January 2020. I’m at Luton Airport waiting for a flight to Geneva. I like airports. Travellers from all over the world flying far and wide. And at the low cost carrier hubs like Luton there is a distinctly young, European vibe. Solo travellers travelling for work or business. Skiers like me heading off to the Alps. Young families who are at ease with an integrated Europe, maybe bringing up their children in one country and heading home to visit their relatives.
But my usual pleasure at the European airport vibe is mixed with a distinct sadness today. It’s probably the last trip where my E111 card, giving me reciprocal healthcare rights across the EU, will be valid. It may be the last trip where, thanks to EU law, I am not worried about stacking up ludicrous mobile phone roaming charges. And looking around at my fellow travellers from other countries, it might be the last time they leave the UK untroubled by immigration concerns on their return, thanks to freedom of movement.
The rights of EU citizens resident in the UK still feel very far from certain, nearly four years after the referendum result. Like so many things – the Irish border, trade deals, the impact on jobs and the economy – the Brexiteers glibly said it would all be so easy. Now the UK economy is teetering on the edge of recession and growth is at its lowest level since 2010.
I’m listening to the couple speaking Spanish behind me. They’re phoning their mother in Spain updating them on their journey. Unlike Nigel Farage who famously complained he felt awkward that people sitting next to him on the train were speaking a foreign language, I love the different accent, the different words, the different rhythm. https://www.standard.co.uk/panewsfeeds/farage-felt-awkward-on-train-9158785.html
Is this what the old guy in a North Nottinghamshire pub meant last summer when I told him I grew up in London and he said: “London? That’s a different country.” Was he talking about his dislike of multiculturalism? Or was it a more innocent remark. I don’t know. I wasn’t in the mood to pursue the point. We talked about football instead. But it was certainly straight from the Farage playbook. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/feb/28/nigel-farage-ukip-immigration-speech Farage and the Brexit campaign definitely played a xenophobic tune in the referendum campaign. But Brexiteers are typically outraged when leavers suggest that racism is a factor in Brexit.
Will Self observed that you didn’t have to be racist to vote leave but, sure as hell, anyone who is racist would support Brexit. https://twitter.com/bbcpolitics/status/1104070908606590976?lang=en Campaigning for a People’s Vote on the streets of Nottingham last year, it wasn’t my aim to solicit Brexiteer views on immigration and multicultural Britain. Nonetheless some people offered them. From ‘coming here and taking our jobs’ to the full monty of wanting an all-white England, I heard them. I will always remember my sadness and shock hearing a little old lady walk into a Nottinghamshire library back in 2016 on the morning of the referendum result and say loudly to the staff on the front desk: “they can all go home now.”
Let’s not beat about the bush. Racism more than got Brexit over the line. It wasn’t just a matter of tipping the balance in a 52/48 vote. Racism is deep-seated among the British electorate. NatCen Social Research reports that the proportion saying they are racially prejudiced has never fallen below a quarter in their British Social Attitudes survey ever since they started surveying the issue back in 1983. The most recent data, for 2017, found 26% saying they are “very” or “a little” prejudiced towards people of other races http://natcen.ac.uk/our-research/research/racial-prejudice-in-britain-today. That is exactly half of the Brexit vote.
Looking ahead, it will be up to the new Conservative government to show that Brexit is not a racist project. I’m not optimistic. And back here at Luton Airport, I sense there’s already a feeling of Little England. It’s quieter than before. There are fewer people travelling. Is it the economy or just the fact that it is a Friday morning in January? I don’t know. But what I do know is the UK, and England in particular, is a more diminished country. The referendum has lifted a stone that has allowed intolerant attitudes to be voiced. For many of us who voted remain, we don’t feel quite so proud of our country anymore.