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22 June 2016 3 Comments

I’ve been conflicted about posting this. I had planned to write something along these lines for several weeks but the murder of Jo Cox threw that sideways. The way I write tends to involve pushing words around in my head for a week or so, and then writing it all out. Thus most of this existed in some form prior to her murder but it was not written down. I don’t want to claim any prescience but those events, and the subsequent debate over their meaning, so reinforced the fears that led to this that I’ve decided to go ahead and post it.

I am an economic immigrant. And a British Citizen. I am culturally European, with primarily British ancestry, born in Australia. I never know how to answer the census question: am I non-white British as an Australian? I am unquestionably a member of this “metropolitan elite”. And I get irritated by the way Londoners forget the rest of the country exists. I am a mess of contradictions. Like most humans I guess.

And I’m frightened.

“Oh. But you’ll be OK”. Someone actually said this to me. I’m apparently not the problem, some unspecified “other” people are the problem. Other immigrants, with different accents, skin colours, or countries of origin. People I know. People I work with. I wonder which of them are on the wrong side of this invisible dividing line. This line I shouldn’t worry about because “oh, but you’re a good chap”.

We are far beyond the point where argument or “facts” will change anyone’s mind in this referendum. We are down the base level of what this was always about: identity politics. Arguments about regulation, or democracy are not really about the facts on the ground but a fight over whether “our” (desperately flawed) systems of elections, governance and regulation are better than “their” (desperately flawed) systems of negotiation, consensus building and, yes, democratic checks and balances.

It’s about how globalisation undermines some forms of identity, particularly those rooted in place, class, and traditional roles, and how it reinforces others, particularly those rooted in mobility, internationalism and some strands of social liberalism. And its about fear. Fear of the outsider. Fear of being the outsider. Fear of being on the wrong side of that line.

There are plenty of good solid arguments for Britain to leave the European Union. I know a number of people who genuinely find those arguments decisive. But the centre of the campaign to leave has been driven by the stoking of fear: fear of Turkey, fear of Syrians, Farage and his posters, and above all fear of a loss of control over a particular form of British, or at least English, identity.

And in turn those of us with a different identity – an identity often rooted in being an immigrant, or a traveller, or having students, colleagues or friends from many places – are also voting out of fear. A fear of where that line falls. Will we be tossed out? Some will. Will we be made to feel unwelcome? Many of us already do. And fear begets fear begets distrust begets anger begets violence.

I’m not writing this to tell anyone what to think or how to vote, or to accuse anyone of racism by association. I’m writing this to explain how I feel. And how I suspect many other immigrants, and children of immigrants, and friends and family of immigrants feel. The point of the title of this post is precisely that not that all those voting leave are driven by fear, but that virtually every person I know who is an immigrant or is close to immigrants is fearful. Not all Brexiters. Yes, pretty much, all immigrants.

Don’t ask me to be happy that I’m on the right side of that line. Because lines have a habit of moving.


  • Mike Taylor said:

    “We are far beyond the point where argument or “facts” will change anyone’s mind in this referendum”

    I understand why you feel that, but I am more hopeful. Just this morning I got the news that someone who seemed to be a died-in-the-wool Leaver had in fact voted Remain — thanks, I think, to the constant drip of actual information. It takes time — maybe we don’t have enough time to sway enough people before the vote — but I think that most people are swayable by facts, when they’re presented in a form that they can relate to.

  • dkernohan said:

    The standing ovation Boris’ closing statement got on the BBC debate was one of the most frightening things I ever saw. It wasn’t “we won the debate” or even “that was a good closing statement”. It said “this is for us, not for you”.

  • Mike Taylor said:

    That was not a good moment at all — very The Future Belongs To Me. But the most baffling thing about it was the patriotic appeal to the history of … America? Independence Day was when the USA left the UK, not vice versa! His analogy is meaningless on every level, yet still drew that level of applause. These are not encouraging signs.