Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fear and Loathing

Just over a week ago, a colleague and I were handing out Labour In For Britain leaflets outside the village hall before an EU referendum hustings meeting, one of a series of debates organised by the local MP in the run up to the vote. Rural Sussex is not natural Labour territory but most people politely took a leaflet; some were actually enthusiastic, a few declined and two were downright hostile. The first gave us a Tebbitesque "On yer bike"; the second, an elderly woman on two walking sticks, took me aback when she snapped, "No! You've come here mob-handed because you're scared you're going to lose!" Scowling and muttering, she hobbled off into the hall.

In the meeting, after pitches by Leave and Remain speakers, the MP invited comments from the floor. Amidst a succession of muddled points about sovereignty, the likelihood of Turkey joining the EU and the veracity of the £350 million per week figure, the elderly woman made an aggressive contribution of telling clarity: she wanted to leave the EU to keep out immigrants, to reduce the threat of ISIS and to take back control. It was easy to recognise its source: a lethal cocktail of tabloid rhetoric, vintage Boris Farage and plain fear. What she said encouraged others: a young woman, who confessed she was not old enough to vote, bemoaned the loss of the British Empire and laid this at the EU's door.

The next day, I became involved in a debate on social media (not something I usually do) with a Leave campaigner who had used an image of British servicemen returning from the war in support of an out vote. I pointed out to him that the EU existed to ensure that there would never be a European theatre of war again and my late dad, who had lost his mum in the Blitz and then been involved in the bombing of Dresden, was a passionate supporter of the European project having seen at first hand the suffering on both sides. I was told to bugger off and that people like me were giving away British freedom.

A few days later, I overheard my children discussing the referendum debates they were having in their classes at school. They were talking about the minority of kids who supported 'out' and the reasons they had given; immigrants, and the need to "keep them out", was the constant justification. My oldest two, aware enough to not want to stereotype the outers, were skirting around the issue. It fell to the youngest to articulate what they were all thinking: "All the mean kids are supporting Leave," she said.

Mulling over all of this the night before the murder of Jo Cox, my wife and I were puzzled that we seemed to have reached a point where we are living in a climate of bitterness and resentment. Politics had clearly failed a section of the electorate but that did not entirely explain the quick conversion to anger and hatred; sections of our own community seemed to be bound up in a straitjacket of fear and loathing.

When politicians talk of immigration it is either to fudge or inflame. The worst examples of print media - The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express - have been doing only the latter. When I spoke at the hustings meeting, I said that immigration is a two-way street: there are 2 million Britons living and working in Europe and, like it or not, we are living in a smaller world; the NHS would not have survived without immigration and our ageing workforce needs migrants more than ever. I was applauded by some for my comments but when I looked across at the elderly woman she was snarling not smiling.

There is a need for honesty about immigration, not undeliverable promises and certainly not the hysterical hyperbole that some politicians and journalists have been peddling of late - they should hang their heads in utter shame. Jo Cox's assassin had seemingly flirted with neo-Nazism for 20 years; something made him violently snap now and the febrile atmosphere of our current culture and politics cannot be discounted in this.

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