Leader comment: EU debate is about more than identity politics

The murder of MP Jo Cox came amid bitter EU debate rhetoric
The murder of MP Jo Cox came amid bitter EU debate rhetoric
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More than five months have passed since the UK voted in a historic referendum to leave the European Union.

Yet the partisan rhetoric has barely subsided. Furious dispute has raged over the credibility – or lack of it – of economic forecasting.

But far more worrying have been the incidents of racist and xenophobic attacks, the most outrageous of these being the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox who was shot and stabbed multiple times in her constituency.

Now the Equality and Human Rights Commission has called on Westminster party leaders to tone down campaigning that has “polarised” the country and “legitimised hate”. It spoke of growing concern that the divisions on a range of big questions “are widening and exacerbating tensions in our society” and pointed to the killing of Arkadiusz Jozwick as a manifestation of racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic attacks, together with reports of hijabs being pulled off, all of which it described as “stains on our society”.

Millions of people – on both sides of the Brexit argument – will share the EHRC’s disgust at these attacks and will endorse its call for “accurate information and respectful debate” from politicians.

Immigration was an inevitable flashpoint. Legitimate public concern over the scale and extent of border controls was used to legitimise hate. But the EHRC also recognised that “the vast majority of people who voted to leave the European Union did so because they believe it is best for Britain and not because they are intolerant of others”. It is tempting to view the attacks on minorities as a shameful “one off” and that passions will subside in time. But they may also be symptomatic of a deeper and more worrying change: the rise of “identity politics” and the increasing tendency of politicians, commentators and pollsters to treat the electorate as mutually hostile sets of religious, racial, or ethnic categories. This allowed the referendum result to be portrayed as a revolt of the “white working class”, similar to that which led to the ascendancy of Donald Trump as US president-elect.

But as analysis of the US result has shown, many did not vote in accordance with the ethnic or racial categories to which they were assigned. This at least offers hope that voters are not so polarised into mutually antagonistic camps as the advocates of “identity politics” might suggest and that appeals such as that from the EHRC may succeed in encouraging politicians to modify their rhetoric accordingly.

As for the heated debate on the accuracy of economic forecasting, while there are good grounds to question many of the doom-­laden predictions this has spilled over into an indiscriminate attack on expertise of any sort. Michael Gove, the former justice secretary and Leave campaigner, has now modified his infamous claim that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Not all experts are wrong, he has now made clear. How much better it would have been had this modification been made much earlier, rather than left to sully public debate for months.