On 23 June 2016, Brits when to the polls to decide on their continued membership in the European Union. It was a fiercely contested referendum over a highly complicated matter. Whilst there were issues of disinformation, let us not forget the Brexit bus that promised £350 million a week to the NHS, the conclusions of the referendum were largely accepted. On 31 January 2020, ratified the withdrawal agreement and effectively left the European Union. This was after the Conservative party, led by pro-Brexit politician Boris Johnson, gained a stomping majority in the December 2019 general election. His message was simple – “get Brexit done!”
Was the pro-Brexit side racist?
We have to address the elephant in the room.
The key message behind the Brexit movement “taking back control”. Taking back control from who? Depending on who you ask, you will get a range of answers. Yet for many on the right, it simply meant taking back control from immigrants and migrants. Britain needed to regain control of its borders.
Whilst political pundits were quick to stress that it is not racist to discuss the country’s immigration policies; they turned a blind eye to clear dog-whistle racism.
This manifested itself through UKIP politician Nigel Farage’s notorious, “breaking point”, a poster which showed a massive queue of black and brown migrants. The idea that the country was at its limit and simply could not accept more migrants, which were depicted as predominately black and brown, carried racist undertones which were reflective of Enoch Powell’s bigotry.
The stirring of racial animosity would eventually spill over into direct violence and hatred as reports of racial abuse skyrocketed after the referendum. Jo Cox, a Labour MP who was sympathetic to migrants and pro-EU, was killed by a violent fascist who accused her of betraying the country.
This death is unquestionably egregious and reflects deep issues within the UK; however, to characterise the entire Brexit position as violent and racist would mischaracterise the debate. There were legitimate concerns over European overreach, and prominent left political figures such as Tariq Ali and Grace Blackley expressed scepticism over what they saw as a “failing neo-liberal project”. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the leaders of the leave movement were predominately on the far right and campaigned against migrants.
How could Brexit soften views to migrants?
Contrary to the prevailing view of the British political commentators, researchers at Birmingham University have reported that the Brexit transition has softened the public’s view towards migrants.
They attribute this to two things.
One is that the British public, including those overly concerned about migration, felt as though their concerns were heard and that action as being taken.
The second was the recognition of the level of vitriol spurred towards migrants and a general conception that this needed to be avoided.
The researchers note that whilst there was a spike in hate crimes following the referendum, this may have been from a minority whilst the greater mass of the British public rejected anti-migrant sentiment.
Will post-Brexit Britain be post-racist?
With Boris Johnson at the helm of the British government, questions arise as to what direction he will steer Britain. Will he lead it to a post-racial utopia?
The plans for Australian style points-based immigration system have been met with controversy as, whilst figures like Home Secretary, Priti Patel, claim that it will treat applicants across the world equally, studies have shown that it disadvantages those working the care and social services sector and those with low paid jobs.
Yet, others claim that by brining EU and non-EU migration into parity, we are heading in the right direction.