Dr Aaron Winter is Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of East London.
When Labour MP for Batley and Spen Jo Cox was murdered by Thomas Mair in Birstall, West Yorkshire on 16 June 2016, I thought it could be seen as a symbolic culmination of all the hateful, polarised, scapegoating rhetoric of the EU referendum, and a watershed moment when a nation and electorate divided, and particularly the Leave or ‘Brexit’ campaigns, reflected on themselves. The context of the killing, and the fact that Mair allegedly shouted ‘Britain first, this is for Britain, Britain will always come first’ as he confronted, stabbed and shot Cox – a Remain campaigner and champion of refugees – seemed to confirm the link to the Referendum, and particularly Brexit rhetoric. The use of ‘Britain First’ led the far-right group of the same name to deny links, yet an image of Mair campaigning for the organisation soon emerged. He was also found to have a range of white supremacist and neo-Nazi materials in his home, and is alleged to have purchased material from the US-based white nationalist group National Alliance. This is an organisation that was led by the late William Pierce, who wrote The Turner Diaries, a novel which influenced the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The book has returned to the spotlight in the wake of the Trump campaign and revival of the far right in the US. This revival has been linked to wider right-wing populism, racialised nationalism, mobilisation of white (allegedly working-class) anger, normalisation of racism and xenophobia, and convergence of the mainstream and far right in the country, which were also features of Brexit in the UK. Trump would link the two, calling Brexit ‘great’ and attributing it to the British people’s desire for their own identity and opposition to refugees. Farage would also make the link from an inauguration party in Washington DC, stating ‘Trump becoming President of the USA is Brexit plus plus plus’. They also both thought Farage would make a good ambassador to the US.
Yet little or nothing was reflected on or changed following the murder of Jo Cox. As is often the case, the link to the far right was used to confirm political, ideological and discursive preconceptions and fulfil corresponding functions. When far-right violence occurs, many are quick to paint a picture of an individual (or fringe movement) that has stepped outside the boundaries of reasonable, rational democratic discourse and practice to espouse extremist views and use violence, and who is thus definitely not linked to any particular campaign, political party or popular sentiment. Often the perpetrator is described as a mentally unstable loner, as Mair was by UKIP and Leave.EU leader Nigel Farage (‘one man with serious mental health issues’); Spiked!’s Brendan O’Neill (‘warped killer’); The Daily Mail (‘loner’ seeking counselling); and others. This depoliticises the actor and act, distancing them from the far right and mainstream, as well as from wider social-political forces and structures. Yet, Mair had far-right beliefs and identified as a ‘political activist’. He was deemed mentally competent for the trial, where he articulated his political views, and was convicted and sentenced on 23 November 2016 to a whole-life term. Even though the political superseded the psychological, however, the focus was on Mair’s individual beliefs, as opposed to his links to a movement, organisation or social group. This individualisation and exceptionalism, whether through mental illness or its political parallel the ‘lone wolf’, also deracialises the actor and act, allowing those like him to not have to identify, nor provide a collective alibi and even apologise – as Muslims are asked to do after a terrorist attack. As Mair’s act was committed in the name of Britain – in the context of a campaign where Muslims have been targeted as refugees for an alleged failure to integrate and, ironically, as extremists and terrorists – and he had an association with Britain First, the racist double standard is obvious. In an unironic and confused example of the double standard, when Britain First distanced themselves from the Mair shooting (as if they think collective guilt by association with terrorism is a bad thing) leader Paul Golding actually linked his statement, but not the group, to the wider Brexit campaign and context: ‘Was he referring to an organisation? Was he referring to a slogan? Was he just shouting out in the middle of an EU debate: 'Putting Britain first'? You know, I've heard this almost every day’. Unlike in Britain, neither Trump nor his supporters thought it important to strongly deny links or distance his campaign when he received endorsements from Rocky Suhayda of the American Nazi Party, Don Black of Stormfront, ‘alt right’ figurehead Richard Spencer and former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke, as well as gateway figures from Breitbart such as Steve Bannon (now Trump’s chief strategist) and Milo Yiannopoulos. Trump’s response to the Duke endorsement was: ‘I don't know – did he endorse me, or what's going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists’.
In Britain, the response from some Brexiter commentators was not only to disavow Mair, but also those making links. One example of this was Polly Toynbee, who argued that ‘this campaign has stirred up anti-migrant sentiment that used to be confined to outbursts from the far fringes of British politics’. Daniel Trilling similarly contended that ‘Far-right politics cannot be as easily cordoned off from the mainstream as people would like to believe. Fascists attach themselves to popular causes and drag the debate in their direction. Populists and parties of the centre take note and then try to appeal to voters susceptible to the far right’s messages by taking xenophobic positions of their own’. In response to such arguments, Brendan O’Neill argued that ‘The spirit of democracy was dealt two blows yesterday.’ The first, he said, ‘came from a warped killer, Thomas Mair’ – and the second was ‘from ghouls in the media and political classes’, who ‘swiftly blamed the murder on the Brexit lobby’ and ‘marshalled Cox’s death to the cause of sanitising political speech and insisting that certain views no longer be openly expressed’.
This argument seems to at once displace hate, and justify its expression. In fact, the argument that free speech and thus democracy are being repressed echoes those arguments that say that it was political correctness and the repression of free speech about immigration that led to Brexit. Moreover, in some circles it seems free speech is defined by hate speech. Five days prior to the vote, Spiked! claimed that ‘Hate Speech is Free Speech’, and post-referendum O’Neill asserted that ‘hate speech must be free speech’. I would argue that the tone of the campaign, far-right violence, and links between them can also be seen in the context of the wider normalisation of racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and racialised nationalism in ‘mainstream’ politics, media and public discourse that fed into the referendum and has been intensified by it. What we have seen is the mainstreaming of the extreme, informing an emboldening and radicalisation of the mainstream, and further emboldening and radicalisation of the far right. Britain has produced an American-style paramilitary far right – and someone, even if only inspired by it, has taken a life. Just prior to the murder, Britain First ran a paramilitary survival training camp in Wales, and a day after the murder, they issued a threat against London Mayor Sadiq Khan (whom Jobling lost to) and ‘all Muslim elected officials’. So they were not overly concerned with the stigma of violence.
While Farage tweeted his condolences for Cox, there was no hint of the apology, condemnation or disassociation that is expected of Muslims following a terror attack. Farage probably cannot see the racial or national identities he and his targeted constituency share with Mair in negative terms, does not consider the consequences of his own fear and hate mongering, and appears to consider far-right groups either a potential support base or representative of one. He definitely appealed to fascism and fascists; his Leave.EU campaign targeted the far right on social media, and he posed with English Defence League members under a pro-Brexit banner and tweeted the image. For a campaign poster, Leave.EU used a Nazi-esque image of refugees crossing from Croatia to Slovenia in 2015 with a banner reading ‘Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all’. In a May 2016 BBC interview, Farage said: ‘It’s legitimate to say that if people feel they’ve lost control completely, and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the EU, and if people feel voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step’. Returning to the opposition painted earlier between the individual extremist who commits violence and reasonable, rational democratic discourse and practice, what is clear here is that not only is the line blurred, but a democratic election or referendum is presented as a way of preventing or just delaying violence – which will occur should democracy not find in favour of one side. Farage would later claim that Brexit victory was achieved ‘without a single bullet being fired’. There was no mention of Jo Cox. Yet violence is not the only harm; the campaign harmed the targets and social relations. This scapegoating and dehumanisation of refugees and others has also already costs lives, as supporting refugees fleeing danger has become seen as an electoral liability and opposition to refugees a necessity or currency. Labour even sold control immigration mugs to raise money in the 2015 election, and now has a leader who supports Brexit.
Despite some openness to immigration and multiculturalism in the early years of New Labour, since 7/7 the Labour Party has attempted to appeal to increasing anti-immigrant sentiment and voters being targeted by the BNP and later UKIP. The country has become less welcoming, inclusive, egalitarian and progressive, and it isn’t only immigrants and refugees – Tory austerity policies have demonstrated that the poor and vulnerable in general are unworthy and disposable. Yet we were told during the campaign that even that is the fault of the EU, immigrants and refugees. Racism, xenophobia and scapegoating, as well as a ‘divide and rule’ approach (as if austerity only affected working-class whites), have become acceptable and normalised. Toynbee highlights ‘how recklessly the decades of careful work and anti-racist laws to make those sentiments unacceptable have been overturned’. It is a retreat back to the small-island nationalism, racism and post-colonial melancholia of Powellism for some, and nostalgia for the age of Empire itself for others – as evidenced by appeals to commonwealth relations, trade and immigration and Liam Fox’s call for ‘Empire 2.0’. For Toynbee, writing prior to Cox’s murder, ‘this is the sound of Britain breaking. Here ends our “moderate, tolerant” self-image’. But it is not all about the ‘self’ (the liberal-left version of ‘the people’ that excludes foreigners). The referendum debate has focused largely on the ‘self’. It is something that many of us, our friends, colleagues and family members who are not from here, who are racialised, or who are otherwise excluded, are forced to listen to and endure from politicians, media and public as they speak to each other (including about us, in terms of borders, ‘Britishness’ and tolerance). The message throughout, from Brexiters specifically, has been that democracy does not include us, except as a barrier to self-realisation, and we are no longer welcome here; our fate is theirs to decide, and it matters no more than a power struggle on the right (and left).
On the eve of the vote I worried that, if we stayed, the immigrants, refugees and Muslims scapegoated already would find themselves in the firing line – and if we left, those thinking that these groups are to blame for all the problems (including Tory-led austerity, cuts to public services and unemployment – or neoliberalism in general) would be disappointed, and blame the scapegoats that had already been established. We didn’t have to wait that long; people were emboldened, their hate legitimised. In the wake of the Leave vote of 52% to 48% (with 72% turnout) on 23 June 2016, we have seen a rise in hate crimes against not only Europeans, but Muslims and other racial and ethnic minorities. According to Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, in the 38 days following the referendum there were more than 2,300 recorded race-hate offences in London, compared with 1,400 in the 38 days before. He connected this increase to the referendum campaign and vote. According to the National Police Chiefs’ Council, hate crime increased 49% in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the month after the referendum compared with same month the previous year. These figures were used in the Institute of Race Relations report Racial Violence and the Brexit State by Jon Burnett, which examined the role of the campaign and media in whipping up hate and even showed that racist language used during attacks echoed or repeated government rhetoric and policies. In the US, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported a spike in hate-based harassment and attacks against various groups post-election. Between 9 November, the day after the presidential election, and 14 November, they collected 437 reports of hate incidents – and this rose to 1,094 by mid-December. The SPLC linked the rise in such incidents to Trump’s campaign and victory, and noted graffiti on targets reading ‘Make America White Again’ and ‘Vote Trump’.
There seems to be growing evidence of a link between the racism the campaigns legitimised and normalised, the emboldening of racists, and violence. This cannot be dismissed, as Mair was, with the assertion that it comes from an individual or far-right extremist, but was dismissed nonetheless; the response from some Brexiters has been threefold.
Firstly, deny and denigrate: The Daily Mail reported the same statistics, but rejected them because they claim that Britain is tolerant (citing Sadiq Khan’s election), and hate crime is a ‘cynical industry where ‘dishonesty and hysteria reign’ – while Brenden O’Neill referred to it as ‘hate crime hysteria’, arguing that it is based on ‘officialdom’s active trawling for such crimes … To the explicitly political end of demonising the choice made by voters in the referendum’.
Secondly, sophistry and selective time travel: if you claim these attacks are post-Brexit, it means you deny hate existed previously – as Spiked!’s Luke Gittos argued in ‘Britain has not become racist overnight’. In The Spectator, Joanna Williams claimed – as if exposing a lie – that ‘the EU referendum hadn’t even happened before it was linked to an increase in hate crime’. Yet, scapegoating and hate were factors in pressure for the referendum in the first place, and racists have become emboldened to express it more freely and intimately. You would think Gittos was highlighting pre-existing and ongoing structural and institutional racism. For years Spiked! has been arguing that anti-racism is not needed like it was in the 1980s, ignoring all forms of racism unless it wears a swastika. As O’Neill argued in The Spectator: ‘there is a great disparity between the handwringing over hate crime and what Britain is actually like. The open racism even I can remember in the 1980s has all but vanished … The likes of the BNP and EDL have withered due to lack of interest’. Farage denied any responsibility for hate crime and argued without a hint of irony: ‘I destroyed the British National Party – we had a far-right party in this country who genuinely were anti-Jew, anti-Black, all of those things, and I came along, and said to their voters, if you're holding your nose and voting for this party as a protest, don't. Come and vote for me – I'm not against anybody, I just want us to start putting British people first, and I, almost single-handedly, destroyed the far right in British politics’. In 2014, BNP leader Nick Griffin stated ‘I will hold nose & vote UKIP because it will help break up the Westminster system & hold Cameron's feet to referendum fire’. Neither Farage nor O’Neill seem to recognise that Brexit was aided by the far right – including UKIP, and the normalisation and mainstreaming of their ideas – as well as playing a role in the resurgence of such groups. In addition to an increase in hate incidents and attacks, the UK also saw far-right terror threats and arrests double in 2016. In the US, the SPLC has reported a rise in hate groups, which they attribute to Trump’s campaign and victory.
Thirdly, racialise the working class and reverse the racism: Gittos claimed that ‘the onset of panic has revealed how the very publications and commentators who once claimed to stand up for the working class in fact view working-class people as a violent, racist horde’. It seems that every time someone claims racism or the far right is on the rise (and/or evokes them when criticising Brexit), commentators assume that it is the working class being accused, that the working class is white, that a racist and xenophobic campaign speaks to them (because they have been ‘left behind’ by capitalism, repressed by anti-racism and political correctness and/or abandoned by establishment parties and democracy), attribute the success of such campaigns to them, and then attack others for allegedly making the links they constructed. This argument or narrative follows from, accepts the terms of, or even draws upon the racialised and populist construction of the working class as white and the rightful inhabitants of the nation (if not embodiment of the nation) and, like it, under siege by foreigners and the forces of political correctness, perpetuated and mobilised by Leave.EU and UKIP (as the BNP had before them) and tied to the wider racialised nationalism that underpinned much Brexit racism. We see this narrative in criminologist Steve Hall’s analysis of how UKIP and the wider far right have made inroads into the working class, where Labour and the left used to be. He argues that UKIP ‘publically dismissed the political correctness that the liberal middle class uses to censor the working class’ and ‘echoes the working class fear that immigrants are taking their jobs and undercutting their wages’. He goes on to say ‘the “anti-fascist” left hurls abuse at them in the street, and the liberal press hasn’t stopped calling them racists, misogynists, homophobes and knuckle-dragging Neanderthals for three decades. Some of the commentary after Brexit was positively eugenicist—calling for the white working class to be bred out’. In terms of Brexit specifically, O’Neill claims that the bigotry is from the elites against the demos and argues that ‘Brexit Voters are not thick, not racist: just poor’, and that ‘Britain’s poor and workless have risen up’. He fails, like others, to consider the racial and political heterogeneity of the working class, poor and workless, or the class heterogeneity of Brexiters. According to research by Danny Dorling, 52% of people who voted Leave lived in the southern half of England, and 59% were middle class, while the proportion of Leave voters in the lowest two social classes was 24%. The argument about a populist working class insurgency represented not only Brexit but UKIP is also challenged by the latter’s electoral loss to Labour in the solidly 70% ‘Leave’ Stoke-on-Trent in the February 2017 byelection (followed by losing their only MP, when Douglas Carswell left the party the next month, but kept the Clacton seat he had held previously as a Tory before defecting to UKIP). In the US, it has been shown that Clinton actually lost more ‘white working class’ votes on Obama than Trump gained on Romney in 2012. Milo Yiannopoulos claimed that ‘Liberals have lots of theories for why working class whites abandoned them. The most obvious of which is their old standby, “they are racist”’. Yet, Trump got the majority of white professional males with a college education and over 40% of white professional females with a college education, which points to race over class as a factor. Moreover, while Trump won the electoral college, he lost the popular vote 46.4% to 48.5%, and the voter turnout was only 55.4% with Trump at 26.3%.
In addition to hate-crimes, in post-referendum Britain the government has been embracing or rewarding such politics with measures that resemble or signal fascism – including the proposal that employers hand over lists of foreigners and child refugees be subjected to medical tests. In the US, it is a border wall, deportations, and an attempted Muslim travel ban. There is also the ever-increasing list of those not considered ‘people’ based on a Brexit and Trump-only democracy test. The Daily Mail ran the headline: ‘Whingeing. Contemptuous. Unpatriotic. Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people’. Following the ruling that brought the triggering of Article 50 to that sovereign and democratic body Parliament, The Daily Mail’s headline was ‘Enemies of the People’ and The Sun’s ‘Loaded foreign elite defy will of British people’. The ruling followed a court case pursued by Gina Miller who was, as Rod Liddle noted in The Sunday Times, ‘not born in Britain’ but ‘British Guyana’, adding ‘although I suppose as “leavers” this is something we should gloss over in case we get called racist’. In the US, Trump labelled the media the ‘enemy of the people’ for criticising his administration. In post-referendum Britain and Trump-era America, the category of ‘people’ is being narrowed further: not foreigners, Muslims, those deemed not British or American enough, those who did not vote for Brexit or Trump, critics, the media nor the judiciary.
This blog post is part of an IPR series focused on the rise of racism and the far right. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in summer 2017. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or join our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs. This piece is based on an earlier article by Dr Aaron Winter, published June 2016 on Open Democracy.
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