’s post-referendum framework for understanding the political differences between the Remain and Leave campaigns. The mainstream media has largely cast Remain as left and Leave as far-right, and this has had the consequence of making some of the historically left-wing reasons for Brexiting treated as though they aren’t left-wing at all.
Britain’s concern for sovereignty over it’s own domestic laws is frequently described as though it is both a nationalistic fantasy and an unsavoury tool of the right.42 It is described this way, even though sovereignty was the main consideration socialist politician Tony Benn advocated for leaving the EU throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In fact, Benn was one of the main voices opposing Britain’s joining of the EU, during the original EU referendum of 1975. Benn’s voice, then and now, is a quintessentially left-wing one.
Months before his death in 2014, Tony Benn still remained a Eurosceptic, despite how unpopular that position had become within his own party. He remained an opponent of the EU, even though during the final years of his life, many on the left associated Euroscepticism with the far-right.
If there was anything Tony Benn was not, it is a member of the far-right. As for the Leave and Remain campaigns of 2016, things weren’t so clear.
29. See http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/blog/revealed-voters-turnout-prediction-eu-referendum-and-other-things Also see http://electoral-reform.org.uk/press-release/low-turnout-feared-just-16-public-feel-well-informed-about-eu-referendum Also see http://www.cityam.com/236208/eu-referendum-low-turnout-on-the-vote-feared-by-pressure-group-as-just-16-per-cent-of-public-feel-informed
30. See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/14/left-reject-eu-greece-eurosceptic Also see http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/07/owen-jones-elites-are-determined-end-revolt-against-austerity-greece
32. See http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/ Also see http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2016-06-30/poll-shows-brexit-vote-was-about-british-sovereignty-not-anti-immigration
33.The Spiked Magazine Campaign, was perhaps the archetypical Brexit campaign in favour of more free movement. See http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/whos-afraid-of-migrants/17694#.V6umx2U7Rdk Also see http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/using-migrants-to-bash-eastern-europe/17574#.V6um6GU7Rdk Also see http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/want-to-help-refugees-then-stop-sobbing/17556#.V6unDGU7Rdk Also see http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/we-need-to-win-the-argument-for-open-borders/17462#.V6unOWU7Rdk
34. See http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/382136/Ed-Miliband-finally-admits-immigration-is-TOO-high-and-it-was-Labour-s-fault Also see http://news.sky.com/story/miliband-all-nhs-workers-must-speak-english-10363078 Also see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/05/miliband-immigration-myths-nigel-farage-ukip-green-party Also see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/11451936/General-Election-2015-Immigration-policy.html Also see https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/apr/28/labour-changed-immigration-ed-miliband-promise Also http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2015/manifesto-guide
37. See http://www.report-it.org.uk/racist_or_religious_hate_crime1 Also see http://www.cps.gov.uk/northeast/victims_and_witnesses/hate_crime/ Also see http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/08/the-real-hate-crime-scandal/
39. See http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/the-times/brexit-the-wrinklies-have-well-and-truly-stitched-us-up/news-story/e5ce4775e7ce94a03727ea7e79a729e5 Also see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/26/education-erasmus-brexit-referendum Also see http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/remain-voters-quit-the-granny-bashing-brexit-referendum/18494#.V7UCTWU7Rdk Also see http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-latest-london-independence-time-to-leave-uk-eu-referendum-sadiq-khan-boris-johnson-a7100601.html Also see http://metro.co.uk/2016/06/24/70000-sign-petition-for-london-to-become-independent-and-rejoin-the-eu-5965541/ Also see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/25/london-separate-city-state-leave-voters-class
40. See http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/11/09/exclusive-donald-trump-obamas-trans-pacific-free-trade-deal-insanity/ Also see http://www.euractiv.com/section/trade-society/news/ttip-talks-need-swift-progress-to-avoid-trump-threat/ Also see https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/mar/27/trade-policy-uk-eu-referendum-us-bernie-sanders-donald-trump-ttip-globalisation
42. Also see https://www.euractiv.com/section/elections/opinion/sovereignty-is-nationalism-in-drag/ Also see https://tompride.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/the-brexit-vote-wasnt-democracy-in-action-it-was-populist-ignorance-on-a-grand-scale/ Also see http://www.e-ir.info/2016/06/28/the-brexit-fantasy/ Also see http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2016/02/29/sovereignty-is-an-illusion-the-uk-should-embrace-its-experience-of-power-sharing-at-home-in-order-to-play-a-constructive-role-in-the-eu/ Also see http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2016/03/15/nostalgia-xenophobia-anti-neoliberalism-the-roots-of-leaves-nationalism/
9. Cover Image for Part 3: Brexit word cloud concept (brexit) “58325346” Copywright: ricochet64
10. ATHENS, GREECE – MAY 9, 2010: Students wearing white masks protest in the capital of Greece Athens outside the Parliament building against unpopular EU-IMF austerity deal. “52639633” Copyright: vicspacewalker
11.The Immigration Mug for Labour Leader Ed Miliband’s 2015 run for Primi Minister. Copyright: The Labour Party
12. Stop racism, everyone deserves to be given a chance. “35169185” Copyright: Anna Bizon.