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By Jason Michael

‘BREXIT WILL NOT HAPPEN,’ said a fellow Scottish independentista to me a few months back, before explaining her case in full. Yet, during her informed and passionate explanation, I found my mind wandering to the idea of Chekhov’s gun; the concept – to boil it down a little – which says that if there’s a gun in scene one, someone will be pumped full of lead by scene three. While she set out her reasons for why Brexit would never actually happen, my mind wasn’t buying it. There was a certain grim inevitability in the threat made real by England’s referendum decision. Somehow, and we can’t get into all the details here, Britain was going to leave the European Union the moment it decided it would. Sure, there were frustrations and delays, there was political chaos, economic panic, and social anxiety, but in the act of voting to leave the United Kingdom was set on a course which would unavoidably result in a messy and acrimonious divorce from Europe.

 Well, as we all know, that day is finally upon us. At exactly eleven o’clock in the night of 30 January 2020 Big Ben rang out over the heads of jubilant Brexiteers in the London streets below to mark what Nigel Farage proclaimed ‘Britain’s Independence Day.’ In spite of all the talk from Number 10 about ‘bringing the country together,’ the mood of the right-wing press, the revellers at the Festival of Brexit, and the government was decidedly joyful and triumphalist. With a new fifty pence piece celebrating the occasion and with important buildings all over England lit up in the colours of the union jack, the noses of almost half the electorate were to be rubbed in their defeat. A show was put on that would remind Scotland and the occupied six counties in the north of Ireland – who rejected Brexit – of their place as subordinates to the will of the people of England. In England’s victory there was to be no magnanimity towards the vanquished and the forced.

Out in the rain, in the heart of London, the Irish state broadcaster RTÉ sent home a report in which the ugly undercurrents of Britain’s ascendant Eurosceptic movement were laid bare for all to see. During coverage of the festivities, the station’s London correspondent, Seán Whelan, was harassed by a number of inebriated young men who began shouting into the camera: ‘God Save the Queen,’ to which one man added ‘Fuck the Pope.’

The use of this anti-Catholic sectarian slogan, directed as it was at an Irish news crew, was instructive on a number of levels. Those uninitiated into the complexities of Anglo-Irish relations and the specifics of sectarianism in the six counties of Ulster can be forgiven for seeing in this a nonsensical anti-Catholic slur, but – in a second – it demonstrated the interconnectedness of British nationalism and Ulster loyalism; the closeness of their neo-imperialist ideologies, in which the Pope – the head of the Catholic Church – becomes not only a symbol of othered (not fully British) Catholicism, but a cypher for every perceived foreign threat to an imagined British national and ethnic purity. Shouted in a London accent, this was not only anti-Catholic bigotry; this was a call to arms against all the enemies of Britain – against whom the sceptred isle had just declared its independence.

Commentators in Ireland cottoned on to the nuances of this far faster than those in Britain, with one senior figure in the Irish Department of Foreign affairs letting slip the ominous quip that this ‘all smells a bit too much like Kristallnacht to be honest.’ And that reference to the Nazi anti-Jewish pogrom of 9-10 November 1938 was not entirely unjustified either. This was not unexpected bad behaviour from a few bad apples, this was the repetition of a poisonous set of opinions that have come to typify a large section of the activist Brexiteer movement. Bearing in mind that this was a process begun with the brutal murder of a young woman – a Remain campaigner and an elected member of the British parliament on the streets of her West Yorkshire constituency. Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, could not possibly be ignorant of the forces such a triumphal celebration would unleash. Still, regardless of this, he allowed this winner-takes-all festival to go ahead. Mr Johnson knew what he was doing. He used this ‘festival’ to let slip the lager-sodden foot soldiers of Brexit to unify the country by sending a shiver of fear through it.

Watching this menacing spectacle unfold from the comfort of my living room in Dublin, with serious concern I tweeted: ‘Imagine being a Bangladeshi family in a housing estate in London tonight.’ Of course, many took issue with this. One man responded, saying that many south Asians living in England voted for Brexit, and no doubt this is true. But that was never the point. People voted for Brexit for all sorts of reasons – most entirely unaware of the hatred, ethno-nationalism, xenophobia, and racism that both powered the campaign and was in turn emboldened by it. That many, perhaps even the majority, of those who voted to leave the EU did so for perfectly mundane reasons takes nothing from the reality that the Brexit project was a vehicle employed by the racist far-right to further its horrible agenda. The mask is now completely off.

As if on cue, no sooner was Brexit Day over than news began circulating of a notice posted for residents in a Norwich tower block telling people to speak English or go home. ‘We do not tolerate people speaking other languages than English in the flats,’ said the notice, before going on to encourage immigrants to return to their own countries and free up housing for white English-speaking British people. Monika Wiśniewska, a Polish author living in England, took to social media to describe how Polish people were now being described as ‘vermin’ and abused on the streets for speaking their native language. She shared a number of replies to her social media updates in which anonymous accounts were joining in the abuse, one saying: ‘Ya polacks need to go back home. The world is sick of sausage smelling armpit pols… [sic]’

Following the Brexit vote in 2016 England and Wales experienced a sharp increase in reported incidents of racially motivated violence and harassment, and from the best indications today it looks as though this will be repeated in the months after Britain’s exit from the EU. It is deeply frustrating that there exists so much resistance to comparisons being made with Brexit Britain today and Nazi Germany of the 1930s, because the two are indeed terrifyingly similar. Nazism did not begin with Auschwitz-Birkenau and genocide. It started exactly the same way as Brexit Britain; with the government, the media, and a vocal and active element of the population on the streets working together to make a national hostile environment for those people they deemed enemies of the state. Only when Germany became more isolated from its neighbours did it resort to more systematic and murderous methods of dealing with ‘the Jewish problem.’

But, again, I think we have to return to Chekhov’s gun. There is an arc to this disturbing narrative, one that must work itself out before Britain can learn from its own mistakes. It is now an unavoidable reality, in my opinion, that things will continue to get darker in Britain. Politics will swing further to the right, life will be made more intolerable for immigrants and minorities, and racist and xenophobic abuse and violence will become more prevalent. Resistance is not futile, however. We must work harder to stand up to the bullies – calling out their racism and criminality – and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the bullied. While it may look as though we cannot win right now, the more pressing matter is that we simply cannot afford to lose. England is on a journey into the abyss. Only England can save itself, and it will have to hit rock bottom before it can begin that process of recovery. But we must never tire of the fight against the evil forces this Brexit has let loose on the world.

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How Societies Turn Cruel


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