By Mohamed Harees –
At the end of years of political chaos in the country, and with less than a week away to the most volatile, acrimonious and critical UK election for a generation, the stakes have never been higher, as campaigning is coming to a close. At stake is not just Brexit and the all- important future relationship of the UK with the EU, it will also affect how it will look like in a decade’s time- whether diversity be tolerated as a necessary evil, or celebrated as a positive good? Three years ago, the UK’s decision to vote for Brexit might have been the answer to a simple question: in or out? But since then, the matter of how to leave the EU has turned out to be a great deal more complicated and has led to nowhere useful. Brexit has become such a dominant and polarising issue, making Britain into a divided nation, almost to the point of no return.
The sad reality is that the political vacuum arising from the Brexit referendum appears to have lowered the quality of political discourse, creating room for new populist political movements that are even more powerful than mainstream parties. The most obvious example of this is the recent rise of the right-wing populism of Nigel Farage, with its starting point reflected in UKIP’s wins in the 2014 European Parliament elections, leading to the Tory offer of a referendum that eventually led to Brexit. Dubbed as an effective demagogue of a generation, Farage was seen to set the racist agenda concerning Brexit.
The first point to acknowledge is the centrality of racism to – now mainstream -Brexit arguments. There is no need to downplay racism’s hold in Brexit Britain any longer. Farage’s infamous and xenophobic ‘breaking point’ anti-immigration poster symbolically reflected his modus operandi. Far from impeding him, his sanitised and more ‘polite’ brand of racism became his ticket to success. The Brexit referendum thus emboldened racists and led to increase in violence against immigrants and BAME communities. Controlling immigration became a euphemism for xenophobia and racism. The increased incidence of post-Brexit hate crimes in the UK showcased two conclusions. The first was that there exists a link between Euroscepticism and racial or bigoted animus. The second conclusion was that hate crimes against all marginalised groups spiked; some of these groups were not even directly related to Brexit. The Brexit vote should have been a peaceful way to exercise concern for the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU. As it turned out, for some it became a mandate for hateful behaviour.
The racism or xenophobia that animated some people in the 2016 referendum thus remains an indisputable fact of national life in the UK. However, racism did not begin—nor will it end—with Brexit. Racism goes deeper than that, just as racism in the US has always run deeper than the electoral cycle or Trump’s divisive presidential campaign. It has its moorings not only in the aching loss of the British Empire, but also the structural decline that Britain has undergone since the late 1970s and the onset of neoliberalism. The politics of Englishness today asserts itself against a backdrop of Britain’s comparatively marginal position in the world economy. Alongside this were the defeats endured by the social movements of the 1980s and the accompanying de-legitimisation of socialist politics, which has left a working class profoundly disaggregated by region, nation, and ethnicity. In this sense, it is the transformations of the 1980s, rather than the austerity programmes since 2008, that bear heaviest on our present moment. It is a dichotomy that racism appears to be so deeply embedded in Western thinking, when modern liberal-democratic philosophy is supposed to be based on the Kantian idea of equal moral worth. Racism is therefore a denial of that worth to people of non-white ‘races’ or, in the words of Kant, being treated ‘merely as a means’.
Although Britain has become increasingly diverse over the last fifty years and ethnic diversity has become a ‘new normal’ in British politics, sadly across parties, these ground realities tend to be ignored, including the need to see rising diversity in the parliament given this growing diversity of society ,with its’ ethnic minorities however suffering prejudice, harassment and discrimination over the years. And with Brexit becoming the central issue in this forthcoming elections, it is concerning to note that it has veered Britain into the worrying politics of majoritarianism and stifles the championing of diversity and tolerance, and stunts battles against racism across the board. Unfortunately, diversity as such has thus not become the summum bonum of UK’s political spectrum yet.
As a matter of fact, politics in the UK, with a history of colonialism and empire underpinned by racial superiority myths, has been infused with hostility to migrants and Minorities, with past governments at various stages, pushing scapegoating narratives. Today, institutional racism, Post- Brexit immigration policies, and racist scandals inside major parties bear resemblance to the present times, where racism is no longer a big issue. Both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are cynically used by political parties against each other, which are also intertwined with much wider societal racism, with Muslims in particular being rounded upon. Not only the Farages in fringe groups who are open bigots, but even the Prime Minster too has personally contributed to rampant racism in the UK, hiding his racist (Islamophobic) comments under the cloak of free speech.
In accounting for the rise in racism in Britain, in the election context, Simon Goodman of Coventry University in an article states, ‘looking back at the rhetoric used by mainstream politicians and the media you can see that, at first, issues of asylum, immigration and multiculturalism are promoted as a problem – thus giving fuel to the far-right. Then, once the arguments presented by the far-right become established and, perhaps more importantly start to affect election results, the mainstream fail to challenge the far-right head on and, rather than opposing what the far-right are saying, they fall in line and begin to say similar things. This is a circular argument that maintains a cycle which feeds far-right organisations while also working to present problematic ideas amongst mainstream politicians and press as moderate and reasonable when compared to the far-right’. This is potentially catastrophic. Therefore Sam Hamad in another article (https://www.alaraby.co.uk) points out, ‘Given the climate in which we live, with the overt racist outburst of Brexit perhaps reaching some form of crescendo, as well the spectre of fascists gaining political power around the world, we need a principled anti-racism more than ever’. Thus, the question which lurks in the minds of the electorate should be, what extent a political commitment to anti-racism has to gone much further than the lip service in the UK’s corridors of power?
The election of any party which fails so comprehensively to challenge the racism in its midst makes the BAME communities less secure. Thus, building a common vision for the UK, will require tackling racial discrimination and building solidarity among all ethnic minority groups, something that Britain’s main political class need to take more seriously if they are to avoid the divisive and dangerous politics represented by the fringe political bigots. Their future power hinges on their ability to mediate this racial fault-line, and appeal to minority voters. The electoral power that this group holds could sway a future election. In fact, a party may also run reputational risks in the way that it talks about ethnic minorities and integration with some white voters too, not just ethnic minorities. The growing number of young graduate voters also hold liberal views on identity and integration.
Having aid that, it’s also not really possible to appeal directly only to one ethnic or religious group to win an election locally. Playing ‘good minority, bad minority’ by the parties by adopting a too narrow ‘slicing and dicing’ approach to micro-segmenting the ethnic minority electorate, for short term gains might backfire, as the aforesaid research pointed out. In this context, British political parties also need to reject appeals to ethnic minority groups that are narrow or exclusionary, just as they should reject such appeals to the white British majority.
It often seems as though racism and populism has been defining our current political age. The growth of right-wing, nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-asylum seeker, majoritarian politics is not confined to the UK or Europe; it has gone global. Even India and Sri Lanka have voted in majoritarian prone governments. Despite international conventions and declarations, racism has been dehumanising individuals and communities not only by denying their inherent equality and dignity, but by doing so on the basis of a constructed category of race designed for the very purpose of separating humans into a hierarchy meant to elevate some and suppress many. Yet the international legal community’s response to racism has been inadequate, at best. Even when nations agree to play a part in dismantling racism, many simply point the finger elsewhere rather than at themselves.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated. The law may not change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.” This is an apt reminder of the challenges faced by societies in combating the scourges of racism and racial discrimination. To counter such a bleak future, mass mobilisation is necessary. Any form of progressive mass mobilisation has to recognise that class politics are always articulated through a politics of race. Reckoning with Britain’s racism and xenophobia across time, place, parties, and social classes is the necessary first step in such a mobilisation. It is also necessary to consider that not only do anti-racists need to oppose a political climate that feeds racism and xenophobia, they also need to get to grips with how populism has shaped the terms of anti-racist struggle. It behoves public activists, to force the hands of Britain’s leaders to ensure that diversity is duly celebrated and all ethnic communities feel safe and secure. Otherwise, populist politics based on nationalism and linked to racist and anti-immigrant sentiment will continue to challenge the concept of a multi-cultural, post-Brexit Britain. To really stamp out racism, UK also need to begin with a commitment to deepening its racial literacy, and for a majority white society to depersonalise its reaction to racism.
The reality is that the long and brutal history of British colonialism and empire lies at the heart of much of British insularity and racism. The deep roots of this racism will likely influence the politics of tomorrow, as it has already done that of yesterday and today. Thus, the racist populist movement Britain is currently experiencing is not a temporary aberration . However, be it as it may, for all the nastiness of the present moment, and despite a stubborn pool of prejudiced views, there is still good news is that whether “Leave” or “Remain”, the vast majority of ordinary people deplore racism, with signs of Britain also becoming more tolerant. Therefore, there is a common cause facing the people of the UK across racial divides, on the verge of this decisive election in stopping the rise of racism and the implicit fascism that lurks in every racist shadow, as well as ending the Tory-fuelled austerity, which has already killed many. In this context, it makes more sense to vote out those parties professing institutional racism and bigotry at this election and help create a fairer and an inclusive Britain. Ideas of solidarity, equality and inclusivity won’t arrive in a flash. They need to be seeded, nurtured and supported at every level. This must start now, because the alternative is unspeakable.