The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Brexit debate has made Britain more racist

The idea of 'getting our country back,' once considered a crass empire throwback, is now causing ripples of bigoted glee.

A boat is decorated with flags and banners from the Fishing for Leave group, which is campaigning for a “leave” vote in the E.U. referendum. (Niklas Helle’n/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

LONDON — For evidence that the Brexit debate is normalizing British racism, look no further than the country’s most enduring national treasure: the pub.

Last weekend at a pub in London’s Soho neighborhood, I got talking to a middle-aged couple. The conversation soon moved to the senseless slaughter of MP Jo Cox at the hands of a terrorist. Killer Thomas Mair was homegrown: a white working-class man from the Scottish “burgh” of Kilmarnock.

Why Cox, asked the bloke. Why couldn’t he have killed a foreigner? Then he gave me the once over and asked, “Where are you really from?”

Six months ago, I would have found his comments shocking. But the Brexit debate has not just challenged the way we conceive of sovereignty. It has legitimized the poisonous campaign vocabulary of U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage and his “breaking point” propaganda.

Farage is the same leader who once said his party would “never win the n—-r vote”, and defended using a racist word for Chinese people in live radio broadcasts. In March, he fueled antagonism toward foreigners when he claimed that mass male-on-female sex attacks were a “nuclear bomb” waiting to explode because of the United Kingdom’s “high” immigration levels. (Police records show that sexual assaults have decreased by half since 2006.) Last week, Farage linked the upcoming Brexit vote to the refugee crisis explicitly, and unveiled a poster featuring a queue of Syrian refugees captioned “Breaking point: the EU has failed us.”

This rhetoric has had a poisonous effect. Because of the Brexit campaign, racism is no longer racism – it’s legitimate opinion. The idea of “getting our country back,” once considered a crass empire throwback, is now causing ripples of bigoted glee.

For evidence, look no further than Brexit splinter group, which has more than 750,000 followers on Facebook. Earlier this month, the group tweeted an odious cartoon of the European Union as a ship on the precipice. A cannon labeled “diversity” is punching holes in its floor, swarthy “Muslims” are butchering a white man and stealing bags of money. The crescent moon Islamic emblem flies proudly overhead. Arron Banks, the movement’s founder, is UKIP’s biggest donor.

A recent Mail on Sunday investigation found that the Leave campaign had been “infiltrated” by influential neo-Nazi campaigners, including influential British National Party member Mark Collet. In a 2013 Channel 4 interview, he said, “The Jews have been thrown out of every country, including England. … Let’s face it, when it happens that many times, it’s not just persecution: There’s no smoke without fire.” Another board member of the Vote Leave campaign, Arabella Arkwright, was forced to step down after she retweeted a message in support of getting “seventh-century barbaric savagery out of Britain”.

Other groups also have played on racist themes. Within 24 hours of Cox’s death, the North-East branch of the extremist group National Action tweeted, “#voteleave, don’t let this man’s sacrifice go in vain. #JoCox would have filled Yorkshire with more sub-humans.” Prominent Brexit campaigners such as Eva van Housen – renowned for her swastika tattoos – have refused to acknowledge Mair’s political motivation for the killing.

This movement is no longer on the fringes of British society. Britain First’s Facebook page has almost 1.5 million likes. The group – whose campaigning activities include “invading mosques” and sending out “Christian patrols” into Muslim areas – has a social media following more than three times the size of any other British political party. Violence against those who don’t fit in is up, too; hate crimes against Muslims in London are up by 70 percent

This is surprising because Britain had, until recently, avoided getting swept up by the right-wing mania spreading across Europe. A recent New York Times article observed that “right wing and far right wing parties” had zero electoral success in England until 2015. That changed with UKIP. The party was founded in 1993 on an anti-Europe platform, and since then has been vocal on opposing same-sex marriage and cutting immigration. Its 2010 general election manifesto included “encouraging proper dress for major hotels, restaurants and theatres” and imposing a limit on foreign soccer players on U.K. regional teams.

In that election the party received 3.2 percent of the public vote. By 2015, this had increased to 13 percent, making Britons the fastest growing right-wing voting bloc in Europe.

They did it by convincing Britons that one of two options awaits. Either we remain the neutered British, pathetic in the grips of the money-grabbing European Union. Or we separate for a puerile fantasy of “Englishess.” Through this narrative, the far right has given a platform to views that denigrate, ostracize and incite hatred against minorities. I doubt that even those at its top could have imagined to what extent these ideas would captivate the national imagination.

The crumbling state of British race relations is surely a microcosm of the horror that awaits if we continue to go along with this rhetoric. If we wanted a sign that our peace is a fragile one, this is surely it.

I am mixed race, and London born and bred. While studying in St. Andrews, I was once ejected from a supermarket for not having an Indian passport. I’m still used to people commenting on my “strong Indian accent,” how well I speak English, or asking whether I’ve visited “the colonies.” Apart from high school French, I have only ever spoken English.

If this genre of conversation is still happening on the North London dinner party circuit, what can we expect from those who have less to lose? A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Brexit debate in the United Kingdom’s most expensive postcode. A man stood up and said, “I understand that the wee Syrians might have had it hard. But it’s not our problem. What about us? What about us?”

His cries were met with rapturous applause.

Making Britain great again must start from the grass roots: It is not the European Union, but the fast-growing legions of everymans – you and me – and the people we drink pints beside, who are posing a very real threat to freedom. And unless we speak up now, we will have only ourselves to blame.