Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks in London in 2013. (YouTube / RevolutionBahrainMC)

For the first time in British political history, a far-right political movement, fueled by Islamophobia and nativism, has won in a national poll. Yet more than a week after the Brexit vote, Britain’s mainstream political commentators have been unable to state that simple fact. Instead, they see the vote as either a legitimate protest against mass immigration or a class rebellion by globalization’s losers. No wonder the elite liberals who ran the campaign to remain in the European Union (EU) failed. They fatally underestimated the power of the Islamophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments they were up against. Even when faced with the unprecedented assassination of a Labour Party member of parliament, allegedly by a far-Right activist, wishful thinking got in the way of acknowledging the reality of a mass racist mobilization. Following the Brexit vote, racist violence has risen dramatically, the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is facing a leadership contest that is partly a reaction to his refusal to adopt an anti-immigrant politics, and an unbridled nativism looks likely to dominate British politics as it becomes apparent the reduction in immigration promised by Brexit is unattainable. But the Brexit vote was more than two decades in the making, the culmination of a nativist campaign waged by conservative politicians and journalists, and enabled by liberals who wrongly thought the best way to oppose racism was to concede to some of its claims. Back in the mid-1990s, racism in Britain meant the racism born of colonialism in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. It was directed at immigrants from those parts of the world and their British-born descendants. But it faced strong opposition from grassroots movements led by people of color, especially families of Black and South Asian young people who had been killed in racist attacks. In response, Britain’s culture of racism adjusted itself to new circumstances. The search for new enemies after the Cold War suggested Islam as a new racial threat, while the fall of the Berlin Wall pointed to migration from the east of Europe. When Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined the EU in 2004, Britain’s most popular newspapers warned that hordes of Gypsies would be coming to scrounge welfare benefits. Earlier a small number of Gypsies had settled in Dover on England’s south coast, fleeing neo-Nazi gangs in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The best-selling Sun newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, called them “Slovak Spongers” and “Giro Czechs” (a pun on a common term for welfare payments) and suggested “teaching the gipsies two words, the second one being off.” The Daily Express ran the headline “1.6 million gipsies ready to flood in” on its front cover, accompanied by graphics depicting a foreign invasion. An editorial stated Gypsies were “heading to Britain to leech on us.” Thereafter, eastern European immigrants were white enough to provide an alibi against accusations of racism but not white enough to be welcomed. Britain’s liberals – enamored with Tony Blair’s celebration of a vapid consumerist multiculturalism – paid little attention to this openly racist campaign waged on the pages of newspapers they never read. But the movement against Britain’s membership of the EU did notice. It had found its perfect populist weapon. The preposterously-named UK Independence Party (UKIP) – formed to campaign for a referendum on EU membership – made opposition to eastern European immigration central to its campaign. Conservative Party leader William Hague had already claimed in an election speech in March 2001 that Britain was now a “foreign land” due to immigration and membership of the EU. Rupert Murdoch and Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, who between them dominate the British press and set the agenda for the rest of the media, were both opposed to EU membership and used their media power to associate the EU with excessive immigration. Impoverished eastern European migrants were increasingly framed by their newspapers as threats to a British way of life that had actually been destroyed by the Thatcherism the same papers had earlier hailed. Few pointed out that public provisions, such as benefits and social housing, were reduced, not because of immigration, but because the Thatcherism of the 1980s broke the old post-war social democratic consensus which had earlier legitimized the welfare system. The ten years of Tony Blair’s Labour government, beginning in 1997, did little to reverse this. Worse, in its efforts to gentrify itself, the Labour Party left working-class communities without a political voice. Predictably, various strains of far-Right politics entered the spaces opened up by Labour’s flight to middle England. But middle England was also on the march: in the early 2000s, tens of thousands of not-in-my-backyard protesters opposed the construction of reception centers for refugees in the affluent counties surrounding London. By 2010, when David Cameron’s austerity policies stripped away even more of the social safety net, and real wages and job security plummeted further, it had become fully acceptable in the mainstream to hold “mass immigration” responsible for all manner of evil. As I wrote at the time in my book “The End of Tolerance,” newspapers and politicians were blaming immigrants “for the spread of TB, AIDS, and SARS; for failing schools and hospitals; for falling house prices and for rising house prices; for low wages, rising crime, prostitution and road accidents. They were even to blame for the dwindling number of fish in Britain’s rivers, the declining number of swans and the disappearance of donkeys.” They had “not only achieved all this but also held onto a reputation for laziness.” Britain has indeed experienced relatively high levels of immigration for two decades, both from within and without the EU. However, the driving force of this increased migration is not freedom of movement within the EU. After all, this increase began in the 1990s, before the EU’s eastward expansion. Rather, the migration increase is the result of the ongoing casualization of Britain’s labour market. From the 1990s, the lower levels of Britain’s economy became increasingly centred upon short-term, non-binding, sub-contracted, peripatetic workforces that could be hired and fired at will and were constantly threatened with replacement by cheaper labor from elsewhere. This transformation of Britain’s labor market, which led to increased demand for rightless migrant workers to exploit, occurred at the same time as free-market globalization generated the conditions for large-scale emigration from many regions of the world, throwing up the migrant populations needed in post-industrial economies like Britain.
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