Part 1: Brexit Britain
Finally, the 2016 US election is over. (The next four years are on their way, but let’s not go there just yet.) This campaign season was particularly grueling for progressives to watch: the bitter primary season that divided Democrats against one another, the degrading spectacle of the debates, and, of course, the outcome of the election have left a lot of us exhausted. We’re also stunned: from the FBI’s late-game email stunt to hot-mic admissions of sexual assault, there was nothing predictable about this most recent episode in presidential history. As of this writing, Wisconsin is organizing a ballot recount, the president-elect has just declared that he won the popular vote, everyone’s glancing nervously toward Russia, and New Yorkers are stalking Hillary Clinton in the woods for selfies as though she were the mythical Sasquatch herself; all evidence suggests that there won’t be anything predictable about this transition period, either. Nothing predictable, that is, except for the fact that many of my fellow liberals are beginning to mutter about moving abroad.
The run-up to every election has its share of people grumbling that “if he wins, I’m moving to Europe.” It’s usually nothing more than idle talk—an escapist fantasy that allows us to feel just a little more in control of our lives in the face of political currents that we can’t personally change. Yet in the past few days, I’ve heard more and more people describing the actual steps they’re taking in preparation for moving abroad: selling homes, cashing out pensions, getting passports renewed, and brushing up on high school language courses.
I understand, to a point, the emotional appeal of getting the heck out. There’s a particular flavor of hopelessness that we taste only when we realize that the progress that we’ve worked for in our communities and the causes that we’ve invested in throughout our lifetimes can be scuttled so quickly. The work to change our society for the better begins to feel as futile as it does endless, and we allow ourselves to fantasize about disappearing into a more enlightened society that will allow us to quit fighting so damn hard all the time—a place where somebody else has already cleaned up the social and political messes.
It would be unfair to discount the fact that there are people at heightened risk: those who have had their headscarves torn off, who have been grabbed—or worse—by men emboldened to sexual violence, who’ve had to comfort their children who hear chants of “build the wall” in their schools, who have no recourse as the Klan marches down their city streets, who find their homes and playgrounds spray-painted with swastikas, whose marriages are threatened with dissolution, and whose access to even health care is soon to vanish. For people in fear for their basic safety, the moving-abroad fantasy isn’t so much an issue of escapism but a hope for survival.
As regular readers of this column may remember, I did move to Europe. It wasn’t a political protest that took me there, but my partner’s long-term job relocation to England. Even so, I admit that I was eager—as the ugly rumbles of the 2016 election had begun even then—to be elsewhere. Somewhere more civil, more accepting, more thoughtful, more welcoming. Somewhere, if I’m honest, I could pretend that the problems of my home country were someone else’s to carry.
Brexit, and the economic downturn that came with it, brought me back to the US sooner than I’d planned, and I brought with me an understanding that you may not want to hear: Europe looks a lot like home.
I arrived in London long before then-Prime Minister David Cameron announced a public referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union. The biggest hubbub in the UK’s political sphere at the time was the recent rise of Jeremy Corbyn, a Bernie Sanders analogue, to the head of Labour (the country’s opposition party). Yet when Cameron announced the simple-majority vote that would determine the UK’s future, the relative calm that had—I thought—prevailed began to turn into something else entirely. The country’s dialogue became centered on the choice between Leave and Remain. And jockeying to position himself at the vanguard of Leave was a man named Nigel Farage.
My fellow Americans—who could have easily assumed that “Brexit” was a fried breakfast dish for all the attention paid to the referendum by the US news media in the months ahead of the vote—may know Farage as the man who, in the week that Trump was elected, celebrated the fact that the UK would no longer be working with “that Obama creature, loathsome individual who couldn’t stand our country.” As if that racially charged creature remark weren’t enough, in the same interview, Farage made light of sexual assault claims against Trump by joking that he hoped the new president could at least keep his hands off new UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and suggested that May might need him as a chaperone: “Don’t touch her for goodness sake…If it comes to it, I could be there as the responsible adult couldn’t I? Make sure everything (is) okay.”
Or they may have heard of him first during the surreal spectacle that was the “Brexit Flotilla,” a slow-moving nautical skirmish on the Thames River involving Farage and a group of fisherman demonstrating for Leave in a small fleet of boats. Those boats were headed off in a surprise maneuver by a yacht owned by pro-Remain Irish singer Bob Geldof (he of the Boomtown Rats and “I Don’t Like Mondays”) who taunted Farage with some graphic hand gestures and colorful remarks over a loudspeaker. A few hours and some lively business with water cannons later, and the whole display was over; we Londoners were left wondering whether the stunt that had just unfolded in front of us hadn’t made DC politics look tame for a brief moment.
Long before, however, Nigel Farage was the head of the UK Independence Party, a single-issue party dedicated to extracting the United Kingdom from the European Union. Far from standing as one of the more influential parties in the UK, the far-right UKIP currently holds only one seat in the House of Commons. And Farage, much maligned by establishment politicians, was considered something of a political laughing stock; Farage was the butt of every joke I heard on late-night comedy television. Perhaps it was precisely because he was so easy to joke about that he was also easy to discount. He seemed like nothing more than a brash, often offensive oddball who was so far from the locus of power that we could safely scoff at him. No one, it seemed, thought he had any likelihood of mobilizing large numbers of citizens behind him (something that may sound a bit like a person we Americans are dealing with today).
Yet Farage’s UKIP attuned its message to economic concerns of the struggling working class—the party’s symbol is a large purple pound sign against a gold background, if that gives you an indication of its platform—and tapping into fears about immigration. (These two tactics may also seem familiar to Americans.)
UKIP’s official position is that it is not a racist party, but a nationalist one. Nationalism is a queasy enough term for a lot of us, but Farage has also made quite a few remarks that seem directly in opposition to UKIP’s claims of racial tolerance. Here’s what Farage had to say in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris in November of 2015: “I think we’ve reached a point where we have to admit to ourselves, in Britain and France and much of the rest of Europe, that mass immigration and multicultural division has for now been a failure.” Farage didn’t limit himself to broad comments on a multicultural Europe; he also had some close-to-home specifics to offer: “Any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door.”
Yet Farage’s lowest moment in stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment in support of the Leave campaign came when he unveiled his signature Brexit advertisement: a massive poster that featured an image of Syrian refugees walking down a rural road in Europe. The caption at the bottom of the poster read, in bold red letters, “BREAKING POINT.” And below, “The EU has failed us all.” Leavers loaded the posters on large mobile billboards and drove them around London, to the great dismay of many of us living in the city. The intent of the ads—though they stopped just short of calling the refugees themselves dangerous—was abundantly clear to many of my fellow London residents, some of whom even reported them to the police as hate speech intended to drum up racial tension.
Many supporting the Leave campaign continued to deny that anti-immigrant sentiment had anything to do with their Brexit push; this was about jobs, the economy, and a system that had disenfranchised the working class. But no one could ignore the racist tensions seething in the country when, on June 16, Jo Cox—a human rights advocate, Labour Member of Parliament, and an outspoken Remain supporter—was assassinated by Thomas Mair.
Mair, who called himself “a political activist” and gave his name as “death to traitors” during his arrest, shot and stabbed the mother of two to death in the street outside her constituency surgery (a series of one-to-one meetings with area residents). Multiple witnesses to the assassination describe hearing Mair—whose internet records show an affinity for Nazi, Klan, apartheid, and other white-supremacist reading material—shouting “Britain First” as he shot Cox once in the chest and twice in the head with his .22 Weihrauch, and stabbed her fifteen times in the heart and lungs.
It’s temping to call Mair an isolated case—a “lone wolf” assailant, if you like—and not a representative of any broader trouble stewing in England. But as news of Cox’s assassination spread across a stunned England, Twitter clocked over 53,000 tweets celebrating her death and calling Mair a “hero” and a “patriot.”
On June 23, the day of the referendum vote, the walkways outside Parliament were still covered by a vast, makeshift memorial with flowers and hand-lettered signs exhorting us to “Love Like Jo.” And they were still there the next day, when Farage claimed that the Leave campaign’s vision had come to pass “without a single bullet being fired.” Quite a few of us felt that his math was off by a tally of three.
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, anti-immigrant sentiment spiked. In the streets, people wore tee-shirts reading “We Voted Leave, Now Get Out.” Polish immigrants found their places of business spray-painted with the words “Go Home,” and, in Cambridgeshire, leafleted with laminated cards (yes, laminated. The craftiness of their production makes the cards all the more eerie) calling them “vermin.” Attacks on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people rose by 147 percent in the three months following the vote—a spike in hate-based crimes both higher than those faced by minority religious and ethnic groups and unprecedented in recent years.
By summer, Farage had stepped down as head of UKIP and had gone on the campaign trail with Donald Trump. In a rally in Mississippi, he said, “Folks, the message is clear…the parallels are there. There are millions of ordinary Americans who have been let down, who have had a bad time, who feel the political class in Washington is detached from them…You can go out, you can beat the pollsters, you can beat the commentators, you can beat Washington.” Unfortunately, Farage was right.
Kelly Davio is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. She is the author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013) and the co-editor of the anthology The Poet’s Quest for God. Her work appears in venues including The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Best New Poets, and more.