Yesterday, I found myself debating Brexit with a British woman over pints of beer during what was supposed to be a casual happy hour gathering.
She had already declared that she had voted “leave” and her husband had voted “stay.” They were a divided household. I mostly just listened to her narration of the events in Britain over the past few weeks including her adulation of the newly elected Prime Minister, Theresa May.
The woman then turned to the US election and, making it clear that she thought Trump was intolerable as a candidate, she asked me what I thought of the election.
Assuming good will and interest in honest political debate, I proceeded to explain Trump’s appeal to disenfranchised white working-class voters in the US as very parallel to what had happened in Britain with the Brexit vote. I explained that what I saw in both instances was an appeal to xenophobia.
I had barely gotten the words out of my mouth before she jumped down my throat, vehemently denying both that Brexit was about xenophobia or that there are any similarities between what is happening socially and politically in the UK and what is happening socially and politically in the US.
She is a well-educated woman. The wife of a former CEO of a major transnational corporation. They had lived in the US for seven years and she has dual US/British citizenship which means she will be voting in this year’s US election. They have a home in Florida where she lives for several months out of the year, so she appears to have up-to-date lived experience in both London and Florida.
And yet, for whatever reasons, she denied any similarities between the British desire to leave the EU and US support for Trump. In defense of their claim that xenophobia was NOT the root cause of Brexit, she and her 18-year old daughter both started down a litany of reasons why they had voted “leave.”
It’s about the immigrants – there are too many immigrants.
Britain is too small to support the needs of the massive influx of outsiders who are moving there and using their services.
The schools are overcrowded and the educational quality is faltering.
The daughter had tried to make a doctor’s appointment and she spent four hours on hold before she was able to make the appointment – this was clearly because there were too many immigrants using the medical services and delaying her access to health care.
As proof of Britain’s lack of xenophobia and racism, both of them cited the multi-cultural reality of London. They explained how there were probably at least 100 languages spoken by the students at the daughter’s college and how the strength of London was the diversity of its citizens. There were already a lot of immigrants.
They explained how a large influx of Romanian immigrants had taken up residence at London’s famed Marble Arch and that they were using the fountain as a lavatory – bathing and washing clothes there.
Couldn’t I see?? They were not xenophobic – they were simply overrun by immigrants. As an island nation, they were simply too small to absorb the number of immigrants flooding in and taking over.
While they readily admitted it was about immigration, they were adamant that it was NOT about xenophobia.
In the inestimable words of Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
In world where racism and xenophobia are clearly on the rise and fascism feels a hairsbreadth away, I think too many people in the US and the UK do not know what xenophobia or racism really are. Let’s just stick with xenophobia here.
The definition of xenophobia is “fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange.” For the Brits that we met, their fear that immigrants are ruining their country fits the definition of xenophobia perfectly. Despite their twisted logic that London’s diversity was proof that England welcomed foreigners – they were quick to point out that immigrants were the problem. Well, the wrong kind of immigrants to be more specific. You know, those Roma, for one. And, the other undesirable immigrants that threatened to overrun their country.
When I pointed out that Londoners had voted to stay at much higher rates than other parts of the UK and that much of the xenophobia in Britain was outside of London where the cities and towns were much less diverse, they both just simply declared me wrong. Londoners were for Brexit! Wasn’t I listening to them, they were proof!
Despite what this mother and daughter thought, Londoners voted 60% to stay and 40% to leave the EU. While interpretation of these facts is open to debate, the facts themselves are not. And yet, on both sides of the Atlantic – facts don’t seem to play a very important role in politics anymore. And when I say “facts,” I really do mean FACTS. Data. Information. Evidence. Science.
People’s perceptions, ideologies, opinions, and feelings seem to be dominating politics and voting these days. This rejection of data is also evident in the anti-immigrant feeling that has swept Britain. People feel like the immigrants are causing all their problems. It’s nice to have a scape-goat, makes things easier.
But, the data shows a different story. A study by Britain’s National Institute of Economic and Social Research showed that immigration had increased the GDP and lowered the cost of services like health care and pensions, which ultimately reduced taxes.
So, there’s that.
But then again, it isn’t really about the economics of immigration. It’s about how the changing demographics change perceptions of power, authority, access, and identity. Immigrants threaten British identity.
That’s why its xenophobia.
Incidentally, after about 15 minutes of this insane conversation, the woman’s husband turned and asked what we were talking about, I said “what caused Brexit.”
Immediately he said, “Oh, that’s easy – xenophobia!”