Though Brexit, the UK's decision whether to leave the European Union, is technically quite complicated, the Leave and Remain campaigns ensured that for most voters it was very simple. Basically, we Brits had to choose which one we liked least out of immigration and committing national economic suicide.
As a longstanding fan of both not being broke and my friends not being deported, I found the process quite straightforward. However, 52 percent of voters disagreed with me and really wanted to reduce immigration levels — and it seems clear some also believed they were voting to repatriate existing residents, though that was never suggested by Leave campaigners. However, in cosmopolitan, multicultural London, where I live, most people voted the same way I did.
During the campaign leading up to the referendum, an enormous amount of attention was devoted to the alleged threat posed by Turkey's theoretical entry into the EU. Though pro-Remain politicians denied that free movement of people between Turkey and the UK was a possibility, dark warnings were issued about the dangerous criminality of Turkish citizens.
As usual, right-wing newspapers were keen to help fan the flames. The Sunday Express published a front-page splash claiming that "12m Turks say they'll come to UK." A month later, the paper was forced to print a "clarification" admitting the story was false.
Approximately a week before the vote, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage released a poster showing a queue of (mainly nonwhite) migrants and refugees. The words "breaking point" were written in red text, and below them was the slogan "we must break free from the EU and take back control."
Some pro-Leave politicians attempted to distance themselves from the poster, which bore a notable similarity to a piece of Nazi propaganda. However, their objection can only have been on fairly shallow presentational grounds given that the basic message — that hordes of brown-skinned migrants pose a threat to the UK that must urgently be prevented — wasn't out of line with the rhetoric of the official Vote Leave campaign backed by most pro-Brexit MPs.
A couple of days after the poster, Labour MP Jo Cox was shot dead outside her constituency surgery in Birstall, West Yorkshire. Formerly the head of policy and advocacy at Oxfam GB, she'd entered politics just a year previously and had gained a reputation as a strong advocate for refugees. She was also an enthusiastic supporter of the campaign to remain in the EU.
Eyewitnesses reported that her killer shouted, "Britain first," as he carried out the attack, prompting the leader of the far-right political party Britain First to issue a statement denying involvement. A 52-year-old local man, Thomas Mair, appeared in court charged with Cox's murder. When asked to give his name, he answered, "Death to traitors, freedom for Britain."
The day of the referendum result, various far-right organizations took to the street in celebration. In Newcastle, the National Front unveiled a banner reading, "Stop immigration, start repatriation."
Police in Cambridgeshire reported that they'd launched an investigation into cards reading, "Leave the EU, no more Polish vermin," which had been posted through the letterboxes. A video was posted online showing people waving St. George's Cross flags outside a mosque and intimidating passers by. Social media filled up with reports of harassment toward Muslims, nonwhite people and EU migrants — usually involving the victim being told they must "go home."
This is probably where I should clarify that I don't believe everyone who has concerns about immigration is bigot. It's perfectly possible to be worried about the effects of mass migration on jobs, wages, housing stocks, and public services without harboring negative attitudes toward migrants themselves.
People in areas of economic decline who believe reducing immigration would improve their situation aren't wrong for hoping that, but they've been lied to by politicians who've failed to actually address their problems. It's a grim irony that parts of the country that currently rely on EU subsidies, like Cornwall, voted to leave.
One quite plausible outcome of the referendum is a spectacular example of the power of democracy, in that it will please literally nobody except, possibly, a tiny minority of anti–European Union liberals who had different ambitions from the majority of Leave voters.
As far as I can tell, we'd still be doing some significant economic self-harm, although maybe not as much as people feared, but the anti-immigration people weren't going to get their way, either. Instead, the UK would probably remain part of the EU single market, which requires continued free movement of labor. This is the option Boris Johnson, who is bookies' favorite to be the next leader, seems to be leaning toward.
If we do pull out of the single market, job losses are probable as companies relocate out of the UK: more willful destruction of our own economy. Given that EU migrants form an essential part of the UK labor force and are net tax contributors, helping us fund health and social care for our aging native population, an immigration reduction would also have been shooting ourselves in the foot.
I don't know if it's just a result of extreme exhaustion and lowered expectations, but right now the actual reality of a soft Brexit seems like it could be worse. My main worry is that the Conservative government might chip away at employment rights once it's not forced to conform to EU law. From a personal perspective, I'm really hoping we keep free movement because, as a freelancer in London, it's essential for my morale that moving to Berlin remains a theoretical option.
The problem is, though, that a lot of people still think they just voted in a referendum on immigration. What's more, they think they won. When pro-Brexit politicians chose to actively stoke fear, hatred, and resentment of immigrant groups as a campaign tactic, they must have known they were causing lasting, significant harm.
I think three things are probably true. First, that most people who voted to leave the EU because of concerns about immigration would not racially abuse or harass someone. Second, that the EU referendum was not a root cause of racism and xenophobia.
Third, though, that the normalization of anti-immigration rhetoric has created an environment where racists feel emboldened to act. The problem isn't necessarily that 52 percent of voters agree with the far right; it's that the far right think they do.
It's hard to shake the feeling that we've opened Pandora's box. Despite having achieved its original raison d'être, there is no indication that Nigel Farage is planning to disband UKIP as a political party. On the contrary, it seems likely he'll attempt to wide the wave of referendum success to target a significant number of seats in the next general election — which will probably happen sometime this year.
Given that the next Conservative leader will almost certainly be from the pro-Leave camp (if Johnson's cynical politicking doesn't clinch it for him, perhaps Justice Secretary Michael Gove), it's unlikely that he'll focus much on seats currently held by Tories. Instead, he'll be looking to the Labour heartlands: white, working-class constituencies in the Midlands, North, and Wales that have suffered industrial decline.
In the 2015 general election, UKIP came in second to Labour in 44 constituencies, all but two of which were in these traditional heartland regions. In the EU referendum, these same areas skewed heavily toward Leave. While pollsters expected that white working-class voters would lean that way, what wasn't predicted was the effect of turnout. In working-class areas where electoral participation is normally low, many people voted for the first time ever.
Given that the Labour Party is currently in a state of severe crisis and civil war, it's difficult to imagine the party is going to be able to attract those voters. Instead, nationalist UKIP might make significant gains at the left's expense. With the next Conservative Party likely being from the Euroskeptic right of the party, rather than a David Cameron–style moderate, the future UK political landscape is looking incredibly bleak.
Abi Wilkinson is a freelance writer based in London.
First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.