Is the genie out of the bottle?
by Isla Macrae
Since the Brexit vote – when the UK decided to leave the EU -, it can be argued that the nationalist genie has been ‘let out of the bottle’, so to speak. In some sense, the referendum outcome has given people a perceived ‘permission’ to be more eurosceptic and critical towards the arrival of migrants into the country. The nature of the political discourses that far-right parties engaged in during the lead up to the referendum is undeniably accountable, to at least some extent, for this perceived consensus. Since we made the decision to leave the EU, there has been a spike in reported racial hate crimes and greater use of nationalist rhetoric, both in the media and politics. So, has the UK become more racist since the referendum?
As we can see in the cases of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of Marine Le Pen, the recent surge in support for such far right nationalisms is undeniable. The growth of far-right nationalism has been pinned to a loss of faith and discontent in politics amongst the working class, which has led many to follow populist parties, such as UKIP. These organisations draw on the rhetoric of nationalism and anti-elitism to promote a sense of collective identity within a population (Wellings 2015), encouraging a certain sort of nationalism to emerge. This disengagement has partly emerged in the face of globalisation, as Bachmann (2016) argues. A large proportion of the ‘leave voters’ felt themselves to be ‘losing out rather than winning’ in the context of the global economy (Bachmann 2016:49), which thus has encouraged the emergence of anti-establishment anger. Also, the increasing importance of sovereignty is being exaggerated as a result of globalisation, with many seeing the freedom of movement as a threat to social cohesion and national security.
While the support for the far right has been increasing, primarily because of the reasons discussed above, the political discourses advanced by such parties have, in a way, made xenophobia more publicly acceptable. The ‘genie has been let out of the bottle’. Consider, for example, UKIP’s campaigns that are shaping the debate: Nigel Farage used nationalist rhetoric such as ‘take back control’ to refer to migration into the UK, as well as using derogatory images in his campaign posters, insinuating negativity towards the issue, and fuelling a sort of collective anger towards migrants. The image he used in his ‘breaking point’ campaign poster of a group of refugees was in fact taken in Syria and completely unrelated to the EU. This ‘subtle form of elite racism’ (Van Dijk 1997:31) is thus, at least in part, responsible for the apparent legitimation of racism in society following Brexit. Van Dijk (1997) argued that these subtle political and media discourses impact an individual’s ideology and social outlook, leading to the discursive reproduction of behaviours such as racism and xenophobia.
It’s not surprising then that according to police figures, the number of reported hate crimes rose by around 50% during and after the Brexit campaign and referendum. Additionally, in schools, there were greater incidents of racism reported following the vote. According to Chris Waller, the ACT (The Association for Citizenship Teaching) professional officer, this was due to the focus on immigration during the Brexit campaign, which left teachers to deal with the ‘backlash’ felt in schools. One child reportedly said to a teacher ‘‘Leave has won so we can get rid of all these mosques now and close them down.” This is particularly interesting as it shows the misconceptions which arrived with the Brexit vote as a result of its intense focus on immigration and the subsequent effects of this on the younger generation. Even though the referendum was about EU membership, the use of dominant xenophobic and nationalist political discourses in the campaign shrouded its intent, pushing the focus on ‘taking back control’ of our borders in a more generalized sense. This just accentuates the dominance of politics and media in society, and how easily they can manipulate public feeling and sentiment, especially in children.
However, are these events directly linked to Brexit? Incidents of racism and xenophobia did increase sharply directly after the EU referendum, but it still can’t be concluded that the two instances are causally related. Further, the definition of ‘hate crime’ is based on the victim’s perception and so relies on subjectivity, meaning in the strictest sense the increase in reported hate crimes ’only represents a surge in perceived prejudice’. Maybe the ambiance created by the far right political discourses made more individuals perceive everyday crimes as racially induced hate crimes, which is not surprising considering the domination of such rhetoric in the media and other forms of social life. Furthermore, the intensified focus on hate crimes may have prompted more people to report such incidents, leading to a perceived supposed spike as a result of increased reporting. Because of this ambiguity, it’s difficult to critically assess the increased number of hate crimes following the vote, however, it does seem sensible to concede that the political discourses in the UK have led to a changed public sentiment and feeling. Furthermore, reported hate crimes have in fact been rising for the past few years, long before the Brexit campaign, which, too, introduces some uncertainty.
So, has the genie been let out of the bottle? The pronounced influence of the far right in recent years is undeniable. In the face of a globalising world, tensions and political volatility have been worsening as interconnectedness ironically increases. The resonance of nationalism is thus more prominent among the populace, where political discontent is rife. The subsequent popularity of nationalist parties such as UKIP have in a sense altered the political and media discourses which infiltrate the population, leading to a seeming legitimation of xenophobia and an anti-migrant stance. So yes, I would argue that the genie has been let out of the bottle. Despite the ambiguity relating to reported hate crimes, the changed sentiment and division in the UK and internationally since the vote is indisputable. The worry now is that more and more people will feel it’s acceptable to follow on and use the subtle racist rhetoric the politics and media uses, leading to a normalization of extremist views in a 21st century Britain. It is our job now to stop this from happening, yet the only way to somehow put the genie back in the bottle is to change political and media discourse. But is it too late anyway?
Bachmann, V. and Sidaway, J.D. (2016). Brexit geopolitics. Geoforum, 77, pp.47-50.
New Scientist, Simon Oxenham
Van Dijk, Teun A. “Political discourse and racism: Describing others in Western parliaments.”
The language and politics of exclusion: Others in discourse 2 (1997): 31-64.
Wellings, B. and Vines, E. (2015). Populism and Sovereignty: The EU Act and the In-Out Referendum, 2010–2015. Parliamentary Affairs, gsv045.