Accusations of xenophobia and racism were rife during the 2016 referendum campaign and were particularly strong in the Wembley Arena debate two days before the vote. There the recently elected Mayor of London Sadiq Khan targeted his predecessor Boris Johnson with claims of xenophobia in the Vote Leave campaign, and particularly in stirring up fear of Turkey joining the EU. Throughout the campaign remain activists accused leave activists of resorting to xenophobic or racist attitudes, although the charge ran a bit hollow because the most xenophobic campaign run during that time was the Conservative Party's campaign to prevent Khan becoming mayor. There is a much broader issue in relation to xenophobia that was not a strong feature of either campaign, but which may have swung many voters towards leave: the longstanding tradition in British society to take pride in standing up to Nazi Germany while the rest of Europe was either conquered or declared neutrality. I am dealing with xenophobia separately to the issue of racism, which in turn is discussed in a distinct chapter from that on immigration. Those three issues can interrelate for some voters, but it is best to distinguish between them in order to gain the fullest understanding of the possible factors that may have influenced the vote in the direction of a leave victory.
Xenophobia is being used in its original sense of a fear or distrust of the stranger. It is very different from racism, which is about discriminating against someone purely because of their racial origins. It is also a distinct issue from the economic or political ramifications of largesacle immigration. Xenophobia is something that is most evident in those communities that are, or recently have been, relatively homogeneous. It is term that is best applied at a time or change or the perceived threat of change to the ethnic or religious make up of an area. So those who mocked high leave voting in areas with little immigration were missing the point, as xenophobia will be felt much more in those type of areas, than it will in areas of settle ethnic diversity. Those long term diverse areas may suffer racial tensions, but it is best to keep xenophobia as the distinct concern of those who currently or have recently experienced the idea that most of their neighbours have a broadly similar outlook on life. It is in a sense playing around with words, but it is useful to have different words for distinct experiences, so that mistaken interpretations are not made by amalgamating together different communities, fears, or reactions to change.
Xenophobia takes many forms and it is not always obvious at first sight who it is that is giving in to xenophobic judgements. For example, the referendum result took place at the same time as the Glastonbury music festival and both there and in the later protests against the result there were a lot of young adult students complaining that their futures were being destroyed by old people up north who had been left behind when all the young people moved away to go to university or to launch careers. That was a xenophobic reaction by students being forced to face, possibly for the first time in their lives, that there are a lot of people in the UK who do not think in the same that they do. The reaction was xenophobic in that those northern towns and villages were being treated as the place of the frightening stranger that was out to destroy their lives. Like most xenophobic reactions it sought to create an easy us and them situation in denial of reality. In this case the reality was that the young had not moved away from those towns and villages, because many could not afford to move away. Even those who went to university would often return, because they could not afford to establish a new life due to precarious employment opportunities not being enough to finance accommodation costs. Certainly those in a precarious financial situation could not have a afforded a ticket to Glastonbury.
Among a older age group there is a strong element of xenophobia embedded into British popular culture, which remained dominated by World War Two until about the 1990s. One of the most popular sitcoms was Dad's Army about a local section of the volunteer Home Guard defending their community on the south coast of England from threatened German invasion. The series, which Nigel Farage cites as his favourite television series, stopped production in 1977, but the repeats continued for several years. It was not alone in stressing that war, even though Dad's Army is on the few series from that era focusing on Britain. For example the comedy Allo Allo (1982-1992) was from the same writing team that produced Dad's Army and was a parody of the BBC drama Secret Army (1977-1979) about the French resistance and the assistance they gave to downed British airmen. World War Two was also a dominant theme is comics aimed at boys and in many of the movies that came out of the British film industry. The upshot of this popular focus on that war was that distrust of Germans continued for many decades, especially in England who had a long running football rivalry with first West Germany and then Germany. Those football matches could generate popular media headlines that would resort to wartime images and that was continuing as recently as 1996, fifty years after the war ended. Ironically during most of those fifty years the British Army was regularly sending soldiers to defend the Wet German border against the feared incursion of the Soviet Union and their Warsaw Pact allies. That did little to soften the popular culture that continued to revel in the victorious British forces who had stood alone in defence of Europe against German domination. The fact that they were not alone, but relied on American and Commonwealth forces would usually be kept quiet in relation to the popular cultural representation of the plucky British standing up to the Germans.
Nor did the French escape this cultural denigration, despite the French Resistance being held up in honour and the retreat from Dunkirk being a major source of pride for the British, although most French people took a very different view. France was not helped by the militaristic nature of popular British culture in that there were also copious references to the Napoleonic Wars, coupled with a folk memory of how Charles De Gaulle was protected by Britain during the war and then turned against it in the Sixties when the UK finally decided to seek EU membership. Those cultural representations of the British at war faded in the 1990s as the dominant influences among the programme makers ceased to be those with direct memories or parental talk of fighting the war. That did not help the situation greatly because the 1990s was when the debate over the EU moved to the centre of British politics. First it was Margaret Thatcher's fall from power for becoming more eurosceptic than her cabinet colleagues, then John Major's troubled over the Maastricht Treaty, and the long running debates over whether the UK which sign up to the euro, which were only settled after the financial crash brought ruin on the eurozone. The world of entertainment may have had less focus on anti-German and to a lesser extent anti-French sentiment, but news and current affairs programmes picked up where they had left off.
An argument against overplaying the cultural xenophobia line is that Dad's Army was still in production at the time of the 1975 EU referendum that saw a large majority for staying in. The problem with drawing too much from 1975 is that the economy was in dire straits and the old economic model of the UK trading with the British Commonwealth was weakening. There is also the fact that the original EU referendum took place 30 months after the UK had joined the bloc after 12 years of trying, so there would not have been an appetite to leave so soon. The large 1975 vote in favour of the EU did not put an end to the negative stereotyping of Germans in the media and popular culture, which would continue unapologetically for another 20 years. This was also a time when conflict between the West and the Soviet Bloc showed no end in sight with the US evacuation of Saigon six weeks earlier revealing the fragile status of the West's military war against communism. In contrast the 2016 referendum took place after a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall at a time when all Warsaw Pact countries had joined the EU except for Russia and Albania, with the three Baltic countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union also in the EU. Yet those old xenophobic attitudes to Germany persisted among many British voters, including among those whose only experience of war with Germany was watching television shows. Now there was no longer a border running through Germany than seemed the last defence against the communist threat, but instead a EU whose eurozone was dominated by Germany. That anti-German xenophobia with its origins in the 1940s was probably a very minor contributor to the 2016 referendum result, but it would be foolish to dismiss it just ten years after anti-German sentiment was widely tolerated in the culture.
In the minds of the voter those negativities towards Germany may have played a part, but in terms of political conflict between the UK and the EU the main subject of popular British anger has been France. It did help the situation in 2016 that the media would regularly make reference to Charles De Gaulle twice vetoing British entry to the EU and more particularly when the mentioned his reasons, which were very pertinent to the 2016 referendum. De Gaulle felt that British entry would be such a disaster for the EU that if the UK joined then France would leave. His reasons were that the British did not share the European integrationist dream, that the British economy was incompatible with the agricultural dominance of the then six EU members, and that the UK was too fond of involving the US in European affairs. While it is true that De Gaulle aspired to enshrine Winston Churchill's notion that France was the pre-eminient power in Europe there was a lot of truth in what De Gaulle said and its authenticity is strengthened by the fact that it remains true more than forty years after the UK joined the EU. Leaving aside the American angle, which is not quite apposite to this book's topic, it is clear that Britain wanted to change the EU to suit its economic needs, rather than transform the UK to make itself-more like the then six member bloc. De Gaulle may have exaggerated the cohesion of the six member bloc to serve his own purposes of curtailing the industrial resurgence of West Germany, but it was true that the other economies were more inclined to support France's insistence on the importance of the Common Agricultural Policy. The economic protectionism of that agricultural policy hurt British agri-industry at the point of entry, but the economic impact was much less by the time of the 2016 referendum. What remained different about the British and German economies is that they were primarily industrial, while with each expansion the EU became an increasingly agricultural bloc. The UK needed to join the EU to aid a floundering economy, but as De Gaulle predicted it sought to change the EU rather than conform to the bloc.
The relevance to the issue of xenophobia of De Gaulle's opposition is that is provided a reminder that the xenophobia might cut both ways and there was plenty to remember in the tetchy relationship between France and the UK in the EU. Conflicts have included the illegally prolonged French ban on British beef imports, blockades of northern French harbours by fishermen, and attacks by striking French farmers on British lorry drivers. These highly publicised conflicts in northern France will have stick in the memory of some voters and while the French may generally have suffered less from negative stereotypes than the Germans it may still have had an effect in the polling booths. In particular the thought that EU regulations proved ineffective in protecting British agricultural interests weakened the argument of those remain campaigners who thought that the Common Agricultural Policy would have the farming vote an easy catch. The mockery of metropolitan youth of rural areas that voted leave was a signal of how little they understood how such voting decisions are made. For someone in their early twenties recent history or the size of the latest grant may appear all important, but those with more experience of living under a bureaucratic system that could not protect the British meat export business is likely to take a different view. It does not matter it a bad decision was taken 10 or 25 years ago as it might be someone's neighbour or relative whose business went under. This marks up the danger that the EU faces with any country voting to leave: the longer the EU exists the more chance is has to make mistakes that some people just cannot forgive, because they hurt too much. That will not matter so much if there is a large majority one way or another, but in a tight race such as the 2016 referendum these past grievances can build up into sufficient numbers to swing the result against the EU.
Xenophobia is a fear of the stranger and a key element is the fear that the stranger is going to change or even ruin your culture. This is particularly problematic in the context of a EU that appears to many British citizens to want to enforce change for change's sake. This was particularly marked in the case of the metric martyrs, who were market traders taken to court for selling their market produce in traditional imperial units of pounds and ounces, rather than the metric kilograms that were mandated under EU law and introduced into English law in January 2000. The first prosecutor was against a Steve Thoburn, a Sunderland greengrocer, who was arrested for selling bananas using weighing scale that were not legal for trade, because they only had imperial measurements on them. He became the cause celebre of a small group known as the metric martyrs and took his case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, but he lost. Unfortunately he died in 2004, three years after his arrest, which meant that he never got to see that in 2008 the British government stopped local councils taking legal action against traders who selling in imperial measures. It came to a head when London market trader Janet Devers received a criminal conviction for selling in imperial measures and was worried that she would be barred from visiting her relatives in the US, where they use imperial measures. When the New York Times took up her case the British government stepped in, but could only do so because the European Commission had already stated the previous year that they had given up on the hope of forcing the UK to go metric. This all came too late for Thornbury and he has not been forgotten in Sunderland, which was the first place in the referendum to record a vote for leave. The case of the metric martyrs was one in which the EU overreached itself-in its efforts towards uniformity. It made the EU a laughing stock in America and made British traders and their customers feel the victims of xenophobia in their own country. It is seemingly minor points like this that can easily build up into an overarching narrative of the EU as an unelected bureaucracy careering out of control as the bureaucrats look out for their own careers. When it came to the polling booth many British voters exacted their pound of flesh (imperial units only).
From the above it can be seen how important it is to keep distinct the ideas of xenophobia and racism, which remain campaigners usually elided to xenophobic racism. Xenophobia is not about hating the outsider or rejecting all chance, but about fear of not being allowing to honour your own culture in your own country. Remain campaigners who lazily branded such concerns as racism left themselves with little way to win over voters that they desperately needed. The central problem for the remain campaign is that they expected to win easily, planned a campaign for that easy win, and continued in easy street even when the road to victory was so obviously going to be a hard slog. When presented with voters resolutely refusing to see that the economic arguments should trump all others too many remain campaigners wrote off those voters as incorrigible racists. The economy was a winning argument for remain, but first they needed to clear the obstacles that would stop those considering a leave vote paying any attention to their arguments. Many felt ignored and responded by not listening no matter how many experts were wheeled out to warm of impending economic doom. Instead of condemning those fearing the stranger as racists, remain campaigners should have addressed the concerns that ended up contributing to leave's narrow victory. The remain campaigners did not have a failure of nerve, but a failure to see the fellow citizen to whom they were addressing their pitch. Too many votes were lost because the remain campaigners had become strangers to their own country.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved