Did the referendum create xenophobia?

Following the referendum there is a desperate scramble to void the result. Politicians, pro-EU-media and regions like Scotland, Northern Ireland and London that voted to remain obviously wish to things to be different. Seemingly dire economic news and the lack of a government and opposition is being used to create a sense of crisis. One of the biggest developments is an apparent upturn in xenophobic incidents in the country and the idea that the referendum was ‘just about immigration’ and therefore responsible. As a Leaver, it of course startles and saddens me to see comments on the internet suggesting ‘the 52% who vote leave’ are racists. So here I’m going to try and cut through the news and look at why the EU question, primarily a constitutional and economic one, ever got entagled with immigration.

As a Leaver I always pointed to an EEA membership model ie. remaining in the single market. This is what we likely would have ended up with if we had had a referendum in the 90s as many desired. EEA membership requires free movement of people much like full EU membership. Indeed, in my blog before the referendum I don’t think I even mentioned immigration. That was not by design – it just wasn’t a factor in my personal reasons for leaving.

France barely passed Maastricht in a referendum (51% of the vote). The Danes rejected Maastricht it and so we had the Edinburgh Agreement to give them a few concessions before the treaty was narrowly passed in Denmark too. Norway did not join. The Swiss rejected membership around this time. If we had had our EU referendum in the 1990s:

  1. immigration would have been zero part of the debate
  2. we would have rejected Maastricht and not moved any further into the EU superstate project, although I would imagine we would be in the single market and therefore the European immigration situation would be pretty much the same as it is now.

If we had rejected Maastricht in the 1990s and were in the same sort of economic position, I doubt more than a minority in the UK would be pushing for full EU membership with its failing Eurozone and increasing divisions and arguments between EU states.

However, immigration did become part of the 2016 referendum. Until the expansion of the EU in the mid 2000s there was zero overlap between ‘immigration’ and ‘EU’ debates. People knew that British engineers worked over in Germany, that Spanish people often worked in hospitality, that Brits often retired to Spain and Portugal, or that people moved to Tuscany for the good life while Italians worked here. The economies enjoying these free-movement benefits were in the same ballpark, more or less, so it all seemed to even itself out and the population was almost universally positive about ‘free movement of people’. People were anti-EU for a host of reasons but free movement of the French and Dutch wasn’t one of them.

For many Labour and Conservative voters ‘immigration’ and ‘borders’ was a significant factor in voting Leave.

Then two things happened. First, the Euro currency. Even before the insanity of the Euro project become obvious in the global debt bubble and subsequent banking crisis, some Europeans complained about rising costs. Spain had a phrase something like, ‘Spanish wages, European prices’ after the Euro came into effect. While before the Spanish were paid less at least the cost of living was low too. The Euro seemed to increase the costs of living but with no rise in incomes. Post-banking crisis, this caused major migration from Southern Europe which wasn’t there in the early days of the EU.

Secondly, the New EU expansion of the mid-2000s changed the perception of free movement of people from a two-way street to one-way traffic. Predictions that perhaps, to quote a government figure, 13,000 New EU citizens might migrate in the first year actually became hundreds of thousands. In the South East, where I lived at the time, the sheer pace of change was unsettling for some established working class communities.

Working class terraced homes in urban areas were snapped up by property spivs and turned into overcrowded HMOs housing migrant workers. There was more rubbish as bins overflowed. HMOs tended to become tatty and shabby. More cars were parked everywhere and towns felt ‘crammed’. In places like Slough and Reading some HMO landlords even built sheds in back gardens to house more, often without planning permission. Pressure on school places and other services was pretty immediately felt. TV news stories covered the issues.

In spite of this, living in Watford, there was not one ‘anti new EU’ hate incident I can remember and I was friends with people from the New EU nations and it was great. While there was growing concern about the immigration situation in the area, and it was regularly discussed by people, the relentlessly positive ‘hard working Pole’ trope took hold and even when someone complained about migrants ‘arriving in droves’ they were usually quick to add that if they were in the same boat they’d do the same thing, wishing there was some country they could move to and earn more money too. Disquiet was expressed soberly and philosophically, rarely with any venom.

Yet, nevertheless, while the affluent middle-classes could get building work cheaper and business owners found they could get things done for surprisingly low pay rates thanks to a radically enlarged labour pool, for working class people there were no upsides, only downsides, whether perceived or real: job competition, pressure on services, and especially rampant house price inflation as ‘but to let’ investors rode the migrant wave aided by the lax monetary regime of the New Labour government.

British working people started to get left behind. Not only that, there was a flip-side to the ‘hard working Pole’ idea and sneering middle-class intelligentsia started to engage in a pernicious form of anti-British xenophobia and the ‘lazy, uneducated brit’ that ‘doesn’t want to work’ cliche took hold. So called left-wingers and liberals were just as likely to engage in this denigration of their compatriots as the Right but later the Tories used it to hammer the poor with swingeing austerity cuts: ‘They are lazy, stupid, and don’t want to work’ (so are getting the bashing they deserve).

Of course, the this negative stereotype was, by inference, a white Brit but Brits from the established Commonwealth immigrant communities faced the same pressures on housing, services, etc. and were just as concerned. ‘Why would an immigrant vote out of the EU?!’ incredulous middle-class people have been heard to gush indignantly in recent days.

Often during the debate people from immigrant backgrounds would make the point that they, or their parents, had to go through a formal immigration process while someone from the EU can ‘just turn up.’ As governments have tried to ‘reduce immigration’ to meet voter demands who has been targeted, given that nothing can alter EU free movement? Asians, Africans and other non-EU nationalities. The NHS used to recruit primarily from outside the EU when it needed extra staff but under caps introduced must now fulfil these from within the block, discriminating against our friends outside the EU.  Our next door neighbour is a Pakistani and voted leave. Is he some Farage-lover? Courting the Nazis?

UKIP were once a bunch of anti-EU Thatcherites who took over a centrist party founded by Alan Sked, no more than that, no worse than common or garden Tories. But spotting growing discontent among the working class realised they could expand their market away from disgruntled Tories and eat into Labour territory by adopting the language and tactics of the emerging European right-wing populist movements. While the Labour Party would shuffle their feet and look queasy if a voter mentioned issues surrounding immigration on the doorstep, UKIP were quick to say, ‘We hear you.’

Nigel Farage dived into far-right territory with a UKIP poster that shocked the mainstream Leave campaign, UKIP’s only MP Douglas Carswell,  and the whole country. Farage will not be part of brexit negotiations. 

Still, Farage shot himself in the foot with his sicko poster. We just don’t do that in the UK, which is why the BNP briefly flickered as a potential force then imploded. A frustrated Brit might flirt with far-right thinking, a bit of ideological rough trade, but doesn’t like seeing the ugliness of it up close and soon returns to the mainstream.

Even so, Farage is still primarily a Thatcherite. He’s arguably on his way to being a Pim Fortuyn but he’s not Jorg Haider.  We don’t have anything on the scale of France’s Generation Identitaire, no slick, large-scale party with neo-fascist roots like the Front Nationale, no Austrian People’s Party, no Golden Dawn and no Jobbik. I’m confident we never will – just a rag bag of meatheads in EDL and NF-like groups that never quite go away. UKIP’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, styles himself a ‘Gladstonian Liberal’ so even some of that party is far more moderate than the leader.

The important conclusions to draw are these. Xenophobic incidents must be condemned. However, over-dramatising incidents stokes unnecessary fear and to use them as a way to foster a sense of crisis for political reasons is dangerous. Huge numbers voted for Leave without immigration even being a factor and many that did vote due to immigration will not have animosity towards immigrants and would be just as quick to condemn abuse. We must reassure confused, unsettled friends that the UK remains perhaps the most tolerant multi-ethnic nation on earth.

Part of rebuilding trust an unity and a sense of whole is listening to people’s views, whether we agree or not, rather than letting things fester away. The referendum didn’t create xenophobia but perhaps it turned over a stone or two.