Far-right extremists exploiting division in Brexit Britain
Paradise or hell — for many in Brexitland, there is no in between. All the options are still in play in the never-ending story of Brexit. Yet, whatever transpires, whatever compromise or crash grips the nation, the UK will remain shattered and divided. This was the case when 33 million voted in 2016, with 52 percent in favor of leaving the EU. It is even starker three years later. Quite how the disunited kingdom can reunite taxes the imagination.
Little unites the million-plus who marched on March 23 in favor of a second referendum and those who descended on Parliament and Whitehall on March 29 — some of whom had spent the previous two weeks walking 270 miles from Sunderland to London — in the hope this was to be their “independence day.” Leadership being extinct in these isles, the man who instigated the “March to Leave,” Nigel Farage, could barely be bothered to walk more than a few miles, perhaps embarrassed at the pitiful turnout. Many of those marchers are fair-minded, decent people who feel angry and betrayed, although their time may yet come.
A fair contingent of these peaceful Brexiteers made up the Whitehall march, or rather marches. Differing variants of the hard right organized competing versions. Sadly, there was a significant underbelly of aggressive, thug-like lowlifes who intimidated journalists, made Nazi salutes and gathered round to worship their hero, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson. This far-right extremist was beamed on to a huge screen in the middle of Whitehall, right alongside the Cenotaph, the memorial to all those who lost their lives to fascism. It is 2019, so few seemed shocked to see people dragging effigies of Prime Minister Theresa May and London Mayor Sadiq Khan with ropes tied around their necks. One man, when asked what should happen to Parliament, replied “burnt down.” It was only last June that Whitehall witnessed the largest far-right demonstration since the 1970s, with as many as 10,000 people.
All this was two weeks to the day after the massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, an MP, Jo Cox, was murdered. Many MPs have faced death threats and stacks of vicious hate mail. Some are afraid to return to their homes. Far-right terrorism has increased. The groups are getting more extreme and the membership younger. This is not just a British phenomenon but consider this: Fiveof the 10 far-right activists with the greatest social media reach in the world are British.
Public discourse has degraded, become shriller, more toxic and dangerous. The words “traitor” and “treason” are just bandied around with no remorse or sense of the dangerous nature of language. Parliamentarians have not set an example, many cynically sowing division and rancor. One Brexiteer MP called for the lead civil servant Brexit negotiator to be sent to the Tower of London. Nigel Farage, still an MEP, whipped things up by telling marchers in Westminster that they were in “enemy territory.” Both sides portray the other as elitist and out of touch.
Should those who voted to leave feel betrayed? The feeling is understandable. Many who voted to remain would have been outraged if it was the other way round. Yet the process is far from over. March 29 should never have been seen as a sacrosanct date.
Remainers also have some legitimate grievances. The Leave campaigners made all sorts of unrealistic promises about leaving the EU.
Yet the fairness of the referendum is in question too. Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit campaign, has now finally accepted that it seriously breached election law during the 2016 referendum, although without issuing an apology. The campaign broke the spending laws. This matters, not least as the two leading stars of Vote Leave also happen to be the two favorites to replace Theresa May as PM, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Johnson had attacked the original report as “ludicrous.” Yet, so polarized is this political jungle that, a bit like Donald Trump in the US, their diehard supporters are likely to overlook all manner of ills for the cause.
The divisions in Britain are more than just a political disagreement and have manifested themselves in identity politics.
The divisions in Britain are more than just a political disagreement and have manifested themselves in identity politics. Whatever the Brexit endgame is, this will remain a challenge. The UN special rapporteur on racism, Tendayi Achiume, reported last year on the worrying rise of racism and extremism in Britain. “The environment leading up to the referendum, the environment during the referendum, and the environment after the referendum has made racial and ethnic minorities more vulnerable to racial discrimination and intolerance,” she said.
The far right has systematically tried to undermine the public’s faith in institutions — political, economic and judicial. It taps into the feelings of separation between those in power and the people. As Brexit monopolizes the political space, other major issues such as health, education and crime are denied the attention they require.
What the whole Brexit shambles has done is enabled this process. The political system has crumbled under these divisions, with more than half the population thinking it is broken. The government does not govern, and Parliament is not legislating. Brexit has sucked the oxygen out of political life; summed up by one minister, who reportedly said of the Cabinet: “It’s like the living dead in here.”
If a consensual deal on Brexit can be reached, perhaps some of the harm can be reversed.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech