Up until the campaigning over the referendum started in earnest last month, it didn’t feel as though many people (other than those who have dedicated their entire political or journalistic lives arguing for exit) wanted to decide on our future in Europe at all. Isn’t that what we paid politicians to do? No one seems to know whether the stakes are very low or extremely high, or precisely what it is we’re debating. Perhaps that’s why British politics have never felt so vicious, so ugly, so petty, and so violent.
It began as an internal matter of party discipline. The offer of a referendum was a strategic decision made by the Conservative Party in the run up to last year’s general election. It was offered both as Prime Minister David Cameron’s concession to the eurosceptic wing of his own party—which had been hammering him on the issue of EU membership from the shires of middle England for years—and as a way of shoring up his nationalist credentials against the upstart band of blazer-wearing, spittle-spewing paranoiacs who call themselves the UK Independence Party.
Though they have one MP in the Commons (their leader Nigel Farage sits prettily in the European Parliament even as he rails against it) UKIP are more of a single-issue pressure group than a real political party. Nevertheless they have proved depressingly effective at whipping up anti-outsider sentiment: against Romanians and Bulgarians, against Turkey joining the EU, against Syrian refugees. It seemed as though they might well dilute the vote for the Tories—as well as for Labour, in some constituencies—during the 2015 election, so that giving way on the question of an EU referendum made some sense for the Conservatives. Both major parties felt comfortable, if not compelled, to make immigration a campaigning issue. The Tories said they would limit net migration to the “tens of thousands” (despite the fact that, as many pointed out, this would wreak havoc with our economy and the NHS) and Labour, then led by Ed Miliband, produced a much-derided campaign mug that bore the mealy-mouthed legend “controls on immigration.”
Now Cameron—who, along with the rump of his party and with the majority of opposition Labour MPs has been campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU—appears flummoxed by the potential of that decision to ruin him. For the past few weeks Cameron has looked on as the Leave Campaign—led by his fellow Conservative MP, fellow old-Etonian, and Bullingdon Club drinking partner Boris Johnson— has gained ground. An exit vote could spell the end of Cameron’s political career. If he loses, it seems likely that the next government will be led by Johnson, aided and abetted by some of the most odious members of the current cabinet. Until recently it felt as though we weren’t being asked to decide whether or not we should leave Europe, but who we wanted our next government to be.
For many on the right, Brexit has been argued for through the hazy lens of a nostalgic xenophobia. It has been pitched as means of refashioning Britain in an image of itself as a nation that “punches above its weight” on the international stage. “We want our country back,” the leave campaigners say, as if Parliament weren’t already our sovereign body, and as if the EU’s actual day-to-day effect on public life weren’t, in many ways, negligible. On the radio phone-ins and public debates, middle England has rallied under the banner of this muddled call to arms. Small business owners bemoan EU regulations and red tape, but the examples they come up with are banal and deeply petty. On one debate I listened to the owner of a marketing firm who, when pushed for examples of EU meddling, could only come up with the fact that he had been inconvenienced when Brussels had made him buy five legged chairs for his workers.
There is a less vocal case on the left for leaving the EU (or, to select from among the piled-up portmanteaus, “lexit”). This case represents a “No” victory as a surreptitious means for re-enshrining the democratic rights of the worker at the heart of British political life. The EU’s treatment of Greece and its shameful internal closing of borders have bolstered their case. It’s true that the institutions of Brussels are undemocratic, perhaps terminally so, and that its policies are a sop to capital. It’s true, too, that the import tariffs the EU imposes on, say, African farmers are ruinous. But the left has failed to turn the referendum into a debate about the EU itself. Moreover it’s difficult to see how scrapping our commitment to the EU human rights laws, or the European Working Time Directive, which limits the number of hours European workers can be asked to work each week, would benefit anyone but the bosses. And, for the moment, there seems to be no genuine alternative. Those who believe that leaving the EU will make us “more democratic” seem in thrall to a vision of British (though really English) exceptionalism that has never been true, that a “No” vote cannot instantly conjure.
Some of the campaigning has been merely farcical. Last week a flotilla of fishermen’s boats, led by Nigel Farage, sailed down the Thames. They blamed the EU for imposing fishing quotas that have undermined their industry. Just past Tower Bridge they were met by a counter demonstration of remain campaigners led by Bob Geldof, who swore energetically and shouted at them over a powerful PA system. The fishermen sprayed water at him from their hoses, while Farage pranced around and posed at the prow of his boat. The political sketch writers had a field day.
More ominously, the right-wing press has endorsed an anti-immigration campaign that has become unprecedentedly hateful. Really, as has become increasingly apparent, this is an argument not about British sovereignty, or about European bureaucracy, nor about who we want to form our next government. It has become a conversation about immigration.
Last Thursday the ugliness of the debate, the sheer, barbaric petty-mindedness of those who have argued for what would be an unpredictable and mainly symbolic uncoupling from Europe, made itself clear. In the morning Farage unveiled a poster that offended even many of those on his own side: a photograph of a line of Syrian refugees fleeing to Slovakia with the slogan “Breaking Point: The EU has failed us all.”
That afternoon, a man named Thomas Mair repeatedly stabbed and shot the Labour MP Jo Cox on the street outside her weekly surgery while shouting “Britain First.” She later died in the hospital.
Cox was, by all accounts, everything you could want in a politician: committed, caring and deeply principled. She had worked as an aid worker with Oxfam for a decade before becoming an MP in 2015. In her first speech in parliament she said of her West Yorkshire constituency “our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
Straight causality may never be established here. It’s been reported that Mair had mental health issues, and many on the right have urged people not to interpret the murder as a political act. But it’s difficult to read it any other way. When asked to give his name in court, Mair replied “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Cox was a prominent campaigner for the rights of Syrian asylum seekers. The man who killed her, it has been reported, subscribed to far-right magazines and was a longstanding supporter of pro-apartheid organizations. “Britain First” is the name of a fascist political party and “street defense organization’’ whose candidate for London Mayor turned his back on the podium when the Labour MP Sadiq Khan delivered a speech celebrating his election as London’s first Muslim mayor last month.
Nigel Farage has long positioned himself as the truth-talking heir to Enoch Powell, the godfather of British anti-immigrant politics, using all of that man’s dog-whistle rhetoric to make his miserable case. Only last week Farage said in an interview that if people feel that “they have lost control completely—and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the European Union—and if people feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step.”
It feels as though this referendum has unleashed the worst in us. It has poisoned the kinds of conversation we have, and expanded the space in which the subtle and often explicit racism of the right can take root. This morning I woke up feeling as though I was being asked a question that I don’t—that many of us, now—don’t want to answer.