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Irish in London: ‘Brexit and Trump made me feel less welcome in the UK’

2016 was like some cosmic prank but the spike in hate crime after Brexit and Trump is very worrying, writes Ruairi O’Grady.

Ruairí O'Grady

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: IMAGINE you are Cillian Murphy at the start of 28 Days Later but instead of 28 days you’ve been unconscious for a year, and instead of a zombie apocalypse you awaken to the world as it is today. Would you believe what you were seeing?

It’s been over a year since I wrote a piece for TheJournal.ie about joining the Labour party and the startling rise of Jeremy Corbyn. In that space of time we have seen the UK vote to leave the EU, the USA vote to elect Donald Trump and a very near miss for the far right in Austria.

2016 was like some cosmic prank

We have seen Russia massively ramp up its military intervention in Syria, ongoing and widening divisions in the Middle East, Islamic extremism establish a foothold in mainland Europe and a general failure of western media to properly challenge blatant lies spouted by elected officials amidst a resurgence of populist, nationalist and racist rhetoric.

We have watched the beginnings (because it is only the beginning) of the greatest mass movement of people in the history of the planet in what is currently dubbed the Migration Crisis. Not to mention the apparent epidemic afflicting our most celebrated icons and the Killer Clown craze. Yes, it would appear as though 2016 were just an exercise in dystopian surrealism or some sort of cosmic prank.

Those on the political left have sadly responded by living up to the usual stereotype: either blaming each other or arguing about who to blame, while the far right have succeeded in lowering the bar for political discourse and gaining serious political ground.

Those in power meanwhile waste time attempting to diagnose the disease after the patient has gone into cardiac arrest. There is now a real danger that a lack of understanding and a too-slow response will push more democracies towards more radical alternatives.

France, for example, is now a major cause for disquiet. Even if the French cast aside Marine Le Pen’s racist demagoguery, François Fillon means the left will have already lost ground. The mere fact that he is being described as CENTRE-right speaks volumes when you scrutinise some of his social policies, which are far from centre.

My unease turned to anger and shock

I don’t really believe it is true to say that the Brexiters and UKIP won the referendum, but rather it is more accurate to say the other side lost. They completely dropped the proverbial ball. Cameron employed the tactics used so effectively in the General Election campaign.

When the American President came to the UK and told the people here that they would be at the back of the queue for any trade deals should they vote to leave, I couldn’t help but ask myself how they thought that would look. Of course one of the key tenets of neoliberalism is that people are rational actors and would therefore not act against their own interests.

But people are much more complex in reality. Besides, when did it become acceptable for the leader of a foreign power to actually visit another country and intervene in their democracy?

I was in Exmouth Market looking for lunch a couple of days before the referendum when I was stopped by a Government campaigner to ask which way I’d be voting. I told him I was a member of the Labour Party and would be voting Remain. I told him I was disappointed that David Cameron had effectively decided to employ the tactics of notorious right-wing strategist Lynton Crosby.

His response was: “I know, I know, I hate Crosby, he’s a ghastly man but this is really dangerously close now.” It was a quintessentially grassroots-Tory response and I couldn’t help smile a little at the use of the word “ghastly”.

Parallels between Brexit and Trump’s election

shutterstock_478772692 Source: Shutterstock/Ms Jane Campbell

Just as the courting of fringe demographics by US Republicans over decades created the space for Trump despite the party’s own wishes, Brexit was the result of the Conservative Party indulging in long-held bogus claims about the EU.

Doing so was about appeasing a vocal minority within the party itself who refuse to let the Empire die. It might be difficult for people in Ireland to comprehend but there really were people here who cited “straight bananas” as a reason to vote leave and therefore “take back control” (presumably of their bananas).

These are the days of the populist and while it is unpalatable to many on the left to indulge in the practices so diligently and effectively employed by the right, it is surely self-evident that the main strength of the right is its simplicity.

Even unoriginal slogans like “take back control” and “make America great again” are simple and effective messages that give voice to a sense of loss or at least a loss of control that many people feel. It seemingly doesn’t even matter if they’re followed through or not. “Lock her up” anyone?

What do we know about Brexit so far?

Well, we know that it will be of a consistency that is yet to be decided: a soft Brexit or a hard Brexit. Colour-palette wise it will likely be either grey, or red, white and blue. The vacuity of these statements is almost Python-esque and yet they are circulated and repeated again and again until (almost) legitimised.

Labour’s leadership has been depressingly ineffective and the current strategy of appealing to both Remainers and Brexiters is impossible to actually achieve. The party’s recent win in forcing the Prime Minister into promising to give details of her Brexit plans gave some hope, however.

The other big news stories

We have seen the secret mechanisms exposed that enable the rich to hide their wealth in offshore trusts, remember the now curiously quiet Panama Papers?

Jo Cox, a Labour MP, was shot dead outside her local constituency surgery during the poisonous Brexit campaign for her welcoming stance on immigration. The UK has passed the use of the most intrusive surveillance powers in the developed world in the Investigatory Powers Bill, and around a year ago the world had finally reached some form of consensus on a combined effort to tackle climate change in the Paris Agreement.

The last of these is under serious threat now that a climate change denier holds the highest office on the planet, despite the fact that denying climate change today is the equivalent of standing in a burning house which you know is on fire but refusing to acknowledge the fire until you yourself are set ablaze.

‘I no longer feel welcome’

The spikes in hate crime after both Brexit and Trump have been well documented and the notion that this small but vicious sector of society now feels empowered is very worrying for many people.

What we are now bearing witness to is a complex set of circumstances which has ingrained disenfranchisement within large sectors of the developed world, something which will surely be exacerbated as vast numbers of people flee their current dire circumstances and migrate west in an existential desperation.

We find this extremely difficult to understand and our elected officials – wedded as they are to an outmoded neoliberal system – are categorically failing to deal with it.

There are seeds of hope within all this gloom. I think the current climate will force people to become more politically engaged by sheer necessity and there are already policy changes happening within the power circles of the world. The only real question is will they happen fast enough?

It is no longer acceptable to extol the virtues of the EU without acknowledging its many problems and we need to fix them quickly. When Europe rumbles the world should know, by now, to tremble.

Ruairí O’Grady is a journalism graduate, a Monaghan man and a London resident. He is a member of the Labour Party.

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Ruairí O'Grady

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