On Charlottesville and home again

The horror of Charlottesville for American friends was the visibility of things they had believed and hoped were confined to history. Is there anything similar in recent UK history? Unfortunately, yes.

Do we have examples in recent times of people introducing explicit Nazi language and images into our political discourse? Yes.

Katie Hopkins, a journalist who has written for many of our most popular press outlets, casually tweeted about the need for a ‘final solution’ recently—it was too much for one of her media employers (LBC), but she still writes for the British press.

In a very similar vein, this week Trevor Kavanagh, the former political editor of our best-selling daily newspaper, wrote an article depicting ‘The Muslim Problem’. Kavanagh is a very experienced journalist, and the idea that he was not conscious of echoes of Nazi language of ‘The Jewish Problem’ when he chose his slogan seems merely incredible to me. It appears that, like Ms Hopkins, he depicted an aspect of our present multiculturalism using language that echoed Hitler.

Again, one of our allegedly-mainstream political parties, UKIP, published a poster last year which apparently echoed German Nazi imagery. Nigel Farage, the then-leader, proudly unveiled the poster, and defended it in the face of predictable outrage. Farage remains something of a ‘media darling’, very regularly invited onto our mainstream broadcast media to express his views.

Of course, it may be objected that these are relatively isolated incidences; I do not accept that, but even if they were, consider our most significant political decision for many decades, last year’s referendum on our membership of the European Union. From the start, on the ‘Leave’ side, there were three arguments on the table: an abstract notion of ‘sovereignty’; the amount of money the UK gave to the EU; and immigration. Whilst the second of these informed the, now infamous, bus slogan, the third was the meat of the campaign.

But it didn’t work.

Mass migration from Eastern Europe was indeed a reality of British life, and it was indeed uncontrollable, but pointing this out made no difference to the polls, which showed a comfortable ‘Remain’ lead about six weeks out.

Then someone hit upon a new tactic: Turkey. Turkey was, and is, a candidate nation, desiring to join the EU. There was, and is, no serious expectation that it will join anytime soon—the problems run very deep. However, the imagined possibility of Turkish accession offered a new argument to the ‘Leave’ side: the uncontrolled hordes of Bulgarian and Polish immigrants might be joined by uncontrolled hordes of Turks—and they have brown skin and middle-eastern sounding names.

It is a matter of record that, for the last 4-6 weeks of the campaign, this (entirely imaginary) threat of Turkish immigration was, essentially, the sole message of the ‘Leave’ campaign. Michael Gove gave an, astonishing, 90 minute TV interview, where he responded to every question the audience asked him with ‘Turkish immigration’; the infamous final leaflet of the campaign, delivered to every home in the UK, pressed this message, extraordinarily crudely.

This focus on the (imaginary) possibility of mass Turkish immigration turned national opinion, shifting the polls by 5-10% The ‘Leave’ campaign chose to threaten us, however implausibly, with brown-skinned neighbours with middle-eastern sounding names, and this straightforwardly racist tactic changed the game.

Let me parse this clearly: a genuine and real possibility of uncontrolled immigration by very poor communities from Eastern Europe did nothing to improve the ‘Leave’ vote; an entirely imaginary fantasy of immigration from Turkey was the decisive move in the campaign. Our most significant political decision for decades was determined by an imaginary fear of living close to people with brown skin and middle-eastern sounding names.

This plays three ways: first, something like a million of us were convinced to vote ‘Leave’ because, although presently-actual uncontrolled immigration of poor white people from Poland or Bulgaria did not trouble us, we felt threatened by imaginary possible immigration from Turkey. If there is a way of narrating that decision that does not involve the category of ‘racism’, I can’t find it.

Second, something like sixteen million of us either were entirely untroubled by a campaign that was explicitly racist, were ignorant enough of the debate to not realise what the campaign had become, or were sufficiently convinced that the goods of leaving the EU were so valuable that voting for an openly racist campaign was still the right choice.

Third, the rest of us were either sufficiently uninterested to not get involved, or, at best, unwilling or unable to demonstrate convincingly just how racist the campaign had become.

The aftermath of the vote was predictable: good friends of mine (variously British born; in professional jobs; Oxbridge educated) reported experiencing more overt racism in the days after the vote than in the years before; so-called journalists like Hopkins, and even real journalists like Kavanagh, apparently felt able to borrow and deploy Nazi slogans; explicit links between our racist Brexit project and Trump’s racist project became suddenly visible…

…but of course this is not what our American friends saw in Charlottesville. There were no explicit Nazi salutes, and no-one was killed by neo-Nazis…

…Half-right. I never had the privilege of meeting Jo Cox, MP, but we had several mutual friends who all speak extraordinarily highly of her. She was murdered by a man who described her as a traitor to white people, a neo-Nazi.

So, our national politics has been re-ordered by explicit racism; our political and media discourse has been willing to embrace Nazi slogans and images; and one of our politicians who dared to stand up against all this was murdered by a neo-Nazi thug. Are we so different from our American friends?

I close with one thought: the God I worship became incarnate, and He has brown skin and a middle-eastern sounding name.

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