The Brexit Debate Takes a Dark Turn

There’s only so much nastiness a country can endure before it curdles into actual violence.

Tributes for Labour Party MP Jo Cox on Parliament Square in London, Britain (Neil Hall / Reuters)

It’s hard to over-emphasize the sense of raw shock in Britain at the murder Thursday of Jo Cox. A Labour Party MP with a track record of pro-refugee and human-rights campaigning, Cox was both stabbed and shot while meeting the public in her northern English constituency, dying in hospital shortly after. In a country where guns are strictly controlled, a much-liked politician dying in this way seems fantastical, unreal.

There’s more to Britain’s shock than this horrific incident alone, however. The country has been on a knife-edge for months in the run-up to next week’s Brexit referendum, which will decide whether the U.K. will leave or remain in the European Union. Cox, a vocal pro-Remain advocate, was killed by a local man with links to U.S. neo-Nazi groups who, before attacking Cox, allegedly shouted either “put Britain first” or “Britain First”—the name of a racist, extreme-right political party campaigning, among other things, for Britain to leave the EU. While some in the Leave camp have tried to paint Cox’s murder as the work of a mentally unstable loner and nothing more, the clear political background behind the attack has inevitably pushed a referendum campaign so far marked by anger and farce into the realms of tragedy.

Britain’s current self-laceration over EU membership may seem bizarre to outsiders—that’s certainly how many U.S. media voices have presented it. The reality is that the pro-Leave movement has tapped into a huge reservoir of resentment that often has little at all to do with the European Union. The pro-Leave camp has drawn substantial support from mainly white, non-metropolitan voters who feel they have been sidelined or betrayed by politicians at a time when ordinary people’s living standards are slipping.

As this graphic from the Financial Times shows, pro-Leave Britons tend to be poorer, older, and more likely to live in Central or Northern England, away from the London power hub. By contrast, pro-Remain supporters are younger and more likely to have a higher education. They predominate in London, as well as in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, where potential future border complications and fear of rising English nationalism help to swing opinion in the EU’s favor.

If the demographics of the pro-Leave camp sound vaguely familiar, they are in fact strikingly similar to those for supporters of the U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. And the similarities between the Leave and Trump campaigns do not end there. Both Trump and the Leave campaign have wooed voters with a barrage of misinformation, in Britain strongly backed up by the right-wing media. And both have presided over a growing wave of racist rhetoric that comes with an ugly edge of implied violence.

Still, it would be mistaken to disregard the fears and frustrations of everybody in the Leave camp. As this recent article outlines, some white working-class U.K. voters are so frustrated by an absence of decently paid employment and affordable housing that they say they plan to vote Leave because they feel any radical change whatsoever would be better than the status quo. They distrust politicians currently in power and want new, anti-establishment faces and a completely new deal.

The problem is that a Leave vote will likely not deliver one. Supporters have not fleshed out any clear path for the country post-Brexit. Instead, the campaign has implausibly insisted that while the EU supposedly dominates all current U.K. decision-making without flexibility, the remaining member states will obediently and instantly roll over to cut an advantageous trade deal with Britain if it leaves. It has also promised that money saved on EU tax contributions—which secure Britain access to the European Single Market—can be funneled into the National Health Service, without factoring the steep drop in tax revenues Britain will suffer as the economy contracts after Brexit.

Above all, the Leave campaign has fed a poisonous discourse around immigration, using images of the current European migration crisis to imply that Britain is facing an uncontrollable wave of refugees. In fact, as a non-signatory of the Schengen Agreement, Britain’s control of its borders is entirely autonomous from the rest of the EU.

This is arguably the most damaging aspect of the campaign. While many Leave campaigners feel they are being unfairly tarred as racists, there’s no question that the campaign is infested with xenophobic rhetoric, even if these opinions are not shared by all Leave supporters.

Just this week, a campaign ad from the U.K. Independence Party showed an image of a vast trail of Middle Eastern refugees with the legend “Breaking Point.” The photo in question was in fact taken in Slovenia and bears no resemblance to any contemporary scene in Britain, which as noted, controls its own borders. The implication—vote Leave or dark-skinned people will overrun us—is hardly veiled and indeed, the cumulative impact of such arguments appears to be having a terrible effect.

Talking to friends of color here in the U.K., I’ve heard several stories of being shouted at in the street or insulted by random strangers with a frequency they couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago. The mood in Britain is darkening and migrants and British people of color alike are being set up as scapegoats for a range of problems, such as high housing costs and shortages in fact caused by decades of under-investment.

There’s only so much of this kind of demonization that a country can take before the nastiness stops being merely atmospheric and curdles into actual violence. Indeed, just as with Trump in the U.S., UKIP leader Nigel Farage has warned that violence is the inevitable next step for people who believe they’re being deprived of a voice. Now, that violence has arrived in the headlines, with the murder of a pro-Remain MP in the street by a white supremacist sympathizer. The tenor of the Leave campaign has effectively helped to create an atmosphere in which such attacks are possible.

The U.K. has seen little internal political violence since the brokering of peace in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. Britain just hasn’t been the sort of country where a mother of two is killed during political work in broad daylight. Except that now, it seems that it is.

This post appears courtesy of Citylab.