U.K. Politics

About June: Talking Brexit in the Land of Nexit

The hand of Fatima offers protection. Mine was an Eid gift from my mother when I was 15, a small silver piece on a simple chain that sits just below the jugular notch. Whenever I am nervous I grip it in my palm, twisting the links into my neck. After the massacre in Pulse I put it on, and again after Jo Cox was murdered. When Pride arrived in the aftermath of a pro-Brexit vote I once more fastened it to me. Those days in what seemed to be ever increasing public violence it seemed to be the first thing my hand stretched to in the morning rush.

I started writing this piece almost four months ago. Each time something else happened until it grew into such an ungainly monster I thought let’s just wait until things settle down, and I’ve finally moved and adjusted to graduate school. In times like these you don’t want to be just adding to the noise, letting your frustration meaninglessly join to all the other frustration in the world without having something more unique to say. I had written my last piece on how using wedge politics to demonise select group should mean you lose a moral right to govern an entire population. At the time I chose to tone down some of the language in the interest of not letting my anxious state seep in since I thought my fears weren’t as physically founded as I emotionally felt they were.

Brexit is not a prospect I supported, but my main concern after June was that it had been reshaped into a debate on something else entirely – on who has worth as a person in this country – rather than the fact that people in deprived areas understandably took the chance on the possibility of a better future (a choice I might have very well made in the same circumstances with similarly limited information). I was thankful for perspectives like this that showed more nuance, mainly because I saw the key danger as allowing the narrative to be “people only voted Leave to get them out”. The issue is not with Leave voters as a whole, even if I think the decision will prove to be a horrendous mistake. Racist attitudes and actions have always been around and though some people are surprised by this higher visibility it is not as if you ever had to look particularly far to find them before. The issue is that when people assume others voted for the same anti-foreigner reasons they do, they become more confident in voicing xenophobic and racist opinions no matter how unsavoury or violent. We are now in a place where these narratives are part of the mainstream political discourse; something ugly that is staying at the surface, at least for a large part of the time being.

Being a British student in the Netherlands nowadays seems to mean constantly discussing Brexit with incredulous fellow Europeans, and accepting our status as the joke country. The conversation becomes repetitive and a little shaming, though never anything undeserved. However in these debates I can see the same incomprehension regarding those who discount the multicultural project that so many of my contemporaries in Britain faced pre-referendum. Britain is seen as exceptional in the level of its fear of the other, since Brexit and its aftermath holds proof, even as a recent study shows these views are widely held across Europe. Geert Wilders, who recently posted on Twitter “They carry our passports but they do not belong to us. They spit on our identity and behave like conquerors” (the they is of course implicitly understood by everyone to definitely not be white, nor Christian) is on track to head the largest party in the Netherlands after the next election, even as he goes back to court yet again on charges of hate speech. Yet we still like to pretend that it is only in other places and not our communities where the worst views are held.

This same rhetoric that now alienates those like me who are assumed an “outsider” on the basis of name or looks should register to them and yet often they aren’t noticed until pointed out. I on the other hand don’t get the luxury; many of the anti-immigrant actions the UK government proposes will reverberate to me anyway so it is something one needs to be hyper-tuned towards. When discussion of a speech by May centres on her apparent ‘parking of the tanks on Labour’s lawn’ we have not learnt.

A large part of my life was spent with an immigrant parent – my mother was white British in Sudan – yet people in the UK will always think my father must have been the interloper, or even me, always asking “but where are you really from?” after I’ve said I’m British for the third time. It’s bound in the way that so many otherwise reasonable people think only of others as fractions of nationalities rather than multiples, and who think there is some definitive Truth of citizenship in borders rather than the nation as an imagined community that we get to define and redefine. Notions of race and religion and immigration are threads tightly bound together and people will use one in lieu of other even though they are not the same.

My fortune is that I can escape if need be – it is a sign of privilege to be relatively assured that you can move most places and be fairly accepted; always the expat and never the immigrant so long as I pick location wisely. In comparison some of the best people I know will now have to spend time in limbo, not knowing what will happen to them in the country they have called home. Others will have to additionally deal with the likely rise of even more open xenophobia and racism from people who will never consider them British. And some of the worst off will likely get an even worse deal, as more parties are tempted to out-xenophobe each other in pursuit of votes, rather than focus on beneficial change.

Last week I had a chance to practice my language skills, but it was Arabic and not Dutch that I spoke to the shopkeeper. I wasn’t surprised, though a little saddened, as the rest of the people in the shop looked momentarily scared when he let out a joyous “Allahu Akbar” at someone he could chat to in one of his native languages. In this environment, where being yourself carries a danger of invalidating your nationality in the eyes of others, we are wrecking chances for expressing a more nuanced identity. We self-monitor because the consequences can be further alienation, and that in turn allows others to ignore that this is happening. In an environment like this why would you not cling to something that gives you a little hope, whether it’s a silver necklace or a foreign move or a conversation with someone in the same boat, and pretend that everything could be okay?

I have little faith that this will be solved in the coming years, because it an undeniable part of our political culture. We know where this road leads and yet here we are again, rumbling towards more exclusionary populism. In the meantime though I am embracing the fact that here – for once – I am just being treated like a foreigner because now I am actually one.

Beyond Scare Tactics

The EU referendum campaign is in full swing, and Turkey is a problem. From Vote Leave a new leaflet highlights not only countries looking to join but spotlights Turkey by shading in the bordering countries of Iraq and Syria. Turkey is a good political pick because of its strong association with both the migrant crisis and the movement of terrorists. This insinuation that if we don’t vote to leave the EU Turkey will overwhelm us with migrants and terrorists from IS has extended to discussing how we’ll become the victims of crime due to a supposed Turkish predisposition. It is a dog-whistle at its finest.

One could argue the reason Turkey is featured in many Vote Leave advertisements is that it is simply one of the EU candidate states – yet one of the intriguing parts about the decision to highlight Turkey is how hard it would be for Turkey to actually become an EU member. To give a brief overview Turkey has been an associate member of the EU since 1963, applied for membership in 1987, got candidate status in 1999, and finally had their (still ongoing) candidate negotiations start in 2005 which – regardless of anything else (such as opponents using vetos, arguments about geographical relevance) – cannot be resolved until Turkey opens its ports to Cyprus. In comparison Croatia applied for membership in 2003, started negations in 2005, and joined in 2013. For many the question is ‘if’ not ‘when’; Turkey joining the EU is a long way off and requires a lot of political manoeuvring. Billboards are using a very distant possibility to drive fears of terrorism and free movement of Turkish people, relying on unfavourable associations being brought to mind.

Watch out, the Muslims are coming.

The campaign run by the Goldsmith team against Khan during the London Mayoral race was another demonstration of scare tactics that rely on this “scary outsider” bias. The absurdity of painting Sadiq Khan – as much a radical Muslim as a plate of custard – as a terrorist sympathiser demonstrates clearly how little interest modern UK politicians have in even pretending to be for all people in their push to exploit wedges in society.

The mayoral race was important because it came down to the Conservatives either genuinely thinking that the political blancmange of Sadiq Khan was a dangerous man and sympathetic to terrorists, or they pointedly decided that public perception of Sadiq Khan and other Muslims by extension as regular Brits with a multitude of opinions is fine to sacrifice for some political gain. When the PM uses fancy footwork to say a man supports IS knowing that people will interpret this as referring to the terrorist group and not just the ideological concept of a state based on Islamic thought to legitimate false criticism of his opponent he loses credibility to govern fairly for all his citizens. With scare tactics you not only say a huge segment of your population are inherently dangerous, but you also say you have no interest in dealing with the divides in society if there is a chance for you to make a personal gain from it.

A calculation was made; Muslims won’t vote for us so it is okay to demonise them in the hopes that we win. And again with the EU Referendum a calculation has been made; let’s just play up these divisive fears to attract those who don’t know the nuances of Turkey and EU politics. Yet this gamble entrenches divisions that have real and harsh consequences to the actual population.

This is not an issue limited to one end of the political spectrum. Most political parties and groups in the UK are only interested in a narrow section of people they feel represent their voting base and frequently throw those deemed outside of this under the bus. Both sides of the EU debate are trying to out terrify the other with what will make us more susceptible to terrorists. I’ve heard someone discuss how “the Jews” don’t vote for Labour anyway so why bother dealing with antisemitism? Scottish voters are demonised for voting SNP and therefore there should not be a solid Scottish policy because they are not on “our” side anyway. Rural and coastal voters don’t get talked about as much as London and other cities. And god forbid the vitriol for those who don’t vote. Huge swathes of people get their needs ignored, or directly worked against in vote chasing, and groups of multitudes are portrayed as monoliths in order to appeal to those opposed to them. In the midst the actual humans of this country are forgotten.

If political groups only existed to win that would be one (still terrible) thing but the policies and words a political group chose not only shape the conversation around an election but become the spectrum for what is possible to be implemented and who gets to be involved. Once something outrageous has been said everyone else has to respond to it, lending it some legitimacy and further exposing it to the public. We need to respect people who wouldn’t ever vote for us and appreciate their needs as citizens even if we disagree with their thoughts. Turning around and using dog-whistles against huge parts of the population only succeeds in spreading both alienation and extreme misinformation.

A lot of people believe it is better to have a chance in power than to remain in opposition and therefore these tactics may be undesirable but ultimately worth it. But opposition – true opposition – is the process of calling that power to heel, and articulating the voice of everyone else. And democratic power is supposed to be about ruling with consideration of everyone, even those who won’t vote for you, rather than just a chance to rule to ensure that you continue to have a chance to rule to ensure that you continue to have a chance to rule ad infinitum. MPs are not there only for the people that voted for them, or even just the people that voted. They are there to represent the whole borough and that thought has to come first.

This is partially the fault of our political system being so heavily tilted to “not them” voting. Voters are either seen as our tribe or our enemies. When the not-we voters start to be generalised in broad descriptors – Muslim, Asian, Jewish, Scottish – it triggers an opportunity to make use scare tactics rather than generating good policies and working towards opening up a political system that will naturally draw in people in a positive way. This obsession with voters is creeping into other aspects which will permanently tilt how politics is played out, with constituency borders based not on the actual amount of people living there but on those who are registered to vote, as if those who don’t could never have concerns in their borough.

Wedge politics pushes people out of having an actual voice as politicians pander to only those whose votes they may win (and frequently ignore “safe” voters concerns). Each time there is a vote people are chastised for not participating (or recently for signing up “too late” to participate, as if becoming engaged is something we have to decide months in advance or else we don’t deserve it) which takes away the responsibility of groups to look at how to appeal to them beyond scare tactics. Politics is meant to be about articulating a vision of the future – the best way to serve everyone in a society. To create a consensus where we abandon that for power is incredibly dangerous. It’s a slow dull trundle to a backwards and unrealistic representation of society and one where soon only an incredibly small sliver of people will be competed for and thus become the only ones who politically matter.