Polska Dotty Author Jonathan Lipman, on How the Brexit “Leave” Campaign Exposed “Little England’s” Prejudices
In recently-published Polska Dotty 2, I expound upon the large influx of Poles into the UK since Poland joined the EU on 1 May 2004, and the great benefits this has brought. These include the strong work ethic of these recent immigrants, their entrepreneurship, their flair – even how their children have raised the standard of mathematics in our classrooms.
And yet, in the recent EU referendum on UK’s membership of the EU – which was won by the “Brexiters“, immigration, including the Poles who have relocated to the UK, was perhaps the biggest ticket item in the debate.
The obvious reason is because a populist “Leave” campaign made it so. In the last weeks of the debate, still down in the polls, they deliberately hyped the immigration card and reaped a huge reward – victory in the referendum.
Look deeper, and you will find they mined a rich seam. Not just the fear many people in many countries, throughout history, have had of “the other”, but a peculiar and unfortunate English take on this.
I grew up and have lived in England for nearly 50 years. There has always been here a noticeable “Little England” mentality. This is a sentiment that “England is best”; it has the mother of all parliaments, it began the Industrial Revolution, invented football, used to (still does?) rule the world, and can therefore exist in “splendid isolation”.
Membership of the EU, including its supremacy over British laws, has never sat well with Little Englanders. It’s a short step from there, particularly when irresponsible, populist MPs and newspapers lead the way, to blaming the EU for all the UK’s woes – economic troubles, immigration, and all the rest.
This is, of course, one big fat lie. All the experts agree that leaving the EU will be a catastrophe of seismic proportions for the UK. But the leading Brexiters simply declared, “don’t believe the experts”, and appealed to the Little England mentality with specious, jingoistic slogans such as “Let’s take back control”.
I am profoundly worried about the UK leaving the EU. But as I wrote some while ago, I am much more worried about the lid Brexit has taken off our simmering, Little England prejudices.
Since the referendum vote, the number of race hate crimes, including those directed at Poles in the UK, has escalated greatly. Why wouldn’t it, when Nigel Farage’s UKIP party revealed a Naziesque poster during the campaign showing a snaking queue of refugees apparently itching to enter the UK?
And make no mistake, UKIP and its like are the danger. Their brand of iconoclasm, intolerance and downright racism is set to fill a vacuum in the UK’s political centre left by befuddled and imploding Conservative and Labour parties. In an interesting recent article for the New York Times, Tony Blair argues the centre must hold – but it may already be too late.
What, then, is the answer?
Well, nobody really knows at the moment. These are unprecedented times in UK politics. But, as I heard Kazuo Ishiguro arguing on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, it would help if “Leavers” – who argue they are not racist – condemned racism and division. Whilst, I suspect, only a small minority of such voters are racist, I also fear the majority have Little England tendencies and could be persuaded to vote for a party like UKIP, who would steer this country away from its laudable, tolerant past.
That is why Ishiguro is right to go for the jugular, and call on both “Leavers” and “Remainers” to speak out against extremism. Let’s hope they do. And let’s also hope that, in the political maelstrom we have now entered, we are somehow – maybe by way of a second EU referendum, or a general election – sucked back into the EU. Currently, it looks unlikely. But I, for one, have not lost hope.
Picture: Thousands joined a post-Brexit protest in London, in favour of staying in the EU.