The Tory party's pronouncements on refugees and "hard Brexit" fuel racism, but the political picture is more complex than a simple rightward shift.
Is Britain lurching to the right in the wake of the referendum vote? That was the impression given by the Conservative Party conference. Not only did Theresa May embrace a “hard Brexit”, designed to restrict migration, but Home Secretary Amber Rudd proposed forcing companies to reveal how many foreign workers they employ — before being made to backtrack.
MP David Davies (not to be confused with Brexit secretary David Davis) has suggested subjecting refugee children from Calais to dental checks to determine their age, a measure condemned even by the British Dental Association as “inappropriate and unethical”.
Some of these proposals are merely sops to appease the Tory right. But the debate over the nature of Brexit is more serious.
During the referendum British capitalists were overwhelmingly committed to remaining in the EU. Having failed to achieve their aim they are now determined to ensure that Brexit is as “soft” as possible. That is why the pound plummeted in response to May’s conference speech. Full access to the single market is unlikely to be achievable without continued financial contributions to the EU and accepting freedom of movement. This is anathema to large sections of the Tory party.
As the ultra-free-market Economist magazine put it, “Mrs May faces an inevitable tension. Domestically, if she is not to be overwhelmed by the politics of Europe…she needs to convince those who voted to leave that their victory will be honoured… In Europe, however, this domestic rhetoric will impede Mrs May’s task of negotiating the best possible form of Brexit… To get the best deal, she needs to be flexible on immigration. The centrepiece of the deal ought to be to secure maximum access to Europe’s single market.”
Britain faces a period of intense political turmoil. Once article 50 is enacted in spring next year, beginning the two-year process of exit, each aspect of British policy that has become intertwined with Europe will be exposed to scrutiny and debate. European leaders will likely attempt to maximise the pain for May to deter anti-EU forces in their own countries.
This will be all the more fractious because splits in the Tory cabinet remain. Philip Hammond, who is sympathetic to the arguments of British banks, a fifth of whose business depends on Europe, has been rendered the least powerful Chancellor of the Exchequer in recent history. The cabinet’s “three Brexiteers” — Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis — apparently described him at one meeting as “like an accountant” and accused him of seeking to “undermine Brexit”.
Tim Montgomerie, writing in the Times, exposes how illusory the supposed stability of the Tory leadership transition has been: “Up to now, I had assumed that a Downing Street operation still finding its feet would move quickly to reassure business... Unfortunately, the problem is deeper and more ideological than I thought…there is a fear that Mrs May is relaxed about upsetting big businesses that she knows are unpopular with the blue-collar, Brexit-supporting voters.”
It is worth remembering that the Tories are not the totality of British politics. Labour has just re-elected its most left-wing leader in eight decades — with an increased mandate. UKIP, far from being the beneficiary of Brexit, is now, in the words of former leadership hopeful Steven Woolfe, in a “death spiral”. Britain’s fascist organisations remain in disarray.
That is not to minimise the challenge of the right and of racism. There was a significant rise in racist incidents following the EU referendum as racists saw the result as vindicating their noxious views.
Figures from the Home Office show racially or religiously motivated attacks rising from about 110 a day in the run-up to the referendum to 210 in early July, remaining at around 150 for much of that month.
By the end of August, the figures seem to have dropped back down to 110 per day, in line with recent years. That does not minimise the horror of the attacks that have occurred — which we can assume are much higher than reported figures. Even 110 incidents a day reflects a longer-term rise as politicians have engaged in a racist offensive against migrants and Muslims.
Some on the left say that those of us who backed Lexit: The Left Leave Campaign are culpable in the spike in attacks. But the argument is illogical.
Lexit was born precisely out of a need to construct an independent anti-racist campaign against the EU in the face of the racism of the official Leave campaign.
Those leading the Remain campaign cannot be counted on to act as a barrier to racism. They include the new prime minister and those on the right of the Labour Party now busily insisting that Jeremy Corbyn pander to racism by promising to restrict migration.
We are not passive observers to this process. Our aim now should not be to divide the anti-racist movement over the old arguments over the referendum, but to intervene to challenge the right.
We can take hope from the 1,600-strong Stand Up To Racism conference held in October. Whatever position people took on the referendum and whatever motivated them to get involved, there is now an opportunity to build a genuine mass movement to defend migrants.
That is the central challenge for the left in the months ahead.