I’d like to start with a little story which is in itself quite trivial but in the context of what’s just happened is I think quite telling. I was born in England and lived there until I was in my thirties. In all of that time I lived in inner city areas and worked in them and drank in them. I’m from the inner city, you see, from the working classes of England, from an immigrant community within those places but from those cities, those streets. In one of the cities I lived in we were once visited by someone who hadn’t really spent a lot of time in areas such as the one we were in. Now this person was far more English than I ever was, far more wedded to the symbols of Englishness than this son of Irish immigrants and had spent their whole life living in the fair land of England. It was just that their England had never necessitated an involvement with this England that I knew. On the afternoon of the visit we went out for a walk along the streets to the local park. Walking along the red brick, multi-cultural streets of England. As we passed some local people, some local Asians, the English person with us said, ‘how nice it is to see people wearing their traditional costumes.’ Like I said it’s a trivial little story, isn’t it? I’ll come back to it though, later, see if it might light our way a bit.
I’m writing this now far away from those streets. I’m writing from rural Ireland. I’m writing from within the European Community. So looking on now I just feel bemusement. I mean I don’t even live in the UK anymore anyway and haven’t done for seventeen years, so what could I possibly know? And it also bemuses me because incoherent, inarticulate things, things like the Brexit vote, are inherently bemusing. But I can guess at some things. I can guess that a bigoted opportunist like Nigel Farage has seized his chance and I can guess that an opportunist willing to dance with bigotry like Boris Johnston has seized his. I can guess that the internal obsessions of the Tory Party have held a country, if not a continent, to ransom. I can guess that a Prime Minister without a vision took a gamble and lost. Guessing aside, though, I think two things are clear, even from way over here, even amongst all that bewilderment. One is that the press and certain sections of the political elite have deluded notions about Great Britain and its place in the world. In fact, it’s not even Great Britain they are deluded about but England, an England of yeomen and shopkeepers and the white cliffs of Dover. This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England. Secondly, it is that the right have done what they always do and tricked the disenfranchised in to thinking that the fault lies not in an unfair class system or in a rigged economic system but is the fault of the foreigner. It’s the age old canard of the right. Don’t look up and ask why they have so much and you have so little, look sideways and ask, what’s he doing here. In that way the press and Nigel Farage, with Michael Gove and Boris Johnston pretending not to look on, have stirred up what is a plain and simple bigotry. The Brexit vote is a racist vote. At least if you voted that way, have the courage to admit that. You voted leave in the hope of keeping out foreigners, keeping out immigrants, keeping out refugees. It wasn’t over the subtleties and different textures of economic union, was it? It wasn’t about the injustice of the European project being taken over by neo-liberals on the economic right. It was bigotry. At least let us have that out in the open. You voted to keep out Muslims, or Turks, or Poles, or whoever got a mention. Didn’t you?
As I’ve written here I’m from an immigrant family and I have spent most of my life living in immigrant areas of England. I passionately believe that immigration enhances society and I still passionately believe that a multi-cultural society is the best one. Give me the mixed race streets and city of my birth over the mono-cultural enclave any day in any year at any time. I am aware though that those inner city areas, those working class streets may just have been the very places that voted Brexit and handed over Britain, or England anyway, to Farage and co. Which pinpoints another reality about this vote and about England itself. However wonderful immigration is, and it is, it can and does bring cultural and social strains. I grew up in and always lived in areas where that was self-evident. Immigration is a thing, after all, directly experienced not just by the immigrant but by those the immigrant arrives amongst. So, of course, growing up in immigrant areas I heard and saw racism, I knew bigotry existed. I could see in the area I grew up in as it became increasingly Irish, West Indian and Asian that this must have left the mainly older, settled English population somewhat perplexed. In our rush to embrace the positives of a multi-cultural experience it is dishonest to ignore the dislocation of seeing a street’s population utterly change. We cannot ignore that very human, very understandable confusion that must lie at the heart of those who are directly experiencing immigration, be they the immigrants or those they come to live amongst. Throw into the mix with this years of Tory mandated austerity, of a working class so disenfranchised and dismembered that it is no longer a badge of pride but a term of abuse, no longer seen as a member of a thriving culture but as a chav, of a sea of redtops stoking up open bigotry, of an industrial base eroded beyond sustainability and what do you get? You get that vote and you get a class that will now be looked down upon even more. Which brings me back to the beginning. For I’m going to dare to suggest that it is all well and good for those who see their fellow citizens wearing their everyday clothes as people ‘wearing their traditional costumes’ to sit in the shires and bemoan the crude anger of others. It is all very well for those who appear as tourists in their own country to have no real understanding of the stresses and strains of immigration. It is all very well for those on the fortunate side of economic injustice to bemoan the backward, atavistic urges of those who aren’t. It is all very well for those who are out of the cold to dismiss the rage of those who can’t get warm. But bigotry doesn’t come out of thin air; it comes from the fertile breeding grounds of the political right and the situation of the socially and economically ignored. It comes from years and years of an economic and cultural attack upon the English working class by both Tories and New Labour. Seriously, know a bit more about your own country and the people in it and you might understand why you are where you are.
I’d just like to add that when I lived in the UK I worked for nine years in the NHS which, whatever its failings, is, as a pure idea, the best British thing ever. I worked in the South, the Midlands, and the North of England. With that in mind, having made a plea of understanding for all of those working class areas who voted for Brexit, but still calling them out on what was clearly a manifestation of bigotry and racism, I would like to point out to them one thing. This best thing about Britain ever was, in my experience of working in it, something that would not have functioned for more than ten minutes if it were not for the immigrants and the children of immigrants working in it. Because, that’s simply the best of British. Isn’t it?