“This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle… This other Eden… This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land, dear for her reputation through the world, is now leased out… England, bound in with the triumphant sea whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame…”
John of Gaunt’s deathbed description of England, from Shakespeare’s Richard II, struck a chord with me this week. This famous four hundred year old prose juxtaposes the apparent beauty of England with the actions of its leader who put personal gain before his country’s welfare. Sound familiar Mr Johnson and Mr Gove?
The result of the EU referendum is undoubtedly the most significant British political event of the twenty-first century. To me this result constitutes a major disappointment. Despite the innumerable benefits of EU membership and the leave campaign’s comprehensive failure to offer a coherent alternative to EU membership, our country has been plunged into uncertainty and risks receiving a raw deal from Brussels. The remain campaign must shoulder a significant portion of the blame. Cameron and the government arrogantly relied on scaremongering and threats such as the ‘Brexit budget’ to stave off a leave vote. The remain campaign stressed the harmful consequences and the uncertainty of leaving rather than the benefits that EU membership brings to trade, research as well as social policy, just to name a few. The Labour remain campaign also fell woefully short. The fact that it took the party months to articulate a unified stance on Britain’s EU membership and Corbyn’s own ambivalence towards the EU both contributed towards traditional labour supporting areas, as we saw in parts of the North East, voting to leave.
However, I believe that this result unfortunately boils down to something much simpler and uglier than the shortcomings of the remain campaign. The political climate of Great Britain precipitated by this referendum is nothing short of toxic and it has become abundantly clear that Britain’s vote to exit the EU was not motivated by logic, empiricism and informed debate but instead by demagoguery, lies and prejudice.
I would find the referendum result more palatable had it not been effected by untruths incubated by a zealous nativism that today prevails in Britain. I am not exaggerating when I say that the primary factor motivating people across the UK to vote to leave the EU was a hatred of one of the EU’s founding principles: the freedom of movement of labour. I acknowledge that for many individuals, especially those working in trades such as plumbing, carpentry, and construction, the EU’s commitment to freedom of movement has led to the depression of wage rates. This is undeniably a legitimate concern, but I cannot accept the demonization of migrants which plagues our society.
This vitriolic anti immigrant rhetoric is not new and is a historically reoccurring theme that surfaces at times of economic and political division as a convenient scapegoat. Immigration and the EU have instead been blamed for the failures of government policy, the true root cause of working class disillusion. In recent years, the rise to prominence of the UK Independence Party has served to advance a nativist attitude that views the European Union as the harbinger of ‘swarms’ of migrant labour. Nigel Farage’s demagoguery tarnished the referendum debate as he blamed pressures on our public services on EU immigration, as opposed to the legacy of austerity, and he argued that leaving Europe would allow Britain’s membership fee to be reinvested in the NHS. A claim which Farage, unsurprisingly, distanced himself from the day after the referendum. Thus Boris’ infamous £350 million a week battle bus, the same bus which Michael Gove just threw him under, is now confined to the same political graveyard as the ‘Edstone’ and Labour’s ‘controls on immigration’ mug. One particularly memorable moment of the campaign trail, for all the wrong reasons, was Farage’s unveiling of a poster picturing migrants and refugees with the words ‘Breaking Point’ in flagrant bold red letters. The poster, reminiscent of Nazi propaganda, embodied the darkest depths of the scaremongering employed by the leave campaign. The sad reality is that these hateful smears gained traction with voters.
We all have that one relative or friend on Facebook who shares Britain First posts and it is easy to shrug off the group as some kind of sick joke, just like comment section of the Daily Mail website. However, it is chillingly clear that harmful nationalism and insularity are becoming the status quo in many places in Britain. It has been revealed that racist hate crimes have increased five-fold in the days after the Brexit vote. For example, a Swedish woman and her two children in North Yorkshire were told to “**** off back to your own country.” In Cambridgeshire, Police were called to investigate signs that had been posted through people’s doors and placed outside local primary schools that read “Leave the EU. No more Polish vermin.” To avoid any confusion the perpetrators provided a polish translation on the reverse side. This past week a BBC journalist was racially abused and told to go ‘home’ whilst out in Basingstoke. These are just three of the 331 incidents of hate crime reported to the police in the wake of Brexit. The weekly national average is 63. These findings are all the more staggering when we are reminded that hate crime is significantly under reported.
Just a matter of weeks ago Labour MP, Jo Cox, was brutally murdered outside a library in Birstall in West Yorkshire where she was about to hold a constituency surgery, in a politically motivated attack by a man who gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” I am not for one moment insinuating that Britain has 17 million racists or that any of these unspeakable acts that I have mentioned were a legitimate expression of the sentiment of leave voters. My point is that this referendum campaign and the fallout from the vote has created a political atmosphere that has served to motivate and frame these acts. This is deeply concerning.
I remember my GCSE Religious Education lessons in which we discussed ‘British values.’ We spoke of multiculturalism, tolerance and mutual respect for everyone regardless of their race or country of origin. These are the values which I identify with and which I am proud of. They define modern Britain and what it means to be British. One of my friends who studies modern languages told me about how her tutor cried on the Friday morning of the result because this vote represented her rejection as an EU national, living and working in this country. The vote was a rejection of her valued contribution to our society.
But immigration has been and always will be a hallmark of Britain. Whether that be the immigration that occurred from the Commonwealth, with refugees arriving from Soviet controlled territories after the Second World War, or EU migration in more recent years. In terms of identity, I may identify as ‘White British’ but what does that really mean? My great grandmother’s family were Polish Jews who came to Britain fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century. My grandfather on my mum’s side was born to an Italian mother. There is no such thing as a purely ‘British’ person. This is why cries of “we want our country back!” simultaneously infuriate and perplex me. We want our country back from whom? The EU migrants who contribute more to our economy in tax than they claim in welfare? We want our country back from whom? The doctors and nurses from EU countries who play a vital role in the day to day operation of our National Health Service? We want our country back? As history can testify, we never lost it. Immigration is woven into the very fibres of our being.
Brexit is also likely to have catastrophic implications for the political unity of the United Kingdom. It is well known that “A house that is divided against itself cannot stand.” As the results of the referendum show, Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain a member of the European Union and Nicola Sturgeon now has a sizeable mandate to agitate for a second Scottish Independence referendum. If a second Scottish Independence referendum does take place, which is looking extremely likely given the significance of Britain’s vote to exit the EU, I fail to see anything other than a vote in favour of independence that would bring an end to the political union between England and Scotland that was conceived in 1707. England and Scotland have, for many years now, appeared to be on divergent political paths and in my eyes the result of this referendum, along with the demise of the Labour Party in Scotland in the 2015 general election, serves to underline this glaringly obvious fact.
In Northern Ireland Britain’s vote to leave the EU could serve to inflame tensions as Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, has called for a border poll on a united Ireland following the vote. Support for the EU in Northern Ireland, just like in Scotland, was generally higher than the rest of the UK and the DUP was the only party in the country to have supported the leave campaign. What is particularly worrying for those in Northern Ireland is that the country is now at risk of losing the financial support that it receives from the EU to fund projects aimed at supporting the region’s peace process. Therefore, it certainly is feasible to view this decision as more than simply a vote to leave the European Union and instead as a vote for the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Viewed in this light, Farage’s ‘independence day’ speech (not be confused with a speech of the same name given by the fictional President Whitmore in the ‘Independence day’ film) enters new realms of irony.
The fallout and upheaval resulting from the shock result of the referendum has led to the emergence of one common theme. Division. If one thing is clear to me as I write this is that the ‘United Kingdom’ is today an oxymoron. There are generational divisions between the young who overwhelming voted to remain in the EU, although with a pitifully low turn out of 36% of people aged 18-24, and the older voters who overwhelmingly voted to leave. There are signs of social divisions as hate crimes have increased and an aura of intolerance has seemingly been legitimised by political these political developments. Britain’s two main political parties are bitterly divided and have been thrust into internal crisis. The Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to resign in October has triggered a mudslinging leadership contest in the Conservative party that embodies the soap opera politics that is bitterly loathed by so many. Meanwhile the Labour Party is in disarray at a time when its supporters and members hoped it would be able to hold the government to account for its failings. Jeremy Corbyn’s position as labour leader is looking increasingly untenable as he now struggles to fill his shadow cabinet following a wave of resignations and a no confidence vote in his leadership from the Parliamentary Labour Party as his detractors used the EU vote to attack his performance. With bitter divisions between Labour’s grassroots support, its membership and its MPs in Westminster, the party appears to be destined for another split. As I write we are not the ‘United Kingdom’ we are the Divided Kingdom. We are the 48% versus the 52%. Deserted by our leaders at a time when coherent leadership is required the most. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s lack of any post Brexit economic plan exposes the leave campaign’s leadership as a political power grab of the most deplorable kind. Farage’s resignation as UKIP leader, lets hope he actually sticks to it this time, is symptomatic of a cowardly smugness and an inability to answer the questions that have surfaced after the referendum vote. Britain today is more divided that I can ever remember.
To return to my opening quotation, it is perhaps fitting to view Gaunt’s speech as a eulogy of the United Kingdom. A land “dear for her reputation throughout the world”, whom now finds herself “bound in with shame”; the shame of prejudice, intolerance and insularity. The shame of being sold untruths by self serving politicians. And the shame of betraying a European Union that we helped to found.