Friends, acquaintances and relatives say our country seems strange, menacing and unrecognisable. A few of them voted for Brexit. Pro-EU journalists feel wretched and vaguely culpable. Why did our words turn to ash? What could we have done to persuade the undecided? Most writers, dramatists, academics and artists are discombobulated. Ian McEwan wrote just after the result: ‘Everything is changed utterly . . . The country you live in, the parliamentary democracy that ruled it, for good or bad, has been trumped by a plebiscite of dubious purpose and unacknowledged status’. For poet Jackie Kay, ‘It’s like a bereavement . . . I hadn’t realised it would hit me like this. None of us had. It is a trauma. A body blow to the nation’. Like Kay and many Remainers, I wake up and reality floods in, overwhelms the conscious self. My daughter calls from the hospital where she works as a medical engineer. She is furious and tearful. A Brexit colleague is drunk on victory, is behaving obnoxiously, baiting her. He’s just asked her if her parents arrived here on a camel or a boat.
The last time I suffered such an identity crisis, such grief was when I got divorced, twenty-eight years ago. I never saw that blow coming, never thought the life we had built would go down like a fragile house of cards. With Brexit I half-expected the woeful outcome. With millions of other British citizens, I hoped our arguments would prevail and keep the UK within the distinctive and enlightened European collective. We were hoping against hope. For some time now, I have seen ominous signs, tasted acridity in the air, noticed thin cracks on the ground beneath our feet. Britain was changing and not in a good way.
Around the country ‘the people’ were rising, not against the unjust economic system, but their fellow citizens. They loathed the ‘elite’, which included the upper and middle classes as well as all individuals in positions of leadership or influence. Bandit bankers and corrupt MPs, professors and civil servants were all apparently mendacious, all in it together. The poor hated the poor, natives hated outsiders, settled migrants hated new incomers, the North hated the South, non-Londoners hated London. Key institutions were damned, our parliament and EU most of all. Wisdom, expertise, reason, acumen, knowledge were scorned. Demagoguery became the new infotainment. Shouty, angry, uninhibited, uninformed altercations were promoted by the media as well as some politicians.
One illustrative example of this decline and fall of public discourse was the brutish Channel 4 Brexit debate with Jeremy Paxman, during which reflective Remainers, including the singer Sandie Shaw, were ritually humiliated. Paxman seemed to have taken on the persona of the infamous Jeremy Kyle. I had agreed to go on, but withdrew the day before. God must have whispered a warning in my ear. Two days after the referendum, Paxman wrote a column about this programme in the Telegraph. He praised guest Sheila Hancock for her genuine and passionate pro-EU speech, then went on: ‘That evening’s bear pit was notable for something else. The various politicians present . . . were notable by their modest silence. Yes virtually everyone in the audience wanted a rant. Where is the claim now that people have lost interest in politics?’ Mr Paxman does not seem to (or care to) appreciate how reasonable men and women are bewildered and quashed by the bear pits and ranters he mistakes for live democracy. This, we were told, was ‘real politics’ the ‘authentic voice’ previously disdained by ‘elites’. In my previous life in Uganda, I had witnessed such rabble rousing by the powerful. Now it was happening here.
A number of intellectuals, newspaper editors and proprietors, demagogues, disgruntled politicians and little Britons had formed a ragtag, crusading army and used every dirty trick to turn the British public against the post-war European project. Their slogan, ‘We want our country back!’ reverberated through the land, even in the sleepiest of places where nothing had changed through the ages. As I have argued elsewhere, in Smethwick in 1963, Tory Peter Griffiths overturned a massive Labour majority by repeatedly using one simple slogan: ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’. We no longer use the N-word, but unsavoury leaders still awaken xenophobia for political gain. The unspoken Brexit slogan was ‘If you want a migrant for a neighbour, vote remain’.
Remember though, the national mood, as I say above, had been souring for a good while. Tabloids became more aggressively anti-migrant and anti-EU, invigorating a new wave of xenophobia. Alliances were formed between right and left wing politicians. Frank Field champion of the working classes and Nicholas Soames, the privileged toff, paired up and sent out daily briefings on why migration was denying the rights of the true-born. Did Soames ever care about the poor? Of course not. But he found a way of exploiting their economic terror. Why then did Field join him? Because populism brings easy popularity.
Meanwhile, some prominent public intellectuals ruefully ruminated about cohesion and ‘hyperdiversity’ or suggestively evoked a faux prelapsarian Britain, that green and pleasant land, perfect, monocultural, content and united. These back-to-the-future longings have been used as propaganda by expedient prime ministers – from Stanley Baldwin to David Cameron. In recent times, the nostalgia was turned into a possibility, a pledge. Mr Farage with his pint and ciggie was the living embodiment of those promises. Patriotism, cautioned Dr Johnson, is ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’. In 2016, some such scoundrels became brewers of bitter populism.
First they made an adulterated blend. Ukip fomented the boiling infusion and all parties gorged on it. Into the cauldron went austerity anger, feral stranger hatred, anti-EU venom, political cynicism and alienation, the pus from the painful blisters that globalisation had wreaked, radical jingoism and decomposing bits of old colonialism. Stirred by Farage and the right, the pot boiled away making the broth more potent and toxic. Centrist and leftish politicians could not find the courage they needed to drain it away or to expose the witchery. Instead, they either tried foolishly to mimic Ukipry in order to defeat it or arrogantly presumed (as David Cameron did) that the concoction would burn off in due course. Or that our strong, secretive state would have ways of dealing with such intemperate, extreme appetites. Rebellions without a coherent cause are not so easily contained.
The referendum marks both the end of the post- war, liberal consensus and also a momentous (and ruinous) rejection of progressive values. At an internal BBC seminar I attended in 2007, the then head of news, announced blithely that the corporation was breaking free of the enlightened Reithian mission of the corporation. Two years later Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP was invited on to Question Time. Leaving the EU is the endgame in the longer culture war which has been going on for a good ten years, maybe longer.
The same battles are being fought on various fronts around the world, in India, Turkey and the USA. Globalisation is the root cause, yet instead of mobilising against that form of avaricious and reckless capitalism, the masses have turned against modernity, noble liberal ideals, political correctness, democracy, human rights, fairness and justice, internationalism, feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, intellectualism and deliberation in public affairs. Inchoate furies harnessed by cynical reactionaries are rejecting openness, cherished liberties, creativity, equality, virtuous human sentiments and democratic literacy. Just look at those poor black and white Americans ardently backing Donald Trump’s dystopian views and dodgy policies. How easily they are duped by a man they trust because he was a TV celeb. Our working and workless classes were similarly conned into voting to leave the EU by the duplicitous Boris, a toff who was always game for a laugh.
Here I say the unsayable. There has been an awful lot of hand wringing over the Britons who feel betrayed by the so-called elite and establishment. I do not accept this analysis or burden of guilt. Brutal modern capitalism has produced a new wave of the wretched. I have seen the misery, the poverty and the hopelessness. I write about the dispossessed, mentor children from poor white families, lend them money, go to the GP with them, encourage them to vote. Poverty and exclusion do not entitle anyone to disrespect our representative democracy or to scapegoat migrants, who pay their taxes and contribute disproportionately to the public purse. On 30 June, I was in Bethnal Green in a sari. A white bloke in his forties came up close to me and said mockingly: ‘You lot’ll soon be off then’. I asked him if he had a job. ‘No’, he replied. Hadn’t tried to find one either. So I said in a soft voice: ‘You know, you don’t want me gone. My taxes pay for your daytime TV’. This is what we have become.
My last book, Exotic England, was a paean to this nation which through its bloody, and at times, exploitative history, has also been expansive and porous. I start with the Elizabethan age when rich Ottomans were the envied and favoured oligarchs on our isles but poor, hardworking European exiles were despised. Shakespeare, who named his first theatre The Globe, wrote a moving speech on their plight in an unfinished play featuring Sir Thomas More. In the 17th century, Daniel Defoe hit out at the petty English bigots who wanted to banish all ‘aliens’ from the land. And so it has gone on. That recurrent story is told by Robert Winder in his remarkable tome, Bloody Foreigners. My book, written between 2003 and 2007, was, in part, a response to Ukip and the English Defence League. Dishearteningly, by June 2016, millions of Englanders, descendants of fearless explorers, audacious traders and cultural extroverts, disclaimed this glorious history and withdrew into themselves. They become small islanders. They will find their receptive, inclusive selves again. But not for a long time. Not, perhaps, in my lifetime.
Soon after the referendum, I was invited to debate Englishness and Brexit at the British Academy. The other panellists were the right-wing journalist and author Simon Heffer and ex Labour MP John Denham. The Daily Telegraph columnist Mary Riddell was the chair. A large crowd turned up. Some of them seemed hostile and full of angst. For them, the exit from Europe was phase one. Now they want an English parliament. Fair enough, I said, but what kind of England did they want? Unspoken and spoken words indicated that they were dreaming of a white England. Afterwards two men told me that migrants like me would get a second class passport. Another wanted Nicola Sturgeon impeached for ‘treason’. A large number of gross emails were sent to me after the event. Brexit did not, it seems, soothe or placate the nationalist brigade. They are still discharging malevolence, still dangerously malcontent and openly xenophobic.
It is not only English chauvinists who feel they have the right to debase and beat those who look or sound ‘foreign’. Brexit has given British bigots from the other UK nations licence to say what they damn well want. More alarmingly, fascists are emboldened and attracting young supporters.
Those who should be manning the barricades, fighting these forces of obscurantism, have rolled over or are in retreat or, most worryingly, unaware of the profundity of the challenges before us. In previous centuries there was less inertia, certainly more courage when natives turned against incomers. Take this salutary example: In the late 1690s, thousands of Englanders turned against Protestant exiles who had fled France and settled in England. Plays and poems were written by narrow-minded patriots. One disgruntled man penned this ditty which circulated in London:
The nation is almost quite undone
By French men that doe it dayly overrune
They have made our nation greviously to groane
Under a burthen of great misery
(See Huguenot Heritage, Robin Gwynne, Alpha 1998)
When William III asked parliament to grant these refugees naturalisation rights, Sir John Knight, MP for Bristol wrote a nasty pamphlet in which he declared that foreigners should be kicked out of the kingdom. Parliamentarians condemned his remarks and had the pamphlets burned by a hangman. Enoch Powell was sacked by Ted Heath for his inflammatory, racist speeches. Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary passed laws against discrimination and argued eloquently for diversity and tolerance. Those were the days.
Over the last three years, reports have warned about anti-migrant and anti-EU attitudes, about the threats to our liberal democratic principles and lifestyles. (These strands are interconnected.) Liberty and its dynamic director Shami Chakrabarti, refugee groups, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Runnymede Trust, activists – all tried in vain to rally public concern. Most Britons did not listen, they did not know how. Some were complacent, others were in the fog of denial and millions believed and still believe naively that the only enemy of Western, open societies is Islamicism.
Thoughtful and smart men and woman did not see the regressive and nativist enemies within. After the Brexit result was announced, Andrew Motion, the erstwhile poet laureate seemed disorientated:
When I set out I looked over my shoulder
At my country falling away beneath me
The shining reservoir and sewage farm,
The textbook motorway and the ring road
Telling myself in so many words; no matter
Everything will be here and almost the same
The Hungarian–British poet, George Szirtes was more alert to what had been happening, perhaps because he came to the UK from elsewhere sixty years ago and must know intolerance is a light sleeper: ‘It is not as if the xenophobia that so influenced the leave campaign as it moved from economics to immigration did not exist before – it exists everywhere and often in more virulent form. Indeed, it set the stage for the campaign, and those who had muttered in the wings were encouraged to come out and occupy it. The filthy messages to Poles, the graffiti on public buildings, are part of the same spectrum’.
Brexiters are not all bigots or ill-educated individuals. Some had rational and honourable reasons for wanting out. However, they kept bad company and were, at times, disingenuous. An academic I know, was typical. Initially his decision was based on concern for the British working classes who were losing out to low-paid migrant workers. Then, after watching some unpleasant bullying on TV when a few people from up North shouted at Eastern European migrants in the audience, he decided he wanted to leave the EU to stop this prejudice; ‘Look if we had fewer of them, we’d get less hostility’. He teaches sociology at a prestigious university.
Too many cosmopolitan Britons, white, black and brown, were naive. They held on to images of the Olympics and sincerely believed that frank arguments in the public space and untamed expression would free minds and lead doubters back into the arms of the EU. In reality, free expression, in person and online, has closed conversations, silenced internationalists and socialists, pro-European activists, immigrants and their offspring. Jo Cox was the martyr to this cause. She didn’t shut up so had to die.
This cannot be the end of the story. We, who are left, should remember the indefatigable Cox and pick up the fight. Sixteen million of us voted to stay in the EU. This is the moment to mobilise, find legitimate ways to keep Britain open and diverse. Remainers must, as Ian Hislop said on Question Time, continue to speak up for European unity and defend the values they believe in. Brexiters do not have a carte blanche to turn Great Britain into a mean fortress. Imagine how hyperactive they would have been if the Remain side had won the referendum. Lazy acquiescence is a cop out, a dereliction of duty. Much can be done and must be done between now and the day article 50 is triggered. In the words of Will Hutton, ‘It’s our country too, and we don’t need to live in a xenophobic economic dead zone’.
Photograph © Mike Freedman