On Thursday 23rd June 2016 Britain voted in a referendum to leave the EU. An incredibly tight 4% margin separated the two sides in a vote that went right up to the wire, odds swinging one way to the other throughout the campaign and even on the night.
No one could say it was a good fight. The campaign was bitter, spiteful and scary. As Remain piled on reasons to fear an exit and the list of organisations warning of economic catastrophe mounted, Leave pivoted towards immigration. It made sense. UKIP, on a foundation almost entirely built on opposition to what they see as overwhelming migration to the UK, claimed 13% of the national vote share in 2015. On a foreign policy issue such as this where Remain had to rely on complex arguments on a complex issue, campaigning on something simple and concrete, that struck a chord with a broad swathe of the electorate, made campaigning sense.
The result of this move, however, was potentially far worse than the economic consequences of Brexit. Despite branding the Remain campaign “project fear”, Vote Leave and Leave.EU went on to paint immigration as the scariest thing to happen to Britain this century. Immigrants are coming for your jobs, refugees from Syria are going to overwhelm our services, the NHS and our schools will collapse under their weight, the entire population of Turkey will move here at any moment!
Immigrants became the cause of every major political problem of today. Every publicly funded department hobbled by austerity cuts suddenly was now dragged down by the weight of immigration. Millions of immigrants flooding our hospitals, schools and reaping riches from our gratuitous benefits system. Every area where the politics of austerity and cuts could possibly feel blame had been shifted by the new enemy of the day – anyone foreign. A full month of campaigning was dedicated to making demons of immigrants, especially non-British Europeans. The country was at “breaking point”, we were being “overwhelmed”, Britain is “full”.
The campaign grew so extreme, so intent on demonising anyone seen as foreign to the UK, that Leave.EU's “Breaking Point” advertisement seemed to take direct inspiration from Nazi propaganda (given for comparison in the central image above). Even their own allies in the Brexit campaign were shocked, but this was the extent to which the conversation had fallen.
It takes very little research to see what the hateful and divisive campaign of Vote Leave created in our society. A blank slate and justification for racism targeted at innocent members of our society, from children at school to lone women in the street. In just two days following the vote we were awash with examples of the deeply disturbing vision of society inspired by the rhetoric and focus of Vote Leave and Leave.EU.
But the consequences of public sentiment stoked against those different from those seen as genuinely “British” were felt far earlier than this. On the 16th June, just a week before the vote, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by an extreme right terrorist. Tommy Mair, her murderer, gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court, and allegedly shouted “Britain first” as he carried out the killing.
As many sped to paint Mair as a deranged loner with mental health problems many saw him for what he was – A terrorist acting on behalf of his far-right ideals to murder someone he saw as a threat to his country. Jo Cox was not a random target but a specific one, a women who dedicated her life to aiding others was targeted for that very reason. She was judged a traitor for daring to help those in need, for offering Britain as a refuge. She was murdered for her political beliefs, in a terrorist act intended as a warning to all those who wished to invite foreigners to our country.
How could this happen? How could a political campaign based on membership of a political and economic trading block end up being about immigrants? How could such a campaign prosper as millions set out to vote to block anyone seen as foreign from coming to the country? How could Jo Cox, one of the best examples of a politician our country should be proud of, become seen as a traitor to it? How did immigrants, who contribute more to our economy than they take, make up over 30% of our doctors and nurses with the NHS, over a quarter of our academic workforce in our world-class universities, end up being blamed for our country's problems?
It didn't start with the referendum. UKIP has been running on this platform for years. The BNP was once big news before UKIP stole the scene. How did it all get here?
The answer is easy to find, and its clear as day.
Walk into any corner store in the United Kingdom and you will see shelves of it. Tabloid papers cover all sorts of issues, but whenever they turn to politics there's a good chance immigrants are at fault for something. That something is probably demonstratively untrue, hyperbolic and/or stripped of all available context, but it will be plastered across the front pages nonetheless.
Between them the Express, the Mail, the Star and the Sun, in both their daily and Sunday versions, have launched a barrage at the British people telling them over and over again that immigrants are the reason for every problem they face. Is the NHS struggling under an ageing population, mismanagement and underfunding? It's clearly due to immigrants. Is the jobs market stuttering following a global recession, decade-long austerity and under-investment? It's the immigrants. Is your school overcrowded due to lack of infrastructure spending, teachers being driven out of the profession and ideological campaigns that overwork staff whilst failing to increase capacity? Immigrants.
Despite bolstering government funding, proving a huge proportion of the national workforce in education, health and infrastructure, the struggles faced by all of these areas are blamed on them. It's blamed on them on a daily basis, by half the newspapers crowding the shelves of every convenience store. Immigrants have become the undeserved scapegoats of a consistent and long-term campaign of fear and lies waged by half the mainstream media. That same group of media empires that had the nerve to call any other campaign group “project fear”.
Paul Dacre, Hugh Whittow, Tony Gallagher, Dawn Neesom. These are the names of the most powerful editors of this campaign of hate that has been building for decades to tear our society apart. Fear is good business, it sells papers, people want to know who has “stolen all our jobs”, how their “invasion” is ending the NHS, corrupting our schools and even killing Christmas.
But all actions have consequences. This time, that consequence was Tommy Mair. Anti-terrorist agencies have for years tried to track down the radicalising elements of Islamic terrorism in Britain, but as a right-wing terrorist strikes against the evil he sees as taking his country from him they do not have to look very far. How much does it really take to convince a mentally unstable individual, cut off from society, that he is under attack? What about daily reminders, headlines in all caps every time he walks to pick up the milk, blaring warnings that the enemy are flooding in, that they're hurting our country, that they're stealing it from us, that everything going wrong is their fault. You're out of a job because of them, your family can't see their doctors because of them, your kids have to share a class with 40 other students because of them, the economy is tanking because of them, the government won't invest in anything because of them, your wages are stagnating because of them. They're in the streets raping your sisters and daughters, they're ending your religion, killing off your language. You saw the papers say they're in armed gangs now, imposing foreign religious laws in your streets and murdering those who disagree.
They told you so, they told you every day, for years. Again, and again, and again.
How much does it really take?
Dacre, Whittow, Gallagher, Neesom. The roots of radicalisation are sitting on the shelves of your local cornershop, and they're campaigning every day. It's amazing that we can spend years hunting down the creators of extremists in our society in community Mosques and on social media but no one ever questions the instigators who preach hate in our living rooms every day. Even when a member of parliament is gunned down in the street. Even when racism becomes acceptable political campaign strategy. Even when Islamic terrorist groups openly declare that they target alienated youths who feel like they are demonised by Western society in order to recruit them.
When the preachers of hate are mainstream, is it really so surprising that violence follows in their wake? For years they worked to turn the United Kingdom towards hate and paranoia. Now they have reaped the consequence of that effort.
In the months since, have the papers learned their lessons? Of course not.