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Europe: The Final Countdown

How the UK Will Fight Racism Now That Brexit Has Won

The political class has given up, so we have to do it ourselves.

Photo by Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

For the last two weeks, I've been worried that the Leave camp was gaining huge ground off the back of gross anti-migrant sentiment. Now that it's all over, that worry is replaced with the realization that we actually have to live through this—through these voices being the majority. Through all this, what's become clearer than ever is that it is absolutely necessary to build a popular anti-racist politics in Britain.


Of course, not everyone who voted Brexit is a raving racist, and there were even left-wing arguments for wanting to break-up with Brussels. Yet, it seems clear that hatred directed at foreigners drove a huge number of Leave voters. Stealing jobs, leeching benefits, crowding hospital waiting rooms, and causing traffic jams are just some of the crimes I've heard immigration charged with in the last few weeks. To many, the problems they experience in Britain are the fault of people not born here, with over a third of Leave voters citing the issue of immigration as their deciding factor in a YouGov poll for the Times on the eve of the vote.

The blame for this can't be placed solely on UKIP. Sure, they have done far more than their fair share, but everyone else was keen to participate too. In the end, even those campaigning for Remain thought it expedient to make calls for "legitimate" discussion around immigration. Considering it's literally all that's been discussed, I'm not sure how we could possibly talk about it more. But the clarity of this vote to leave should spur us into working for a complete change in how immigration is discussed; it has to be centered around an emboldened sense of anti-racism.

Perhaps the worst thing you could do during the debates was to suggest people might be racist. Emphatic cries of "We're not racist, but…" started many sentences, and a number of commentators defended the working class, saying that Leave support was precisely a backlash to allegations of racism. But racism is not a problem of the working class; it's endemic throughout British society. To fight it we need to make reimagined free movement a priority and racism unacceptable.


In the years to come there will be moves to make good on campaign promises that Britain will retake control of its borders. In practice, this means that we will be leaving behind our agreement to free movement across Europe (as long as our exit from the EU is also an exit from the single market) and reforming our own policies on who can enter and remain in this country. Our friends in the rest of Europe will begin to face the same hurdles that migrants from other parts of the world do, though no doubt we'll see preferential patterns emerging that privilege some western European nations over the eastern Europeans the British public is so worried about.

This has to be a key moment for making the left-wing case for loosened borders. We need an end to the sort of pandering that says "of course immigration controls are necessary" when that isn't the problem we're facing. It might be what people feel strongly about, but it's our duty to challenge that and not play into the violence of borders. How do we start such an argument? There are plenty of reasons that explain why good jobs are hard to come by, hospitals are being strained, and housing is absolutely inaccessible. None of them rely on blaming immigrants. They have a lot more to do with the private profit motives of business owners and landlords. That, and the government's desire to support them while destroying every bit of state help that made life livable for many.


All this has been true for a long time, yet we have allowed ourselves to get so wrapped up in racist narratives that people simply shrug when you point it out. As long as that is the case, those being exploited will continue to suffer because they're blaming precisely the wrong people, letting the real causes of their problems off the hook. That has to be reiterated every single time we rightly show that racism is at work.

In such a climate, it's obvious that borders won't disappear overnight. Things are likely to get worse from here on, which means we have to be ready for practical anti-racist work. The Home Office's Immigration Enforcement rips people out of this country every day, and this referendum vote has just bolstered their role. Immigration raids are targeted racist state attacks on our communities and often take advantage of the popular climate of xenophobia to carry out their work. It is important, then, that we develop a culture of intervention to make their role much more difficult.

Groups such as the Anti-Raids Network already organize to promote this kind of resistance, and have been successful in forcing Immigration Enforcement Officers out of neighborhoods. But making such raids untenable across the country will take a powerful change that can only be achieved through mass effort. Whenever their vans are spotted, we must have the confidence to kick them out. We can't walk on by.


Winning all of these arguments is dependent on making the racism that has developed unacceptable. We can, of course, work to understand where the hatred comes from, but we really do have to end the soft complicity that always wants to point out what is legitimate in the things racists say. Frankly, many people have got it muddled and are using race and religion as ways to explain what's wrong in the world, when they have nothing to do with the problem. That's the way UKIP works and, increasingly, how much of mainstream politics operates, too.

This sort of politics is dangerous—on an everyday level, but also at its extremes. We have seen the trend of attacks motivated by right-wing hatred increasing in recent years, and even during this referendum one such attack took the life of the MP for Batley and Spen, Jo Cox. The argument against these ideas will have to be public, sustained, and no longer compromising. But that is vital when it poses such a threat.

This morning, just under half the country has woken up dismayed, already feeling the impact of watching a bigoted argument win out so successfully. The effects will likely be horrible on everyone, but those not from this country and the subjects of racism are particularly scared. The only way to make any kind of positive out of this is to take the opportunity to build the sort of anti-racist politics we've sorely been missing. One the political class has all but given up on.

Follow Wail Qasim on Twitter.

To see all our articles about the EU Referendum, check out Europe: The Final Countdown.