Regular BNI readers who might remember my prediction several months ago that the Trump-effect would have far-reaching reverberations around the world, mostly for the good, have just seen it play out in the Brexit vote.
While far from the only reason for the historic vote to leave the EU by Britain, Donald Trump’s relentless focus on the perils of mass immigration – illegal, Muslim, and otherwise – made it acceptable to publicly address the issue, especially in the politically correct wasteland that is the UK.
Media pundits, in their usual condescending way of talking down to the middle/working class, have already jumped on this in headlines like the one that tops this article inVOX.com
Brexit isn’t about economics. It’s about xenophobia.
When my girlfriend and I were in London last week, a drunk man accosted us at a pub. That’s pretty par for the course there, in my experience. But this one — a middle-aged, dark-haired white guy we’ll call “Bob” — was different. He didn’t want to talk about soccer, or real ale, or his feelings on Americans.
No, Bob wanted to talk about Brexit — the UK referendum which, we all now know, ended in Britain voting to leave the European Union. Bob wanted Britain to leave, and he was very open about his reason: IMMIGRATION. Muslims (and to a lesser degree Eastern Europeans), he believes, are ruining Great Britain.
“We’re letting in rapists. We’re letting in shit,” Bob told us, repeatedly. “I have four children. How are they supposed to get jobs?”
This scene wasn’t unique. It played itself out in thousands of pubs across the United Kingdom, and we’ve seen the results. Britain’s Bobs were driving force behind the successful Leave campaign. And the force that’s been driving them is xenophobia.
“Between 1993 and 2014 the foreign-born population in the UK more than doubled from 3.8 million to around 8.3 million,” Oxford researchers Cinzia Rienzo and Carlos Vargas-Silva write. “During the same period, the number of foreign citizens increased from nearly 2 million to more than 5 million.”
This can’t all be laid at the EU’s feet, but the EU played a major part, as EU rules restrict the ability of member states to bar migration from other EU member states.
Over the course of the past 20 years, the percentage of Britons ranking “immigration/race relations” as among the country’s most important issues has gone from near zero percent to about 45 percent. Seventy-seven percent of Brits today believe that immigration levels should be reduced.
As a result, anti-immigrant demagoguery has become politically potent. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by a Donald Trump-style populist demagogue named Nigel Farage, began life as an irrelevant anti-EU party in the early ’90s. But in the past 10 years, UKIP’s poll numbers have soared: It got 4 million votes in the 2015 election, the third-largest national vote total in the country.
UKIP has done this by focusing, obsessively, on the threat from immigrants, both from inside the EU and out. Muslims are a favorite Farage bugaboo. Since the European migrant crisis began, he has warned that EU membership will force the UK to let in large numbers of Muslim refugees.
“There is an especial problem with some of the people who’ve come here and who are of the Muslim religion who don’t want to become part of our culture,” Farage said in a 2015 interview. “People do see a fifth column living within our country, who hate us and want to kill us.”
But UKIP is also perfectly happy to target non-Muslim EU immigrants, too, particularly those from eastern Europe. UKIP treats these people essentially the way that Trump treats Mexicans: blasting them, as our new pub friend Bob had, as criminals stealing British jobs.
At the same time, the center-right Conservative Party has also grown more hostile to the EU and the increased immigration it represents, out of both genuine conviction and a sense that catering to anti-European sentiment is good politics. Perhaps the most famous “Leave” supporter, aside from Farage, is Boris Johnson, the Conservative former mayor of London.
Farage and the Johnson flank of the Conservative Party are the reason that Brexit happened. Because they believe (correctly) that Britain can’t radically reduce immigration without leaving the EU, pushing Brexit became one of their top priorities. As immigration has grown, so has their influence.
This immigration rhetoric has, without a doubt, dominated the pro-Leave side of the Brexit debate. Rhetoric from this camp’s supporters, over and over again, returns to the need to reduce immigration levels. “Many campaigners in favour of leaving the EU see immigration as their ‘trump card,'”the Financial Times writes.
“The political leverage generated by UKIP and its successful construction of a narrative that blames deteriorating living standards on an ‘open door’ immigration policy — which, it asserts, is a condition of continuing EU membership – has transformed the referendum into a proxy plebiscite on immigration.”
It means that the question at stake in Brexit isn’t “Immigration: good or bad?” It’s “Immigration: is it so scary that it’s worth risking a recession to try to curb it?”
Harsh anti-immigrant sentiment (male popular by the Trump campaign) has become normalized and routinized by the Brexit debate, making it simply a fact of British life.
And now Leave has won — proving that xenophobia not only is powerful in modern Britain, but actually has the ability to shape the course of the country’s entire future. The Bobs of Britain are in the driver’s seat now.