Why fear won and Britain lost

Gary Younge writes: Referendums are by their very nature crude. “In” or “out”; “yes” or “no”. They take important issues and reduce them to their most basic level and then corral them into uncomfortable alliances. Jeremy Corbyn lines up with the captains of industry and David Cameron; George Galloway makes common cause with Nigel Farage.

But if the question was crude the campaigns were vulgar. Sanctimonious, fear-mongering and uninspiring, remain was tone-deaf to an insurrectionary mood that suffered fools more gladly than experts. Wheeling out John Major, Tony Blair, George Soros and the head of the International Monetary Fund, they failed to realise that the surrogates they were employing represented the very establishment with which people were disillusioned. They produced budgets that didn’t add up, evoked wars that wouldn’t happen. Taxes would rise, pensions would fall, the sick would go untended.

Moreover, it never made a case for Europe, only a case for not leaving it on the basis that terrible things that would happen. Commissioners nobody had elected and leaders of foreign states threatened us in a gentler tone but with the same purpose as they did the Greeks: “It’s your choice, don’t make the wrong one.”

Meanwhile a section of London-based commentariat anthropologised the British working class as though they were a lesser evolved breed from distant parts, all too often portraying them as bigots who did not know what was good for them. Having assumed themselves cosmopolitan, the more self-aware pundits began to realise just how parochial they were: having experienced much of the world, they discovered they didn’t know their own country as well as they might.

But if the remain campaign was incompetent and patronising, leave was both inflammatory and irresponsible.

It is a banal axiom to insist that “it’s not racist to talk about immigration”. It’s not racist to talk about black people, Jews or Muslims either. The issue is not whether you talk about them but how you talk about them and whether they ever get a chance to talk for themselves. When you dehumanise immigrants, using vile imagery and language, scapegoating them for a nation’s ills and targeting them as job-stealing interlopers, you stoke prejudice and foment hatred.

The chutzpah with which the Tory right – the very people who had pioneered austerity, damaging jobs, services and communities – blamed immigrants for the lack of resources was breathtaking. The mendacity with which a section of the press fanned those flames was nauseating. The pusillanimity of the remain campaign’s failure to counter these claims was indefensible.

Not everyone, or even most, of the people who voted leave were driven by racism. But the leave campaign imbued racists with a confidence they have not enjoyed for many decades and poured arsenic into the water supply of our national conversation. [Continue reading…]

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