One of my main grouses when I first came to the UK was the absolute apathy in which the British public viewed politics. In my native Ireland, politics are discussed regularly, and with gusto, at dinner parties, breakfast tables, and down the pub. If one was ever to witness a group of Irish people discussing politics in full flight, it would seem as there might be murder by the end of the night. And yet, by and large, people leave the pubs, mostly in good humoured discord with each other. I no longer can make that grouse, the day before the most important vote a number of Britons will make in their lifetimes; however the only thing that voters will agree upon tomorrow is the divisive, unnecessary and toxic nature of it all.
I’m a real fangirl of the life political, as readers of my blog will know, purely as spectator sport. It’s a theatre in itself, especially British politics: the thrust and parry of Westminster, the comedy of errors that is often party politics. There is a heart of darkness that has grown in the midst of this, and it is most noticeable in the love affair between the media and successive governments. The most insidious cancer in this heart of darkness is, being shown to be, in my opinion, the double-edged sword of profiling.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act introduced in the 1970s, which the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins described as ‘draconian’ and ‘unprecedented in peacetime’ did nothing to reduce the threat of IRA attacks, but rather increased it. What it did achieve was the ‘otherization’ of the Irish in Britain, and the stance taken led to many miscarriages of justice and the demonisation in certain media quarters, most notable the Sun, of the Irish community. What was appalling to me was Tony Blair re-introducing this act post-9/11, for the obvious parallels with the Muslim community, and so it has come to pass. I state this not to excuse violence, which is inexcusable; but to make the point that ‘terrorism’ does not grow in a vacuum.
From my own personal knowledge I can give two examples of how damaging profiling is, and the resentment it creates in society. In the early 1990s I took a drama course at the Betty Ann Norton School in Dublin. Among my classmates was a very lovely woman called Róisín (*not her real name). Long red curly hair, blue eyes, ‘typically’ Irish-looking. One night, down the pub, Róisín told me finally why she had come back from the UK. She had fitted the description of a suspect of a bombing attempt, in terms of height, hair colour and length and eye colour, and so the police took her in for questioning. After a long period of time, at which she described herself at breaking point mentally, and with no evidence, they finally let her go. So traumatised was she, she got the next boat back to Ireland and never went back to the UK.
A member of my family, who is a Muslim convert and who now lives in Norwich, has also been a target in the community there. About two years ago, he and his wife were brought in for questioning by the police. Apparently an Islamophobic neighbour, posing as a concerned citizen, had noticed her next-door neighbour had gone ‘missing’ and reported to the police that it was likely that the Muslim couple next door had ‘done away’ with her. As it happened, the neighbour and her boyfriend turned up alive and well on the Costa del Sol.
I give these examples as a small illustration into the type of world that has been created on the lies of WMD and the cynical politics of dividing communities. The tale of the ‘good Muslim’ and ‘bad Muslim’, while ignoring the reality of profiling (according to reports, those from ethnic minorities are likely to be stopped by the police 42 times more than white people) is hugely damaging to communities. The weight of expectation placed on these communities is higher also: Every time a terrorist attack happens, representatives from the Muslim community are called upon to condemn it. This call for condemnation from the white community was distinctly noticeable by its absence when a white supremacist fascist killed the MP Jo Cox, and directly for the work she did for ethnic communities and refugees. The double standards and higher standards meted out to ethnic minorities is breathtaking in both its ignorance and arrogance.
Dear readers: we are, in this most important of referendums, at a tipping point in British society. The bandage has been ripped off the nostalgia of ‘Rule Britannia’ and the maggots of fascism that have dwelt now for some time (at least 6 years, in my view) have come to surface and threaten the very fabric of all that is the very best of Britain. I’ve watched in fascination and horror over the last 6 years as, one by one, the young, the poor, the disabled, the unemployed, women, the NHS, the legal aid system, the arts, education, the third sector, those with mental health issues, refugees from war-torn countries have been targeted by corrupt, inhumane and weak politicians ill-suited to wielding power justly. Everything, even school children, are assets to be used in the adoration of the almighty Mammon.
There is finally a Labour party leadership that is prepared to oppose the worst excesses of an unnecessary austerity, and yet the toxic Blairite faction insist on blocking their every move. It says something about the state of British politics when an advocate for social justice, a kinder politics and a fairer distribution of the very real burdens of austerity is labelled as a ‘radical’. There is nothing radical, to my mind, about every family having a home; every child being able to go to school with food in their belly and clean clothes; about access to free education and healthcare – these are the hallmarks of a civilised society. And yet, in just over half a decade, the UK has descended into a Lord of the Flies-esque island, where the flames of greed, racism, nationalism, class war and resentment have been fanned cynically for political advantage. The fifth largest economy in the world where 103,000 children are homeless and 1 million people are dependent on food banks. The ideas of the far-right are being tested out in mainstream politics as well: one only has to look at the UKIP/Tory stance on immigration and the disgraceful Tory campaign for London Mayor at all levels of the party to see the writing on the wall from policy and ideological perspectives.
And into this toxic cauldron stepped Jo Cox MP, an unwitting martyr last Thursday, a genuinely good, engaged and uniquely qualified MP, through her background in the charity sector and with Oxfam. Again the media tried to spin the myth of the poor, put-upon white British man with mental health issues as a first resort for her killer Thomas Mair. Thanks to the internet – as Tim Berners-Lee said ‘This is for everyone’ – that myth was dispelled quite quickly; and in its wake was left the cold putrid stench of white British male fascist anger. It’s there for everyone to see: the pictures of Mair completely compos mentis campaign with Britain First; the threat of the self-same group of ‘direct action’ on Muslim politicians like Sadiq Khan and Sajid Javid; the Tory councillor Tony Peacock’s jibe at the Jo Cox memorial fund. I could list so many more; but this group of people, with so many privileges by virtue of gender and ethnicity, if not class, have poisoned this referendum with their politics of division, violence and white supremacy.
Jo’s husband Brendan gifted us with one of the most beautiful epitaphs I have ever heard: ‘She met the world with love’. It’s something each of us needs to take into the polling booths today – will we meet the world with love? Or with fear and suspicion? No matter what happens, the lid has been lifted on the Pandora’s box of British fascism, and whatever the outcome, post-referendum, it will be difficult to contain it. Make no mistake, it is Battleground Britain, where the very heart and soul of Tolkien’s fabled shires are at stake. I happen to believe that the only choice, in this background of festering, angry nationalism, is to Remain. Partly so Europe as a whole can counter fascism; partly because to vote to leave is to validate and give political credence to the far-right. Brexit has held a mirror up to the chilling mainstreaming of far-right ideologies. The late Jo Cox MP has shown us a better way in politics and in our lives – to choose love. That will truly be the best way of putting Britain first.