Euan McColm: I want my country back from nasty nationalists

Nigel Farage jokes with supporters aboard a Ukip tour bus near the Houses of Parliament. Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty
Nigel Farage jokes with supporters aboard a Ukip tour bus near the Houses of Parliament. Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty
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It is, by any standards, despicable. It’s hateful, inflammatory and dishonest. It’s perfectly Ukip. A poster unveiled by the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, last week showed a long queue of refugees – non-white, of course – crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015. Printed in red across the image are the words “breaking point”.

Posing in front of the poster, Farage allows himself the flicker of a smile. He’s pleased. This, in Farage’s little world of little men, is smart political campaigning.

The message is clear: if you don’t want your communities swamped by brown people, vote to leave the EU. This is racism. And if you wish to argue it isn’t, then I’m going to believe you’re a racist.

Of course, Farage and his fellow travellers – Tory MPs Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, for example – maintain their campaign isn’t about race, it’s about “sovereignty”, it’s about “believing in Britain”, it’s about “taking back control”. But, even if those claims are correct – and I am unconvinced they are – the Leave campaign is, to a very large degree, a racist one.

If you are a Leave voter and offended by this, then please raise your concerns with Farage, Johnson, and Gove. Your desire to leave the EU may not be based on matters of race but the campaign which might yet deliver your dream is. You, whether willingly or not, are on the side of racists.

During the final days of the Scottish independence referendum campaign in 2014, members of the Better Together team began to worry that turnout might see them lose. Polls showed that there was no majority support for independence but what was certain was that every person who believed in the break-up of the UK would exercise their right to vote. Could, wondered pro-Union campaigners, No voters be relied upon to make the effort?

Come the day, the pro-UK majority did just that. They might not have spent the previous 18 months making their voices heard, but when it came to the vote, they spoke loudly and clearly.

Polls suggest that the Leave campaign is on course to win Thursday’s referendum. But might another silent majority emerge to save the day?

Remain campaigners are not so sure. As one, who was closely involved in the 2014 referendum, put it, the problem is that people do not feel the same emotional connection to the European Union as they do to the idea of Britishness.

Facing the prospect of being taken out of the UK, Scots who also identify as Brits, were horrified and turned out in numbers that easily overcame Yes voters. But facing the prospect of being taken out of the EU, will moderate voters feel similarly motivated?

I hope – though I fear my hope will turn out to have been in vain – that they will.

Those who support a Leave vote are often heard to declare that they want their country back. Well, so do I.

I want my country back from bullies in blazers with rattling smokers’ laughs and nudge-nudges about refugees taking our jobs. I want my country back from revolting opportunists who see stoking division as a reasonable tactic in furthering their prime ministerial ambitions.

I want my country back from right-wing ideologues who weave fanciful stories about failing businesses and promise that every single challenge we face can be overcome if only we shut ourselves off from our neighbours.

I want my country back from nationalists who say their nationalism isn’t like all those other nasty nationalisms. I want my country back from cynics who say that all politicians are crooks and liars. I want my country back from weasels who say that only the politicians with whom they agree may be exempted from this judgment.

I want my country back from those who think protesting against a free press is joyous.

I want my country back from politicians who ignore real problems in favour of re-fighting constitutional battles already lost.

I want my country back from those who want us to return to the days when it was okay to joke about “darkies” and “poofs”. I want my country back from those who conceal their hatred beneath a cloak cut from “legitimate concerns”.

I want my country back from anyone who feeds hatred.

We may look across the Atlantic with horror at the behaviour of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, but do we so lack self-awareness that we cannot see the ideology of hatred that has swept him to within touching distance of victory is the same ideology of hatred that had so well served the Brexit campaign?

Trump promises to build a wall and so does Farage. That Trump’s would be made of bricks and mortar while Farage’s would be made of bureaucracy doesn’t change the identical nature of their intentions. Give either man your poor, your tired, your huddled masses and they will give you another group to despise and to blame for whatever ill befalls you.

There are two versions of a great British past. One – the Farage version – is a Little England fantasy of sunshine over the village green, of pints at the 19th hole and what-are-you-drivings and while-you’re-down-there-loves, of buses where every passenger speaks in a familiar accent, of a nation where the whiter one’s skin, the purer one’s intentions.

The other version is messier. It’s a British past where, yes, mistakes were made but where the right thing to do was to help not demonise the 
oppressed, where our communities welcomed outsiders and became the better for it, where we respected democracy and allowed ourselves to believe that those who sought to serve were to be admired.

It was not perfect because nothing ever is. But it was a Britain fighting hatred rather than allowing its incubation.

If the Leave campaign, with its racism and dark insinuation, wins on 
Thursday, its supporters may feel they have got their country back. I, on the other hand, will feel I’ve lost mine, perhaps forever.