Last Friday felt a bit like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where everyone appeared to look outwardly normal but you knew that some of the people you were brushing shoulders with had voted to leave the EU. It was strangely disconcerting.
Still, now the Brexiteers have “taken their country back” – simultaneously robbing it from those of us in the Remain camp – I simply can’t wait to find out how they’re going to put the Great back into Great Britain. It’s a line I’ve heard uttered repeatedly over the last few days but no one seems to know what that actually means, or how it’s to be achieved. And from the look of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, when they took to the podium to deliver their victory speeches last Friday, it looked like they had no clue either.
Despite the country delivering the result that he and his fellow Brexiteers had spun so many lies to achieve, Boris’s expression was that of a man who’d dared to fart in a library while wearing headphones. Shrinking into himself ever so slightly with a hint of shame in his eyes, unsure of how loud the offending guff was or whether the bookworms at the epicentre of his flatulence had rumbled him as the foul perpetrator, he looked like a man hoping to get away with it.
Admittedly it can’t have been easy giving a speech while the Nosferatu-like shadow of Michael Gove lurked behind him on stage. But Gove didn’t exactly look thrilled to have won either. He carried the slightly haunted expression of someone who’d just spent 12hrs trapped in a lift with…well, Michael Gove. (Although, when your campaign’s cheerleading section includes the likes of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, there’s very little reason to look chirpy.)
With no post-Brexit plan and no real indication from the Vote Leave campaign about what their victory means in reality, it’s been left to many of Nigel Farage’s “ordinary, good and decent” folk to fill the void with their understanding of what this victory has delivered. And sadly, for some, they think it’s given them the freedom to be openly racist. Finally, the shackles are off and they can march about the place, emboldened and unabashed, spouting their hatred and intolerance. Whether they’re frothing at the mouth launching a tirade of abuse at someone on a tram, shouting at people in the street, or intimidating shoppers in Tesco – it’s what we all voted for, right? This is the new normal.
In the aftermath of the referendum result, there have been several depressing news reports featuring vox pops with Leave voters who believed that they were voting for an end to immigration, as if we’d all wake up on Friday morning to find the silhouettes of anyone non-British, or not British enough, burned onto pavements like nuclear blast shadows. Gone. “It’s all about immigration. It’s to stop the Muslims from coming into this country – simple as that. It’s to stop immigration,” said one voter from Barnsley, where 70% of the population voted to leave the European Union.
Another Leave voter, Wayne from Leeds, told BBC News that he wanted to “close the barrier” and was keen for the migrants to “go back to where they’ve come from”. In the same report, we also met a “proud fascist” called Lee. Describing himself as a “nationalist” and “for this country” (while placing his hand on his heart), the reporter gently lifted the sleeve of his t-shirt to reveal a swastika tattoo on his right arm. He asserted that the referendum was about “taking our country back” (almost echoing the Leave campaign’s mantra of “take back control”) and claimed that the referendum result had given him a sense of relief. “But it’s not racism,” no siree bob – “they’re just coming across [to this country] too much,” he said reassuringly.
These barefaced racists and xenophobes are in no way representative of everyone who put a cross in the Leave box at the polling booth, but the focus on the worst elements of Vote Leave’s base paints this ‘winning side’ in a truly ugly light. Equally as disturbing, particularly regarding the interview with Lee, our passionate fascist from Leeds, is that his views were aired on a national news programme but went completely unchallenged. Truly astounding when you think that, only a couple of weeks ago, a far-right assassin (Thomas Mair, or “death to traitors, freedom for Britain” as he gave his name in court) murdered Jo Cox in broad daylight for her pro-Remain political views and passionate defence of immigration.
The incidents of racially aggravated violence, abuse, harassment and criminal damage that have been reported on social media in the days since the referendum result have been curated into a Facebook gallery called Worrying Signs, which allows you to peruse the horror of the post-Brexit world at your leisure. It’s certainly disturbing.
It’s genuinely worrying that some Leave voters seem to think that they now have a post-referendum licence to harass, threaten and seek the expulsion of anyone whose face doesn’t quite fit. Of course, it was the Leave campaign that worked tirelessly to heighten the existing fear and anger over the issue of immigration. They didn’t so much poke a hornet’s nest as smash it like a piñata, before running away at full pelt.
Are these racist scumbags the people who are now going to make my country ‘great’ again? What exactly will that country look like? And what will it take to get there? Prime time re-runs of Mind your Language and Love Thy Neighbour? A return to Empire? The creation of a bleak, isolated and unwelcoming little country, bereft of diversity and opportunity, that naturally repels visitors? White dog shit back on the streets of Britain like the good old days? (I hear Donald Tusk is currently sitting on a mountainous stockpile of chalky, white dog turds seized from the streets of Britain after the Maastricht Treaty was signed in ’92. It’s the EU’s version of the Elgin Marbles, only with more ossified shit.)
Those of us on the Remain side of the EU referendum debate are now being told to suck it up and move on, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible. We may well have to ride the storm that’s coming our way – and a serious and sensible debate on immigration still needs to take place – but more than anything right now we’ve got to unite to put these hateful pricks back under their rocks (and then maybe put bigger, heavier rocks on top of those rocks – just to make sure they stay there). We may not be able to stop our country from being wrenched from the European Union, but we must do everything possible to stop the cultural landscape of our country from being shaped by the right-wing foot soldiers of the likes of Britain First. That would feel like a second, perhaps even more devastating, defeat.