The EU referendum divided the UK very deeply. Some people want reconciliation with their political opponents; for others the scars are too recent. I’m in the latter camp. A national political project requires people to think of themselves as being in some sense in community with their co-nationals and to recognize themselves as being under special obligations to those others, obligations that they don’t have to outsiders. But I now feel myself out of community with my co-nationals who voted differently. Of course, I’m not utterly indifferent to their well-being — they have their human rights after all, even though they might dispute that — but I don’t feel any enthusiasm beyond pragmatic self-interest for putting them ahead of distant others.
One reason for this is that I think of nearly all of them as racists and xenophobes. Since this is one of the most bitterly resented accusation, prone to trigger outbursts of indignation, some explanation is needed. So here goes. Most Brexiters don’t actively hate foreigners. At least I think and hope that’s true, so let me stipulate that it is. If active hatred were a necessary component of racism and xenophobia then it would follow that most Brexiters are neither racists nor xenophobes. But I don’t think such an active attitude is needed for the accusation to proceed. Rather, I have something else in mind.
Brexit triggered a wave of hate crimes against the many EU citizens living in the UK, and, indeed, against foreigners more generally and made the legal and social position of those people precarious. This was all predictable. The formerly silent haters felt that the vote gave them a licence to act. Leaving the European Union also leave EU citizen residents in a state of acute insecurity, unsure what their future status will be. Brexiters were nearly all, when they contemplated their vote prospectively, indifferent to these impacts or they failed to give them the thought they should have. Though some Brexiters now seem appalled at what they have wrought, they seem incapable of grasping the full complexity of the rights that need reviewing and protecting which go beyond residence and work but extend to family life, and many social rights.
In the UK, many policies and measures get tested by “equalities impact assessments”. We look to see whether some proposed course of action will cause disproportionate harms to groups including women, ethnic minorities, gay people and the disabled. Often policies that are not motivated by active hatred for such groups will nevertheless bring about bad outcomes for them, and that is a reason not to pursue such policies. So what to think about someone who just doesn’t care, whose commitment to some policy or slogan is such that if there were to see that it would seriously adversely affect say, black people in particular, they wouldn’t change course? “Too bad”, is their view. I’d say that such indifference to the fate of some particular group is a form of prejudice against that group, a failure to show those people respect, a failure to take proper account of their interests. And I’d say that in the case of EU migrants, that failure is properly thought of as a type of racism or xenophobia.
Perhaps some people should be exempted from this charge? Such a person might be a Lexiteer (a left-wing supporter of Brexit) whose concern for some other people, such as those who drown as a consequence of Fortress Europe or the many Greeks who have suffered from the EU’s austerity polcies, outweighs their concern for the UK’s EU citizen immigrants. As a matter of fact, I think those reasons for voting for Brexit were pretty silly. Retreating to Fortress UK won’t do anything for the Greeks or for the victims of Fortress Europe: they’be better served by fighting for them within the EU institutions. But I accept that a sincere Lexiteer, who genuinely believed such things and who thought long and hard about the negative impacts on EU residents but decided they were outweighed, shouldn’t be lumped in with the racists and the xenophobes. And I should probably extend a similar charitable thought to some right-wing sovereigntists. So I do, provided that they gave EU migrants the deliberative consideration they should have. Sadly, my guess is that most Lexiteers (and most sovereigntists) were not like this. Rather they were people who were happy to mouth slogans about the EU being a “capitalist club” (alternatively “taking back control”) and just didn’t think at all about the impact on local Poles, Estonians, Romanians etc. And failing to bring the interests of those people to consciousness, failing to notice them as deserving recipients of concern — ignorant indifference to a particular vulnerable group — is also a form of prejudice against them. So I rest my case: it is not unfair to think of nearly all Brexiteers as racists or xenophobes. Whether it is politically sensible to call them racists or xenophobes is a different matter, but I find it hard now to extend to them the solidarity they deliberately or casually denied to others.