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Brexit has encouraged an eruption of nasty nativism. Why is anyone surprised by this?

8 July 2016

12:26 PM

8 July 2016

12:26 PM

Even in an age of ridiculousness there is something preposterous about the sight of so many prominent Leavers clutching their pearls in horror as they contemplate the possibility – the real possibility – that Andrea Leadsom could become the next leader of the Conservative party and, by golly, Prime Minister too.

I mean, where do they think she came from? Who created her? Mrs Leadsom’s credentials to occupy the highest political office in the land come down to one single fact: she is the most virulently eurosceptic candidate available. That’s a powerful thing, however, and those Leavers who think their creation can be safely kept in the laboratory may yet have cause to regret their complacency. Because it’s not as easy as that. Sometimes things escape.

84 Tory MPs endorsed Leadsom yesterday. Think on that for a moment (weeping is permitted, too). If you think reactionary euroscepticism can be kept quiet you are, I fear, deluding yourself. On the contrary, it has been given a voice and it won’t pipe down any time soon. When you encourage these things, do not be surprised when the people being so encouraged decide to take you seriously.

All of this was predictable. Perhaps it is beginning to dawn on Leavers that they have encouraged something rather dreadful, a grubby nativism that, though always present, was previously considered awfully infra dig. So when you see videos of foreigners being abused on a Manchester tram, or reports of a Polish family being attacked in Plymouth or countless callers to radio programmes noting that they feel anxious and even, in some cases, afraid you have a choice. You can ignore such ugliness, such shaming ugliness, or you can accept an evident reality: this has been encouraged. The public expression of prejudice has become more acceptable than it was a month ago. You might – and in many cases, will – think this appalling but it’s not something that’s happened by chance.

Of course there’s always plausible deniability. There’s always a fig-leaf that can be deployed to cover your embarrassment. This wasn’t what wanted, you will say, this wasn’t part of my argument for Brexit. Well, no perhaps it wasn’t. But the happy, optimistic, internationalist case for Brexit was not the case that won the referendum for Leave. If you think the pubs of Sunderland and Basildon were stuffed with people thirsting for the opportunity to live in the Singapore of the West you are, I am afraid, deluding yourself. Your idea of Brexit was not the dominant view of Brexit.


And if you’re interested in being honest with yourselves, you know this is true. Millions of entirely decent people voted for Leave for entirely decent reasons but they cannot walk away from the nature of the campaign they endorsed. You don’t, it is true, get to pick your fellow-travellers but you can choose to be embarrassed by them.

So it is hardly a surprise that the future status of EU-citizens currently living in the UK is an issue. Theresa May’s position on this question may be tawdry and divisive but at least it’s logical. The Leave campaign did not just oppose future immigration; it also argued that the surrender of border controls had led to too much immigration in the past. You cannot avoid that. Nor can you avoid the fact that this has consequences, real consequences, for people who have moved to the UK in recent years.

When Michael Gove says migrants ‘pose a direct economic cost to us all’ he’s not just talking about fictitious Turks, he’s talking about – and is understood to be talking about – actual Poles. When the Leave campaign talks about unsustainable pressures on the NHS, on housing, on schools we know they’re not just talking about some imagined future, they’re talking about the way England is now. And since they never, ever, say the answer to these pressures is to build more schools, recruit more nurses (from where? Oh, overseas!) or build more houses we may fairly reason that the problem is there are just too many damn people.

Which means some of them will have to go. True, the thought of deporting EU nationals is an ugly, even abhorrent, thought. But that’s where the logic of the Leave campaign leads. It’s a credit to the still fundamental decency of the British people that a majority of Leave supporters shrink from the logic of the campaign they supported but it can hardly be reckoned a surprise that a hefty minority, perhaps one in four, accept and welcome the thought of sending them back.

And, look, there are only two cards Andrea Leadsom can play against Theresa May. First, that a Brexiteer should lead a Brexiteer party and, second, that May cannot be trusted because her record, on the biggest question of all, is one of failure. May is the Home Secretary who presided over years of failure on immigration. Too many people were allowed into the United Kingdom and even if this wasn’t all her fault, she was still the Home Secretary upon whose watch it happened.

Of course this is unfair, not least since free movement (a boon to european liberty, incidentally) made it impossible to stop people from coming here. But that, Leave told us, was precisely the problem. So don’t be surprised when many of the people who moved here listen to criticisms of the system that allowed them to do so and hear not-so-very-coded criticisms of themselves. How can you not take such things personally? And it’s a bit much to see Brexiteers now telling people that, oh we didn’t mean you, we just meant them.

The more elegant type of Brexiteer argued, for sure, that we’re not opposed to immigration per se. We just want to be able to attract skilled Canadians rather than unskilled Romanians. But, come on, if you believe that’s what millions of people heard then you’ll believe anything. It was an arse-covering piece of sophistry designed to make you feel better about the idea you were supporting and avoid being dirtied by the company you were keeping.

When push came to shove, Leavers offered the British people a choice between a recession and taking control. The people, for better or worse, opted for the latter but will get both. It’s abundantly clear that a hefty chunk of the Brexit movement prioritises ending freedom of movement over maintaining tariff-free access to the single market. That’s a regrettable, even disastrous, order of priorities but it’s a choice that can be made. But having made that choice you have to own it. This is what you wanted; this is what you got.


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