I’m writing this piece the day after Jo Cox MP was murdered. It’s about the growth of hysterical, poisonous, wholly nasty discourse within the UK and I should say that I decided to write it before Jo Cox was killed. More specifically, I decided to write it this morning, when I saw a photo of the leader of UKIP standing in front of a poster showing a long queue of refugees (the only white ones in the picture had their faces obscured) and the caption “BREAKING POINT.” When I saw that, I didn’t expect that a few hours later it would seem like a wonderfully innocent utopia, that I’d be looking back with dewy-eyed nostalgia on those great times when an overtly racist poster seemed like the worst thing I could imagine.
Jo Cox’s horrific murder might, just might, have nothing to do with the poisonously ugly mood that seems to have taken hold of England right now. But it’s impossible to talk about that mood without referring to the fact that an MP who worked as a voice for immigrants and refugees was shot and stabbed outside her constituency office, by an apparent neo-Nazi who some eyewitnesses claim to have shouted “Britain First.” It’s hard to know what to say. This piece is mainly about UKIP’s racist poster and the sort of hate and anger it encourages, which may well have been demonstrated in the most appalling way.
So. Deep breath.
On a personal level, I had a bit of a watershed in the runup to the 2010 General Election, during the event that became known – with paralysing predictability – as Bigotgate. Gordon Brown was confronted by Gillian Duffy, a grandmother, and in an accidentally-recorded and deliberately-broadcast conversation described her as “a bigoted woman.” Brown was roundly denounced for this, and every major media outlet in the country – both the right-wing and vaguely left-wing press, as well as more or less every TV voice – promptly said that it showed the gap between Labour and the voters on the subject of immigration, before getting on to the serious business of what Brown’s reaction meant for Labour’s polling numbers. Ms Duffy, the narrative went, had said nothing wrong, had voiced a reasonable concern. It became (and remains) a truism that Gillian Duffy “expressed concerns about immigration.”
But she hadn’t. What Gillian Duffy actually said was “You can’t say anything about the immigrants… but all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?” Now, just to declare a personal interest that many people would share, I’ve got friends from eastern Europe and there are eastern Europeans in my extended family. I don’t particularly like the thought that people would demand that I tell them where my friends and family were all flocking in from. Gillian Duffy didn’t “raise a concern about immigration”: she raised a concern about eastern Europeans. She specifically singled out those people as a problem, and the use of the word flocking just made this worse (yes, “flocking” is a common enough phrase, but using animalistic terms in reference to human beings is the same ugliness that made David Cameron’s reference to a swarm of migrants so ugly). To cap all this, the question only makes sense if you remember she was talking about a type rather than people who happen to come from a certain place (eastern Europeans come from eastern Europe, clearly – so why would it need asking?). To hear that she had “raised concerns about immigration”, and “said nothing wrong”? It was unpleasant. I emphatically don’t think the question meant she was a bigot, and Gordon Brown shouldn’t have called her one (I’ll come back to that). However it was a bigoted thing to say, and it was certainly rude.
Oh look, I thought. These eastern Europeans flocking here from who-cares-where – this is how we can talk about other people now.
What really disappointed for me, though, even more so than should-kn0w-better commentators in the Guardian solemnly agreeing with this legitimate concern bollocks, was that Gordon Brown had the chance to confront this mass-media delusion that Ms Duffy had said nothing objection. He could have said “look, she’s not a racist or a monster, I absolutely shouldn’t have implied she was, and I’m very sorry. But reality check, please; this lady wasn’t raising concerns about immigration, as you all seem to think. She was complaining about people from eastern Europe, people who are just like you and me and any other human being, and saying they were a problem. She probably didn’t mean it, but she should have thought more carefully about what she was saying. I should have thought more carefully about what I was saying. And so should everyone. Always.” But that would have lost him votes, and he just wanted the issue to go away. Letting this fiction build up, that “where are all these eastern Europeans flocking in from” is a perfectly acceptable way to talk and is actually just raising a legitimate concern about levels of immigration, was his idea of damage limitation. Letting that myth take hold was cowardly, craven, and may well be the single worst thing that Gordon Brown ever did as a Prime Minister.
Since then, and particularly since I came back to England two years ago, I’ve had a sense of all decorum being chipped away. In the grip of the EU referendum (and before it), people are doing and saying things that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.
The real fuck-up of Brown’s “bigoted woman” slur, of course, was that it played into the hands of the not-racist-buts. The statement “I’m not A Racist” is the standard-issue bullshit defence that’s unfurled whenever some arsepiece has a go at people who have the temerity not to be white, or not to be English, or both (see also “nobody could call me sexist,” “I don’t have a homophobic bone in my body,” and so on). This is the de facto justification for anybody who says something unpleasant, rude, thoughtless, nasty – and yes, racist – but wants to be seen as a victim. There are comparatively few people who are “racists” in the sense that the strawman of A Racist implies. But more or less every human being on the planet will, at some point, have said something racist – and yes, I include myself in this – whether they meant it or not. They might not think a statement through, they might phrase it badly, they might be bullies who want to hurt someone any way they can, it might be a bad attempt at a joke, it might be due to a prejudices you didn’t even realise you held before you vocalised them. Grown-ups, when confronted on this, apologise. Egotists, those with ugly views and a dislike of being questioned, tend to get faux-offended and say “How dare you? I’m not a racist.” By calling Gillian Duffy a bigot, rather than saying she said a bigoted thing, Brown allowed UKIP and their ilk to imply a ludicrous false equivalence between being racially abused and being called a racist. They could cast themselves as marginalised, as victims, as ordinary folk taking on elites. And so they do.
Yesterday morning, I thought – and I was horrifically, tragically, horribly wrong – that UKIP’s new poster had reached the very bottom of the sort of hateful, poisonous shit that too many people describe as legitimate. What’s frightening about it, more so than the echoes to 1930s Nazi propaganda, more so than hiding the white faces among the refugees, is how we’re expected to see these people. These are people fleeing for their lives, refugees of war for god’s sake. But the poster just assumes that we’ll see them as a threat, certainly that we’ll see them as slightly less human than we see ourselves. It’s entirely confident that its target market will say “ooh, scary foreigners” rather than “dear god, what must those people have gone through?”. A couple of years ago, I don’t believe that poster would have happened: UKIP simply wouldn’t have believed they’d get away with that shit. It measures how fast and how far the level of discourse can fall, how easily a society can start to dehumanise others.
This normalisation of xenophobic, racist, vile rhetoric has been going on for a long time, in a lot of places. To pick a very upfront example, when David Cameron castigated Jeremy Corbyn for going to see “a bunch of migrants,” some media voices chastised him for his choice of words but nobody, to my recollection, even seemed to notice the central obscenity: namely, that the leader of the UK thought going to meet homeless refugees fleeing a civil war was self-evidently a waste of time. This has become something that goes without saying. More so than any time in my memory, even when Iraq was being bombed and nobody bothered reporting on the death toll of all those brown people, it’s taken as read that foreigners don’t matter as much as British people and only silly, bleeding-heart lefties even pretend to think otherwise. “We need to look after our own people first” isn’t even a controversial statement any more, and making the point that they are all our own people is seen as some sort of smug PC-posing by a member of the metropolitan elite. Leaflets are released asking what will happen when the Turks join, and the politically expedient response is “don’t be silly, Turkey won’t join” rather than asking what the fuck is wrong with Turkish people, exactly? People are exhorted to “take our country back,” and nobody calls this for what it is – an exercise in portraying all foreigners as having stolen the country, as invaders. And if any of this shit is challenged, you get the cry of “Waaah! You’re saying I’m racist! You’re calling ordinary people racist!”
Facts, in this climate, are obviously an irrelevance. A few weeks ago I saw Frank Field, one of the “thoughtful” Labour MPs who’s in favour of leaving the EU, declaring on Question Time that “I don’t think people should be basing their decision on facts” – yes, he actually said that – and nobody even told him it was a colossally stupid statement. But we’re living in a reality where raw prejudice is genuine, where nuance and context are mealy-mouthed, where hysteria is debate, and where bigotry – of course – is legitimate concern.
And none of this has just happened. It’s been fostered by a media that’s seen how hysteria sells papers, by politicians – either those happy to whip it all up, those looking to win votes by pandering to it while secretly despising anyone who falls for it, or those who don’t want to lose votes and hence ignore it – and ultimately, as is always the case, by everyone.
When it comes to the murder of Jo Cox – the appalling, sickening, heart-rending murder – it’s important to say that nobody really knows why it happened as yet. However, in a society where immigration is an enemy, where migrants are a swarm, where the country is at “breaking point,” where anger is an electoral tool, where you only have to care about “your own,” where you’re told to “take control” and “take your country back”… what do you expect to be the outcome of this, if not violence? Shocking… yes, the murder of Jo Cox was that, of course. But if you were surprised, you haven’t been paying attention.
If this seems bleak, then it’s only half the story. There’s another way of doing things in Britain, and it’s the way that Jo Cox, a mother-of-two who formerly worked with Syrian refugees for Oxfam, represented. Her husband’s ludicrously beautiful and inspirational statement does that too. Jo Cox is someone who, before yesterday, many others would have dismissed as a do-gooding idiot, someone out of touch with ordinary people. Pathetic, hollow, joyless men would have thought her foolish for her belief that caring and kindness and empathy are more important than blame, power, and advancement through the propagation of fear. Jo Cox will be remembered, of course. But the least duty for everyone else is to remember her, not just as a victim, but as someone who was right.