Euan McColm: To the victors the spoils – but only if you’re a racist

Ukips EU referendum campaign poster is driven around Parliament Square in June last year. Picture: 
Jack Taylor/Getty
Ukips EU referendum campaign poster is driven around Parliament Square in June last year. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty
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Of course, not every person who voted last year for the UK to leave the European Union is a racist. The very idea is preposterous.

There were honourable and decent people on both sides of that bruising campaign (yes, even among those who made the spectacularly foolish, destructive decision to vote Leave). But while not all Leavers are racists, they certainly helped racists get what they wanted.

Campaign posters that demonised refugees, scare stories about the imminent arrival in the UK of millions of Turks (despite the fact that Turkey is not even a member of the EU), and the horrific murder of pro-Remain MP Jo Cox – by a man who shouted “Britain first” as he killed her – live on in memory as dreadful lows in a campaign that made an art form of negativity and dog-whistling.

So it was hardly surprising when a group of MPs last week warned that the poisonous tone of last year’s Brexit campaign has led to the demonisation of immigrants. The cross-party group on social integration, chaired by pro-Remain Labour MP Chuka Umunna, warned that anti-immigrant rhetoric is making it harder for new arrivals to the UK to integrate into the communities where they choose to settle.

This is, doubtless, great news for those whose decision in last year’s referendum was based on their desire to “take back control of our borders” (especially when those crossing said borders aren’t milky-white in complexion) but it should trouble the rest of us.

Umunna and his colleagues – including members of the SNP, Liberal Democrats, and Conservatives – warn that anti-immigrant rhetoric has made it harder for those arriving in the UK to settle into their new lives, and they call for government action to encourage social mixing.

Leave voters may well be deeply offended by Umunna’s words. When he says “the demonisation of immigrants, exacerbated by the poisonous tone of the debate during the EU referendum campaign and after, shames us all and is a huge obstacle to creating a socially integrated nation”, their hackles may rise before they insist, “I’m no racist.” Their offence, I’m afraid, is the price they must pay for their shabby little victory.

According to MPs, including those who campaigned for the UK to stay in Europe, on both the Tory and Labour front benches, it is time for the UK to come together to make Brexit a success. How exactly this might be achieved, though, is increasingly unclear.

Jobs in the financial sector have started to go, the pound is worth only a euro, and the complexity of the job ahead – the unpicking of swathes of legislation – is only now becoming worryingly apparent. The chances of a Brexit deal that doesn’t leave the UK more isolated and less influential look negligible.

At this point, the only people heading for a successful outcome are those racists whose desire to send ’em back supersedes any concerns about the impact of Brexit on the economy.

Richard Tice, co-chairman of the pro-Brexit Leave Means Leave group, dismisses Umunna as “a member of the metropolitan liberal elite who is completely oblivious to the concerns of millions of hard-working British families across the country”.

Tice, a multi-millionaire public schoolboy who’s never been anything but a member of an “elite”, goes on to say that not only is there nothing “poisonous” about wanting to “take back control of Britain’s borders” but that Umunna should be “ashamed to suggest there is”.

This is all very well, but Umunna didn’t suggest there was; the Labour MP was quite clear that it was the tone of the debate he was referring to. Tice’s response to the legitimate concerns of politicians is typical of the worst of the Leave campaign. It dresses up a nihilistic campaign as something truly empowering.

Since last year’s referendum, much of the focus of debate – or, often, recrimination – has been on the tangible impact of Brexit. Pro-Remain MPs have spoken about the effect on jobs and the economy and warned of a United Kingdom diminished on the world stage.

And, undoubtedly, the warnings these politicians continue to issue are compelling (unless, that is, you only really care about immigration, in which case any price is a price worth paying for keeping ’em out).

We have not, however, heard enough about the social impact of last year’s result. In part, this is because so many pro-Remain politicians have jumped aboard the “will of the people” express: the voters have spoken and, no matter how much one might disagree with what they have said, it’s time now to do their reckless bidding.

Among those MPs who remain outspoken about their belief that the UK has made a stupid decision, there has, perhaps, been a reluctance to talk about the impact on community cohesion lest they be accused of suggesting Leave voters are racist.

But surely Leave voters – many of whom are so firmly non-racist that you will frequently hear them beginning sentences with the words “I’m not a racist” – are just as concerned as Remain voters about the impact on communities of a campaign that was, by its very nature, divisive?

Tice and his fellow travellers do not, it seems, care much about any negative fallout from the Brexit decision. If they do, they don’t talk about it.

Instead, Leave campaigners continue to argue that departure from the EU will be a thwocking great success (so long as Remainers get with the programme).

Umunna and his colleagues – who visited a number of areas of high immigration and found migrants increasingly leading lives separate to the rest of the community – raise uncomfortable truths about the impact of last year’s referendum.

Leave campaigners insist Remainers have a duty to see that Brexit happens. If that is so, then surely Leavers have a duty to ensure it happens without destroying already fragile communities. After all, they’re not just racists, are they?