It’s been a couple of days since the shocking referendum result, and it feels no better than it did on the night.
In fact, if anything, it feels worse. Many of the worst fears of Remain activists seem to be coming true. Reports of racism and xenophobia are soaring in the aftermath of the biggest victory for British xenophobia since the 1930s. Polish people are being targeted with xenophobic graffiti and having abuse posted through their letterboxes. People of colour are reporting a rise in racist behaviour. Ethnic minority children are being bullied by their classmates with chants of “out, out, out”. And the far-right are on the march, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Yes we won! Now send them back”.
While Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen celebrate, migrants across the country are terrified for their futures. Even many British people from minority backgrounds feel uneasy. In this context, it is hard to shake the feeling that we have set the already embattled cause of migrant rights back a generation.
Many of our campaigns at Global Justice Now were fought at the EU level. We now face the depressing prospect of defending these wins against a “Brexit government” led by the far-right of the Conservative party.
And we cannot pretend that this was somehow primarily a “vote against austerity” or the Tories. It is clear that immigration was key to the victory of Leave. To say otherwise is delusion. However, it is also true that poverty and inequality fuelled this result. That is the disease that has utterly divided this country and brought it to the brink of collapse. The tragedy is that the medicine being demanded – blaming migrants – is doomed to make the situation worse not better.
As progressive activists, we must shoulder some of the blame for failing to argue a more positive solution to the real problems people in this country face. We need to right that wrong now. We do this by persuading people that it is the system, not migrants, that are the real cause of our woes. Let’s argue for a new kind of economy that would actually strengthen some of the communities that have voted for Brexit.
The situation is grim. But we cannot give up to these forces of fear and division. Brexit only won the referendum on the back of utterly shameless lies and deceit. Soon, as it become more apparent that they were conned, moderate Leave voters may start to make their anger felt. Indeed many of them will be angry that their vote is being used by the far-right to promote xenophobia, while others will be aghast at the lies told about more funding for the NHS.
Nevertheless, though weak and based on lies, the Leave side have won a mandate to try and secure a Brexit deal. But we do not have to surrender to the prospect of trying to make the best of living in Little England (most likely shorn of Scotland and perhaps Northern Ireland). There are things we can do to fight the worst of the Brexit agenda.
If, as is probably the case, we do end up leaving the EU, we must fight to retain as much as possible of what we have just lost. Top of the list is free movement. A Norway-style relationship to the EU would allow us to keep free movement and some of the safeguards we would otherwise lose. This is inferior to full membership as it would mean the UK free to negotiate what will probably be ultra-neoliberal trade deals with other countries. It would also mean no democratic influence in Brussels. But there is a genuine case to say that we should work to salvage what we can from the situation. The alternative, that the UK becomes a massive tax haven without freedom of movement, is much worse.
Regardless of what we voted and of which scenario plays out, one thing is clear. As activists and members of Global Justice Now, we have a serious responsibility to fight the more unsavoury symptoms of Brexit. We have to prioritise defending migrants and making the case for free movement for people from within and outside the EU. We need to defend with renewed determination the regulations and ‘red tape’ that protects our environment and workers’ rights. And we need to ensure that, in a desperate bid to avert economic meltdown, the UK doesn’t resort to economic imperialism in the Commonwealth countries of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean to replace the wealth lost due to the weakening of ties with Europe.
Our movement has never been more important. We have a responsibility not just to campaign but to grow the movement. Get your friends, family, neighbours to join. The reason we lost this fight is because too many of us lived in a bubble for too long. Let’s break out of it and fight so a result like this never happens again.
Alex Scrivener is the policy officer at Global Justice Now.