As you probably know, the UK voted to leave the EU. It’s difficult to quite convey how polarised and awful things feel in England right now, but I’ll do my best. This is a ‘British’ perspective on BREXIT from the point of view of someone involved in punk, DIY etc. I’m also going to necessarily miss a lot (Corbyn, BoJo, potential Scottish secession, reigniting of North Ireland tensions, generation wars and ‘LEXIT’) because there isn’t room. There’s so many moving parts, and so much anguish that I figure the best way is to dispense with any false pretence of objectivity and call it as I experienced it, from the situated perspective of a white person in North East England with lot of privilege, but also a lot to lose from this situation. I’d also like to add a content note that I discuss violence and racism in this piece. I’d also urge readers to seek out the perspectives of people of colour on this issue (for example through Media Diversified).
I’ve been in bands no one has heard of or cares about for a very long time and those bands have always enjoyed the ability to tour the European Union freely, without the need for passports, permits, expensive carnets etc. Removing that effectively means that only bands with money or some kind of backing will be able to tour between the UK and mainland Europe. We don’t get into punk and DIY because we like popular, commercially viable bands. In fact, without unpopular bands, punk and DIY would not be the worldview-changing thing it has been for me. Our scene is made up of a cross section of people from all over Europe (and the world), and Brexit calls their existence here in the UK into question. The impact it will have on our community is uncertain, but could be absolutely devastating. So many people, bands, projects, have had the rug pulled out from under them, moving from a state of relative stability, to total precarity, over night. But the practicalities of the situation are complex and very, very difficult to predict. Brexit could yet be avoided through political manoeuvring and a referendum is advisory, not constitutionally binding. But significant damage has already been done regardless; a cultural chasm has been exposed. It is a deeply scary time.
This has without a doubt been the most openly, shamefully racist and brazenly deceitful electoral process in my living memory; ostensibly a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, but really something much, much more insidious. The ‘debate’ has been all but dominated by figures on the right of politics making empty promises, and throwing any/all migrants under the bus to score points. Any left wing critique of the neoliberalism of the EU was left out of the equation altogether in favour of scapegoating ‘immigrants’ for the ills of the nation. This has long been entrenched, but it feels like it has heated up to boiling point of late. NHS waiting lists, lack of funding in schools, low standard of living, rising poverty; all factors directly attributable to the politics of austerity, which our government has ruthlessly pursued for the past six years, all these problems have been blamed on ‘migrants’. In truth migrants prop this country up (particularly our NHS). Without them we’d be doomed. At times, the roar of populism has reached a fever pitch of dangerously fascist rhetoric, for example Nigel Farage (pronounced the French way- ironically), leader of the hard right UK Independence Party producing a pro-leave advert eerily reminiscent of Nazi propaganda from the 1930s. Perhaps not coincidentally, the very same day Farage unveiled his incendiary ‘Breaking Point’ campaign, another UK citizen decided to take matters into his own hands.
My only distraction from this cacophony of awfulness has been the Euro 2016 football championship. Then, whilst watching England play Wales a week or two ago, my phone buzzed with news that a pro-European, pro-refugee MP called Jo Cox had being attacked in Leeds, we’d soon learn that she had died from her injuries. Viciously stabbed and repeatedly shot. Eyewitnesses told the press that the assailant was shouting ‘Britain First’ (the name of a fascist political party). News sources immediately urged ‘caution’ over those reports, in a way that they don’t usually where ‘Allahu Akbar’ or similar has been said. In fact, perhaps realising it’s own complicity, the establishment set to work immediately to depoliticise the killing.
A spin cycle started, promoting the trope that white men tend to enjoy when they commit heinous acts of violence. Thomas Mair, the assailant, was immediately cast as “a loner” and someone with “mental health problems”. It was a regressively amorphous view of mental illness, where there are ‘sane’ people who don’t kill people randomly, and ‘insane’ people who do. It’s worth noting that the mental health of individual Islamic Fundamentalists is very rarely called into question. Mair’s neighbours -who presumably had never been into his house, filled as it was with Nazi memorabilia and books on white supremacy and bomb making- gave the typical “he’s nice but quiet, he keeps himself to himself” line. Then, in court, all that spin came crashing down when Mair was asked to state his name and responded “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. This was, by any meaningful definition, an act of political terrorism by an avowed fascist. Confirmation, not that we needed it, that the extreme right wing of British politics has become emboldened by this referendum and this heinous discourse.
For a few days it looked like people had woken up. Tributes poured in. Tears were shed on television. Campaigning was suspended for two whole days. Polling started to indicate a surge for the Remain vote, and this stayed that way until the night of the referendum. It looked close, but bookmakers had consistently backed remain to win it. The banks and the markets were confident, right up until the first results emerged. Sunderland, a North East town, was among the first to announce. Leave had polled 61%. It sent shockwaves through the markets and by the end of the evening, Leave had won overall with about 52% of the vote. The next morning, the Murdoch-owned, euro-sceptic Sun newspaper triumphantly ran a photo of Leave campaigners in Sunderland celebrating on its front page. Presumably the editors were unaware that among them was an infamous local Neo-Nazi- grinning through bared teeth at the result. In his victory speech Nigel Farage said that Leave had succeeded “without a single bullet being fired”. This was a week after Jo Cox was shot dead in the street. I’m not making this up.
The result triggered a catastrophic economic downturn. Pound Sterling plummeted to a 31 year low against the dollar. FTSE 100 tanked. In three days Britain has slipped from being the world’s fifth biggest economy to it’s sixth. $2 trillion has been effectively wiped off the global economy since last Thursday. The UKs credit rating was downgraded from AAA to AA. The Prime Minister resigned almost immediately, thus performing the political equivalent of a shrug emoji. People who know what they are talking about are predicting recession & a crisis potentially worse than the ones that followed 9/11 and Lehman Brothers.
But why should punks care about the stupid capitalist financial markets and the economy? Because it’s the poorest who will be hit hardest. It’s pensions that are at stake. Not to mention jobs (with many companies openly considering moving to countries like Germany and Ireland which enjoy access to the open market). The political response will be higher taxes and more public sector cuts. The same sort of cuts that wounded the NHS in the first place, that migrants then got blamed for, the same migrants who the NHS couldn’t function without. Leading Leave campaigners immediately backtracked on the promises to reinvest funds formerly earmarked for the EU into the NHS, prompting many leave voters to say they regretted their vote and that they’d been misled.
Infuriatingly, this was all foreseen. The vast majority of economists and international authorities backed remaining. Michael Gove (a leading conservative Leave proponent) responded to that consensus by saying “people have had enough of experts”. That quote says it all about this whole process. A leading donor of the leave campaign said after the result “the Remain camp featured fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success”. This was a ‘post-fact’ referendum. It represented a resounding failure for evidence-based decision-making, and the triumph of wilful ignorance over reasoned debate. So remember US friends, when November rolls around, barely any of the pollsters saw this coming.
Far from ‘taking our country back’, Brexit will disproportionately harm the poorest in society. Perversely, the places that have voted against EU membership are also the places that have the lowest levels of migration and benefit most from EU funding and economic cooperation. They are the predominantly working class communities who have been abandoned by the British establishment and left to rot. The places that get the least investment from Parliament and are hit hardest by the cuts. These are always the places that fascists exploit, turning us against our neighbours instead of against those who created the conditions of our misery. And I’ve been saddened by reactionary venom aimed at places like Sunderland & County Durham, working class communities which voted to Leave, against the wishes of the establishment. A sneering, patronising attitude is precisely how we got here. It wasn’t working class communities who described refugees in Calais as a “swarm” it was our prime minister. It wasn’t working class communities that have spent decades scapegoating Europe, migrants and people of colour. It was the press. Racism is not a working class phenomena, it does not develop from the ground up. The people who should be held responsible are those who have a voice and a platform who have poisoned the intellectual water supply with racist bile.
Since the result racist bile is mainly what we’ve seen. A terrifying wave of it. Of course not everyone who voted leave is necessarily racist, but Victoria Stiles, academic researcher on Nazisim fears “that the racists now think that half of the country agree with them”. Since the vote there has been an explosion of documented racism. For example, flyers posted through the doors of Polish people saying “no more Polish vermin”; banners held aloft saying “stop immigration, start repatriation”; England flags with “Rapefugees Not Welcome” on display; countless cases of people being told to “go home” randomly in the street. Add to this a spike in cases of racially aggravated assault. According to the police, reported hate crimes have soared by over 400%. On Monday night a Halal Butchers in the West Midlands was firebombed. It is frankly terrifying, and there needs to be a coordinated response. It’s very clear that this vote has given fascists and racists the go ahead to speak and act on their beliefs. DIY punk scenes need to be thinking about what they can do to resist this and provide support & solidarity. Brave survivors are documenting their experiences using the hashtag #postrefracism. It makes for very difficult reading, as you might expect. In my town of Durham, some new graffiti appeared on polling day. Scrawled in huge black ink on a green boathouse door by the river, someone left a message: “Jo Cox deserved it. Durham next”.
This whole sorry situation leaves me with a sense of despair and hopelessness that I’ve not really ever felt before. To get personal for a second, my partner of five plus years doesn’t have a UK passport. Through the terms of ‘freedom of movement’ they’ve been able to stay here for ten years. First studying, then working. Even if we do leave, they will probably be fine, as they are precisely the sort-of ‘highly-skilled worker’ that these dog-whistle racists insist won’t be booted out. But on Friday morning, they told me that they no longer feel safe or welcome living here as a migrant person of colour. For the first time in a decade, they’ve seriously contemplated leaving the UK. That’s how toxic things are right now.
I wish I could offer some hopeful conclusion, but I don’t really have one at the moment. My hope is that things will stabilize and calm the fuck down. My hope is that whatever happens, our borders don’t shut down. That we continue to accept free movement from the EU, and that we open our borders further, especially in light of the on-going refugee crisis. That we work toward a borderless world. My hope is that my friends can stay; that the tide of racism & fascism is abated; that this wretched vote triggers a wave of compassion, of anti-fascist, pro-migrant activism (through amazing groups like Right to Remain). I hope that the politics of austerity (where the poor pay for the crimes and excesses of the rich) is abandoned in favour of a project of wealth redistribution. And of course, I hope that our stupid unpopular bands can still tour in Germany and wherever. But to be honest, it’s hard to even think about playing music right now.