Are the British really as xenophobic as they’ve been made out to be since Brexit?
Living in London for two years, I haven’t noticed any more bigotry than in other countries
‘The long term consequences of Britain’s Brexit disaster will be more than just economic or political - they will be existential, defining what it means to be British for generations of people.’ Photograph: iStock
Walking through Warsaw on Polish Independence Day, for a moment I thought I’d boarded the wrong flight and stumbled upon an English Defence League rally. At a glance, Poland’s white and red flag could be mistaken for St George’s, waved about by gangs of men marching down the streets of the capital. England’s far right has more in common with their counterparts in Poland than they might think - except that while in Britain demonstrations like these take place on the fringes, in Poland this is now the mainstream.
My friends and I jumped into the first Irish pub we could see, seeking sanctuary from the bitter men and the even bitterer cold. Here a different kind of homogeneity was on display - a few dozen Ryanair city breakers, knocking back pints of lager. Perhaps the reason fascism never took root at home is that it would be too difficult to persuade hungover people that they belonged to any sort of master race, much less convince them to invade Russia in the winter.
Warsaw could be a jarring place to find oneself at the best of times, with or without the jingoistic marches. The Nazis completely obliterated the city during the second World War (Hitler had wanted turn it into a car park) before being rebuilt from scratch by the Soviets with a new paranoiac, Stalinist architecture - a sobering reminder of what can happen when ultra-nationalism reaches its natural conclusion (yes, this is the kind of top notch banter I come out with on lads holidays).
Our slavish focus on Brexit has made it easy to miss the rest of Europe’s slide to the far right.
Our slavish focus on Brexit has made it easy to miss the rest of Europe’s slide to the far right. The chillingly named Law and Justice Party swept to power in Poland in 2015 during the migrant crisis, and since then have purged the civil service, prosecuted peaceful protesters and characterised the LGBT community as a threat to children. In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán has positioned himself as the leader of “Christian Democracy” - which he broadly defines as pro-Christianity and anti-immigration. The 4m electric wire fence his government constructed in 2015 to keep asylum seekers out comes complete with drones and loud-speakers giving warnings in Arabic.
Last year UN officials sent to inspect the country’s immigration centres weren’t let in; the irony of this apparently lost on Hungarian officials. The EU has tried to impose sanctions on Hungary for violating its core values, but these were vetoed by Poland.
Meanwhile in Austria, its then young chancellor Sebastian Kurz has talked about forming an “axis of the willing” with Germany and Italy to curb migration, while the new deputy Italian prime minister Matteo Salvini has endorsed “mass cleaning, street by street” - and he’s not talking about Tidy Towns.
statistics now suggest that the Brits are broadly less racist than some of the people they’re supposedly racist against
Living in England, I find it difficult to imagine this kind of language being used in the British mainstream. Ukip’s nasty “breaking point” posters certainly helped to define the tone of the Brexit campaign, but Nigel Farage has never been a contender for prime minister. In fact, statistics now suggest that the Brits are broadly less racist than some of the people they’re supposedly racist against. The results of a global YouGov-Cambridge poll last month found that British people have a more positive attitude towards the benefits of immigration than anyone else in Europe. Only 37 per cent of Brits thought the impact of immigration was negative, compared with 49 per cent in the supposedly liberal Valhalla of Sweden.
Similarly, the EU’s own agency for fundamental rights released findings last year revealing that the UK has had some of the lowest rates of race-related harassment in the EU, with only 3 per cent of UK-based respondents reporting harassment. In Ireland, the figure was 13 per cent. While it’s true that authorities have reported a spike in hate crimes since the referendum, this appears to be a depressing trend across the continent.
It follows then that those trying to explain Brexit need to look beyond xenophobia alone. I’ve lived in the UK for over two years now, and I generally haven’t found them any more bigoted than other cultures I’ve encountered (light praise, I accept). Rather, what strikes me most about the UK is the inequality -I live in one of the poorest boroughs in the UK, where high-rise luxury apartment blocks face council towers, the residents of both peering out at each other with mutual suspicion.
The long term consequences of Britain’s Brexit disaster will be more than just economic or political - they will be existential, defining what it means to be British for generations of people.
A United Nations report last year found that a fifth of the UK’s population are living in poverty, while a separate study found that the five poorest regions in Northern Europe are all in the UK. People are angry, and they are right to be. Snake-oil salesmen like Farage and Boris Johnston gave people a chance to give two fingers to the elites, and they took it.
However, while not everyone who voted for Brexit are racist - they are largely delusional. Delusional for believing that Britain can be a great solo actor on the world stage again, delusional for thinking they’ll be better off without the workers and human rights guaranteed by EU membership, delusional for thinking the likes of Farage, Jacob Rees Mogg and their ilk peddled Brexit for anything other than personal gain. Whether Brexit goes ahead or is cancelled makes no difference at this point - either way these people are unlikely to get what they were promised, causing a level of humiliation and betrayal not felt since the economic crash of 2008.
The long term consequences of Britain’s Brexit disaster will be more than just economic or political - they will be existential, defining what it means to be British for generations of people. Meanwhile the EU faces a philosophical crisis of its own, and it’s much worse than just Britain quitting. All Britain wants to do is leave - the likes of Hungary and Poland want to stay, and use their influence to challenge the liberal values on which the Union was founded. As painful as the British have made their departure, it’s time to consider who we’re being left behind with.
Peter Flanagan is writer and comedian based in London. He has performed across Ireland, the UK and Australia, and has appeared on Newstalk and BBC Radio. Read his previous pieces for Irish Times Abroad: