Brexit and the Politics of Islamophobia

(Photo: David Holt)

Since the first Brexit deadline passed, effectively without “exit,” we have witnessed especially convoluted developments in this love/hate relationship saga between Europe and Britain, as MPs across the political spectrum struggle to find an acceptable way out of the seemingly impossible box they have been put in by David Cameron first, and Theresa May later. With sudden resignations, unexpected political returns, new “leave” and “remain” parties, and further deferrals underpinning the (ir)regular functioning of British politics, the latest delay granted by the European Union—aptly to October 31, 2019—leaves a door open to the economic and political survival of a crumbling nation, while promising new waves of populist rhetoric and a further polarisation of British society.  

Of course, much has been said about Brexit over the past years, so much so that it has become nearly impossible to escape the daily dose of Westminster’s drama. Economic experts have warned of the potential danger of exiting the E.U. without a deal, to then warn of the genuine damage that Britain’s Brexit limbo is doing to the economy. British entrepreneurs have been split on the consequences of the vote, with some embracing the opportunities that free trade agreements beyond the E.U. framework might bring, and others complaining of the reduction in market access and the difficulties in attracting skilled workers to the country.

Political activists, journalists, and experts have been mobilized as early as the Brexit vote, providing commentaries, analyses, and opinions on the thousand political, social and historical implications of the referendum result. Immigrants, from both the EU and beyond, have either stoically braced themselves hoping for a painless outcome, or packed their bags and given up on a country that has made its views so painfully clear. In short, and whatever political inclination one might have, one thing is sure: the Brexit quagmire has profoundly altered the fabrics of British society, irreversibly changing how the nation-state functions, exists and is perceived, both domestically and abroad. 

There is, however, one segment of British society that, arguably more than others, encapsulates the dramatic changes occurring in the post-Brexit landscape and, ironically, it is the same segment that has created the conditions for its demise. The irresponsibility of the British political class and its increasingly apparent detachment from various societal predicaments has led to a forceful renegotiation of the pact between government and individuals, whereby deep-seated resentments have found their way into a new wave of mainstream ultra-nationalism.

With the era of austerity—prompted by the collapse of the global financial system—weighing heavily on the shoulders of the poor and shrinking the middle class, the rescue of the super-rich by governments entrenched in neoliberal market logic has opened the door for a general reassessment of the political order, and for a growing mistrust towards the promised benefits of the current status quo. The global landscape further played a role in creating such a strong polarisation.

The E.U.’s eastbound expansion has put the Kremlin on high alert, encouraging Putin to a more proactive role in propping up Eurosceptic leaders, as he funnels millions into the pockets of parties such as the French Front National, the German Alternative for Germany, the Italian La Lega, and, allegedly, the British “Leave.EU” campaign team. Simultaneously, the legacy of the war in Syria has had far-reaching socio-political implications, effectively increasing the gap between nativist and non-nativist groups in Europe and framing European political discourse along the lines of the “Us vs. Them” paradigm.

It is in this context of fear, disillusionment, and disenfranchisement that nationalistic sentiments find their way to the dinner table, as mainstream society becomes progressively more exposed to narratives advocating for the reform of internationalism, a retreat from the global, and a general denunciation of the foreign. This was, after all, the pillar upon which the Brexit campaign was built, and the underlying message that resonated the most with the public. “Take back control” became the simplest and most effective way to channel the entire spectrum of pro-Brexit stances into a hopeful slogan, but also to tap into the primary driver of people’s anxieties – the widespread sense of abandonment and impotence, and the promise of social redemption. 

The Politics of Politics

It is likely that historians will write down Cameron’s decision to hold the E.U. referendum as one of the greatest political miscalculations in British history. As the story goes, the former British Prime Minister called the Brexit referendum in the hopes of consolidating the unity of the Conservative Party ahead of the 2015 general elections, effectively tying British membership to the E.U. to strategic considerations of party politics.

As leader of a party that had traditionally maintained a certain scepticism towards the European Union—perfectly encapsulated in Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech, in which she claimed: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels”—Cameron knew that the easy “remain” victory he had anticipated and hoped for would help him consolidate his leadership, draw the hardliners out of his party, and finally put the E.U. issue to bed. Even more, Cameron hoped that the promise of a referendum would be enough to stave off the risk that the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP)—which had made of anti-immigration and anti-E.U. sentiments the pillars of its political agenda—would attract conservative votes and play in favor of the Miliband-led Labour Party: “Look, we have heard the message loud and clear about the things you want to see changed. We will change those things”—he pleaded—“come with us, come back home to us rather than risk all of this good work being undone by Labour.” 

People did hear him, loud and clear. Not only was Cameron re-elected into a second term, but he had also won a majority that, however thin, allowed him to head the first majority conservative government for twenty years. The cheering in Downing Street, however, might have been short-lived. According to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, Cameron did not expect to win a majority in 2015; rather, he thought that he would again have a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, who would promptly block the referendum in exchange for concessions on the alternative vote in local elections.

Had things gone to plan, Cameron would have arguably had his cake, eaten it, and enjoyed it too. He would have stabilized his party, silenced the E.U. issue among conservative MPs, inflicted a severe defeat to UKIP, scared the E.U. into renegotiating some of the most disputed aspects of British membership, and secured another five years into government without taking responsibility for a referendum that was promised but never happened. But with the ideologically-awkward, yet politically-convenient, Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition now out of the picture, Cameron had to deliver on the promise made: give British citizens an in/out option on the EU. As Tusk put it: “Paradoxically David Cameron became the real victim of his victory.”

With the referendum now sure to take place, further political miscalculations were made by the Prime Minister in the run-up to the vote. By late 2015, the House of Lords passed a motion with a majority of 82 to lower the voting age to 16, which was aimed at enfranchising youngsters to politics and give them a voice on the E.U. referendum. While Brexiteers predictably trembled at the prospect—as the “leave” and “remain” camps were segmented along  “old” and “young” demographic lines—Cameron too firmly rejected the idea, fearing that left-inclined young voters would turn the tide against the conservatives in future general elections. Thus, putting again party politics before the upcoming E.U. vote, Cameron disenfranchised around 1.5 million potential young voters that were likely to vote “remain.” In retrospect, considering that “leave” won by approximately 1.2 million votes, a young pro-E.U. vote could have indeed saved Cameron’s political career. 

The voting age miscalculation was not the only one committed by the government, but one of the many that occurred since the referendum was promised in January 2013. Above all, there was Cameron’s inability to appreciate popular moods concerning the question of Britain’s E.U. membership, which in turn severely restricted his chances of selling home the new deal he negotiated with Brussels after the 2015 elections.

The popular argument is that Cameron’s attempt to revisit the parameters of the UK-E.U. relationship was mostly unsatisfactory—or as The Sun put it, “pathetic” and “gutless”—and that he should have pressed for more concessions. While there might be some truth in this, since Cameron had repeatedly downplayed the chances of a “leave” vote to E.U. leaders—even commenting back in 2014 that he would easily win “by 70:30”—the three main miscalculations lied elsewhere.

First, Cameron believed that the concessions obtained from the EU, particularly in relation to the issue of immigration, would be enough to sway popular consensus towards the “remain” camp, as he misread people’s anxiety as stemming from in-work benefits for E.U. immigrants (which he managed to renegotiate) instead of from the numbers of E.U. immigration (which he could not).

Immigration ranked first among people’s top concerns, and although the “emergency break” on benefits was aimed at discouraging new migrants from moving to Britain, it was surely not enough to placate the fears of the British people. Second, Cameron failed to read the overarching mood and narratives driving the Brexit campaign, which had become increasingly polarising, slogan-driven, and dominated by strong popular emotions. There was arguably little room for in-depth analyses of the legal niceties of the summit’s set of conclusions, and many of the concessions obtained were either lost in the wind or swept under the carpet by Brexiteers, who simply adjudged they amounted to nothing as they were not binding. Third, and perhaps even more importantly, Cameron’s failure to bring home concrete results that practically addressed people’s fears, directly played into one of the most effective Brexit tropes, one which claims that Britain has given up its sovereignty to the EU.

When Ian Duncan Smith, Cameron’s former Work, and Pensions Secretary, lashed out at German Chancellor Angela Merkel accusing her of directly sabotaging the government’s efforts to control immigration, the British press went on overdrive. The Sun, which claims 33.3 million readers each month, promptly ran the news story titled: “Cam’s in her hans: Germany SABOTAGED David Cameron’s E.U. renegotiation, and he let them, IDS [Ian Duncan Smith] sensationally claims,” in which Ian Duncan Smith’s point was clearly made: “The Germans said from the outset, you are not getting border control. Full stop… We put ourselves in a compliant position to another country which doesn’t have your best interests necessarily at heart… We are now in a worse position than we were before.”

Here lay one of Cameron’s main miscalculations, or perhaps one of the most illustrative examples of his political naïveté. The prime minister hoped that he could both quell the “leave” side’s unrest by securing a better deal with the E.U.—which would have in turn afforded him an almost certain victory in the referendum—while simultaneously win over E.U. leaders, Merkel above all, by forcing them to make concessions on free movement.

Of course, no one in Brussels was willing to sacrifice the unity and fundamental principles of the Union to get Cameron out of the political jam he had put himself into. This meant that, when the E.U. deal was brought back home with accusations of German interference and of Cameron’s incompetence, Brexiteers were able to find yet another reason to push for the “leave” vote. As UKIP’s then leader Nigel Farage commented: “[David Cameron] is not aiming for any substantial renegotiation… no promise to regain the supremacy of Parliament, nothing on ending the free movement of people and no attempt to reduce Britain’s massive contribution to the E.U. budget”.

With the deal being presented to the public as nothing short of a major disappointment, pro-leave elites came to be equipped with the perfect rhetorical weapon which allowed them to tie together the issue of immigration with the issue of sovereignty: if Britain wanted a chance at regulating the migration flux into its borders, it had to make itself “independent” from the European Union.

The final, fatal blow to David Cameron’s “remain” campaign was delivered by a series of misguided steps that the prime minister took as he attempted to keep the Conservative Party united and avoid public clashes between high-profile conservative MPs. Indeed, by the time he returned to London with an underwhelming set of promises on the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU, the pro-Brexit faction in Westminster was in full swing, relentlessly campaigning to give Britain a supposed “independence” from Brussels. With the European Research Group (ERG) moving conservative MPs towards a hard-Brexit stance that was directly opposed to the European ambitions of their party leader, two senior figures in the conservative party, Michael Gove—himself a ERG member—and Boris Johnson, came to the forefront of the “leave” campaign as early as February 2016, the former out of (primarily) principles, the latter out of (primarily) ambitions. 

In line with his overarching belief that “remain” would get an easy win, and that remaining in Europe was, by all means, the sensible thing to do, Cameron rested assured that both MPs would back him in the campaign out of loyalty to the premiership, out of friendship, and out of reason. The miscalculation, however, proved itself costly. Indeed, not only was Cameron forced to resort to convoluted maneuvers to soften the blow when his friends moved to the other side—first by attacking Johnson and then calling for a truce—but it also meant that the leave campaign could now benefit from the support of two, high-profile conservatives.

Indeed, both Gove and Johnson had different ideas from David Cameron when it came to Europe, as throughout their political career both had, more or less publicly, argued cases against Brussels’s legislative influence over London, as well as criticized EU’s laws on free movement. More than that, the former London mayor saw in the Brexit referendum the political opportunity of a lifetime, as he reasoned that, although Brexit was a major political gamble, it could offer the perfect chance to advance his trajectory to Downing Street, effectively guaranteeing him enough conservative support to prop him up to become next prime minister, either after the end of Cameron’s mandate or after his resignation.

On the other hand, Michael Gove’s Brexit stance was underpinned by a stronger Euroscepticism, by an ever-lingering sense of ideological fatigue, and by an equally strong Orientalism which had made him a central player during the “Trojan Horse’ affair—a scandal that eventually contributed in convincing Cameron to remove him from his role of education secretary. As such, while the £30,000 pay-cut might have played a role in spoiling his friendship with Cameron, his “Us VS Them” ideology informed his stance in relation to the issue of immigration, so much so that the speech with which he announced his support to the “leave” campaign was primarily framed along those lines: 

“E.U. immigration policies have encouraged people traffickers and brought desperate refugee camps to our borders. Far from providing security in an uncertain world, the EU’s policies have become a source of instability and insecurity… the E.U. is proving incapable of dealing with the current crises in Libya and Syria. The former head of Interpol says the EU’s internal borders policy is ‘like hanging a sign welcoming terrorists to Europe.'”

Crucially, that is not to say that both MPs jumped on the Brexit wagon light-heartedly. As Shipman notes, both Gove and Johnson remained on the fence for as long as it was possible for them to do so, sincerely torn between their beliefs and their loyalty, and between the comforting certainty of a “remain” vote, and the many unknowns of the Brexit gamble. But when Cameron presented the result of his E.U. negotiations, and with the Conservative Party already effectively fractured between “leavers” and “remainers’, both MPs saw slim chances of casting a vote in favour of Brussels, opting instead for what they believed was the natural outcome of a political career never shy of anti-E.U. sentiments. 

After February 2016 delivered two important and highly regarded MPs to the Brexit cause—which spread the feeling that “leave” was not, after all, utter lunacy—it should have been an all-out war for a prime minister whose chances of winning were getting increasingly slim. It was not. Instead, Cameron refused to confront either Johnson or Gove in television debates for fear that Brexit would turn into, as he commented, “a Tory psychodrama.”

Indeed, Cameron became more concerned with the idea of rebuilding the Conservative Party after Brexit than with Brexit itself and reasoned that a public confrontation against leading conservative MPs of the caliber of Johnson and Gove would demolish any appearance of party unity. Perhaps, Cameron still believed that “remain” would be the natural outcome of the referendum, or perhaps he was willing to sacrifice his political career for the good of the party. Regardless, the prime minister scrapped the idea of a “blue on blue” debate and opted instead for a confrontation with a very familiar face in the “leave” camp: Nigel Farage, on June 7.

Although the two never shared a stage—rather had allocated slots to make their case and take questions from the audience—the show unveiled the underlying logic behind the entire Brexit debate, giving a clear sense of what real drivers of the “leave” campaign were and which popular sentiments were underpinning it. Indeed, for as much as David Cameron attempted to play the “economy card”—claiming, at times arrogantly, that every expert had warned against the economic repercussions of Brexit—immigration remained the salient issue which many in the audience wanted to keep as the focus of the debate. This played directly into the hands of the UKIP leader, for Farage—a controversial figure in British politics whose 20-year long political career was built on anti-immigration sentiments—knew too well that his audience was not in the TV studios, but at home, and was eager to hear more about the dangers of the EU’s free movement policy.

Crucially, although many in the press were quick in attributing the victory to the more polished David Cameron, any mention of immigration virtually assigned a point to the “leave” side. Indeed, on the one hand, Cameron had no real answers to give, for there was no easy solution to the question of immigration; and on the other, Farage was quite happy to keep the debate on that specific issue, even if that meant casting himself as an untouchable hardliner in the “leave” camp. For example, when a woman from the audience raised the issue of Farage’s comments linking the Cologne sexual assaults to remaining in the EU, he promptly responded: 

“It’s a massive issue in Germany; it’s a huge issue in Sweden. I think Angela Merkel has made a big mistake by saying “please anyone come.” And what’s happened is, a very large number of young, single males have settled in Germany and in Sweden, who come from cultures where attitudes towards women are different.”

Although Farage’s stance sits at the far-end of the Islamophobic discourse that emerged during the Brexit campaign, it is useful to remember that such a narrative was widely and happily shared among Brexiteers. Ian Duncan Smith repeatedly claimed that a vote to remain would expose the UK “to terror risks.” Gove’s announcement that he would back the “leave” vote revolved around the security threat posed by the E.U. free movement rule, which, he claimed, “actively abets terrorists.” Johnson too, despite his long history of controversial comments, seized the opportunity to argue that Brexit would improve Britain’s security against the terror threat. 

Of course, this is not to say that the Brexit campaign was centered on the question of Muslims in Britain, nor that “leave” voters were solely motivated by their views on Islam. Instead, British discontent with the European Union encapsulated a wide array of popular beliefs and discontents with social issues, with the political class, and with the country’s economy. Even so, however, it is significant that Brexit came to be framed along the lines of security, terrorism, and multiculturalism, rather than, for example, practical considerations of economic stability.

Sure, Gove dismissed any attempt at rationality when he claimed that Britons “have had enough of experts,” but the “leave” team could not win the debate by merely rebutting technical arguments. Instead, they needed something that they could tie to both the global landscape and to the question of Britain’s E.U. membership.  As “Take back control” offered them the perfect slogan to silence pragmatism, the issue of Middle Eastern migrants and the widespread panic around terrorist attacks in Europe gave them the ideal ammunition to make their stronger case: leaving the E.U. could rid the country of Muslim migrants, and with them, of the risk of terrorism. 

These arguments had a profound impact on British society, which came to the inevitable conclusion that there was, in fact, a link between terrorism and Brexit. In January 2016, the vast majority of people polled by YouGov (77%) demanded a ban of the Islamic veil in British schools, and another 58% believed that many economic restrictions had to be imposed on asylum seekers. By February 2016, 56% believed that “a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society” existed. As Brexit slowly paved the way for a wave of Islamophobic sentiments across the country, by June 2016 immigration became the most important issue for voters. After the referendum, hate crimes against racial and religious minority reached an all-time record. 

The Turkish Question 

Much of David Cameron political credibility had also being compromised by his fearless stance in support of Turkey’s entry into the European Union, which in the run-up to the referendum vote became another significantly hot topic for British society, busy assessing the pros and cons of its membership to the Union. In that sense, Cameron was more Tony Blair than he was Margaret Thatcher.

Indeed, while the Iron Lady became responsible for introducing the concept of “Britishness” in an attempt to emphasize the need to preserve British national identity against the growing European one, the New Labour leader had long advocated the idea of a Turkish seat at the European table. Behind Blair’s support of Ankara lied practical considerations of foreign policy, as Turkey’s strategic value—further increased by the events that followed 9/11—trumped the socio-cultural factors that had made other member state sceptical, for a country boasting a population of nearly 80 million, 99% of which Muslim, was perceived by many European bureaucrats as a threat to Europe.

Ironically, one key argument which would underpin both Blair’s and Cameron’s stance concerning the Turkish question was more sectarian than pragmatic. Indeed both leaders believed that Turkey’s accession would contribute towards staving off the risk of a “clash of civilisation” between Muslims and non-Muslims, as it could strengthen Turkey’s resistance against Islamist fundamentalism while simultaneously shutting down “intense arguments about the incompatibility of Islam with democracy or Islam with human rights and modernity.”

Secure in his belief that Turkey, sitting at the border between Europe and the Middle East, could indeed bridge Christianity and Islam, in 2010 Cameron commented: “Turkey can be a great unifier. Because instead of choosing between East and West, Turkey has chosen both. And it’s this opportunity to unite East and West that gives Turkey such an important role with countries in the region in helping to deliver improved security for us all.”

However, with the Brexit referendum unveiling the country’s real mood about immigration—and even more so in relation to multiculturalism—Cameron sensed that his support for Turkey’s entry in the E.U. was misplaced. Indeed, the question of Turkey’s membership was quickly weaponized by Brexiteers—both outside and within Cameron’s own government—who began to spread claims that Britain would be flooded by Muslim migrants carrying crime, security threats and the risk of further strains on the country’s public services such as the National Health Service (NHS). As new posters reading “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU: Vote leave, take back control” began to circulate, David Cameron spectacularly U-turned on his pro-expansion stance, ridiculing the Ankara government during a May 2016 interview, in which he claimed that it would not be able to join the E.U. “until the year 3000”.

Equally spectacularly, however, David Cameron maintained a somewhat ambiguous stance over this issue, which was made even more suspicious after leading Brexiteers such as Gove and Johnson had demanded from the government a clear commitment to veto Turkey’s entry. Arguably to their delight, this never happened. Whether because he feared that such a commitment could jeopardize Britain’s bilateral relationship with Turkey, or because he did not want to face future diplomatic awkwardness at European level, Cameron never clearly gave assurances that he would, in fact, veto Turkey’s accession, rather, he relied on the French government—which had conveniently called for a referendum on the issue—to stop Ankara from entering the Union. Again, however, Cameron’s political calculations played into the wrong hands: as questions about Britain’s loss of sovereignty lingered, his decision to pass the gavel to Paris on such a crucial issue made many wonder why was Downing Street “relying on somebody else” to stop Turkey’s accession. “Take back control” scored another important victory. 

The issue of Turkey became central in the Brexit saga. Indeed, by then the “leave” campaign had begun to show one of its ugliest faces, creating a sectarian divide that leveraged on pure prejudice against migrants—and even more so against Muslims. Crucially, while early efforts to sway public opinion towards the “leave” option had focused on issues of sovereignty and economics (with strong emphasis being placed for example on Britain’s E.U. membership fee), Brexit supporters were quick in shifting towards arguments that could be more easily understood, and that could have a more significant impact among the “anxious middle” in British society.

While it was arguably difficult to make an economic case in support of Brexit—for the E.U. remains the largest single market in the world and the world’s largest economy—the global context that framed the Brexit vote provided “leave” campaigners with anti-immigration ammunition. In the years that followed the rise of the Islamic State (IS), Europe had witnessed increasing anti-Muslim sentiments stemming from large numbers of migrants fleeing war zones in the Middle East, as well as from some high-profile Islamist terror attacks in France, Belgium, Germany, and England.

Thus, fuelled by its furthest-right activists operating in the streets and online, anti-Muslim sentiments in Britain found unexpected legitimisation in the words of mainstream politicians such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who promptly linked their Brexit ambitions to the issue of immigration, which was in turn connected to the question of opening British doors to Turkish Muslims. Completing the picture, Nigel Farage’s infamous “Breaking Point” poster—showing a large queue of non-white, Middle Eastern-looking migrants and a sign reading “We must break free from the E.U. and take back control”—further strengthened the connection between the “leave” vote and Muslim existence in Britain, regardless of their nationality or status.

Little did it matter that the majority of mainstream Brexiteers promptly distanced themselves from the radical views of the UKIP leader. In a short period, Brexit had not only come to be firmly discussed in terms of immigration and border control but had come to be framed within a “Us VS Them” paradigm that further allowed for a mainstream scapegoating of Muslims. It is thus unsurprising that a record surge in anti-Muslim hate crimes occurred in fact in the aftermath of the vote, as abuses such as “Get out – we voted Leave,” or “Shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out,” became the clearest, and ugliest, a manifestation of what the Brexit vote meant for many.

The Economy, Stupid

Any analysis of the Brexit referendum and the moods that it encapsulated would be incomplete without an assessment of the economic backdrop within which the vote occurred. Indeed, while party politics and the question of Turkey steered the outcome towards the “leave” side, revealing the significant political capital that issues such as multiculturalism and immigration have in such circumstances, it was the economic situation in Britain that provided the conditions for anti-Muslim sentiments to emerge. 

A plethora of studies have convincingly demonstrated that there exists a direct correlation between economic conditions and openness towards immigration and that, specifically, worse economic condition—such as high rates of unemployment—directly impacts how migrants come to be perceived by nativist groups. For example, Johnston and Lordan have found that “prejudice among native-born whites increases with the unemployment rate,” and that a mere 1% increase in unemployment can result in a 4% increase in prejudice among middle-class men in full employment.

Others have contended that “While a functioning welfare state can compensate the globalization losers… welfare cuts may do the opposite,” suggesting that austerity programs have a direct effect in attracting individuals to populist parties and in increasing anti-immigration sentiments. And others yet have contended that “once unemployment and austerity hits, people tend to turn against themselves by using their last democratic weapon: turning against democracy itself by voting for extreme right-wing parties.” In short, many notable studies (including post-Brexit ones) have given empirical and theoretical evidence in support of the broadly held belief that Britain’s economy played a key role in swaying public opinion against migrants and Europe. 

From a political perspective, Cameron’s decision to call for a referendum after years of austerity was, by all means, political suicide. Just months before the general elections of 2015, The Guardian ran an article in which it was stated that the government planned to slash out a further £55 billion by 2019, which added to the already £35 billion cuts since the Conservative Party seized Downing Street. The cuts were unforgiving. Funding for social enterprises providing help for the disabled, for refugees, or even for job seekers, almost entirely disappeared—forcing many to shut down.

Funding for councils was nearly halved, with public services for housing and leisure, libraries, and even roads maintenance collapsing. Proposals to freeze working-age benefits, to reduce the benefit cap of £3000, and to limit access to housing benefit for people under 21, loomed. Child poverty increased, police cuts turned into higher crime rates, food banks emptied, and 120,000 deaths came to be directly linked to Cameron’s austerity program under the unforgiving label “economic murder.” 

Ironically, the Cameron government was both relieved and surprised by the muted reaction to its austerity program, particularly considering that when Spain adopted equally severe austerity measures, the country went into something resembling a civil war. In truth, however, Britain’s discontent had a very different face, short of Spanish hot-blood and full of British aplomb. Indeed, instead of taking the streets, Britons took the polling booth and cast a vote that reflected years of frustration and disillusionment, preferring the unknowns of a “leave” vote to the economically unsustainable status quo. And while ascribing the Brexit vote solely to the economic disaster that the conservative elite-driven austerity caused might be reductive, enough research exists to substantiate the claim that the thousand cuts brought about by the Cameron government did play an important role in channeling anti-E.U. sentiments. 

For example, people in the poorest households were more likely to support “leave” than those in households with incomes over £60,000 per year; people out of work were equally more likely to favor Brexit than those in fulltime employment, as were people in low-skilled and manual labor. The most impoverished towns in England overwhelmingly voted for “leave’, with Boston (Lincolnshire) heading the group with 76% of people in favor of Brexit, and with South Holland (Lincolnshire) and Castle Point (Essex) following with nearly 74% and 73% respectively.

Interestingly, all three towns witnessed dramatic cuts on services and benefits. Lincolnshire, for example, suffered from severe cuts to the police force, which caused a sharp increase in “austerity crimes that led to an overall crime increase”; meanwhile, emergency funding for low-income families in Essex shrunk by 87%. All this accompanied a variety of other measures that dramatically shrunk towns” budgets and compromised the lives of millions. Significantly, the districts that suffered the most from the austerity cuts imposed by the government recorded a surge in votes for UKIP, “whose raison d’etre,” argues Fetzer, “was Britain’s exit from the EU.” 

While Cameron’s ruthless subscription to neoliberal logics of anti-welfare, state-slashing, poor-punishing, strict policies of pro-market madness might explain his inclination to subjugate Britain under a 10-year long austerity plan, his decision to call for an in/out E.U. referendum amid his austerity project remains puzzling at best. On balance, it could also be cynically interpreted as the clearest sign of how self-entitled, privately-educated elites had lost touch with the reality on the ground. Enveloped in a happy bubble of self-righteousness and privilege, Cameron severely misjudged how the economic impact of his austerity program was providing populist narratives of division and ultra-nationalism with powerful ammunition.

UKIP, conversely, sensed that trend, as since 2012 it moved from targeting the middle class and focused on the “less educated, worse off, insecure and pessimistic (white) voters.” To be sure, Cameron’s follow-up decision to use his face for the “remain” campaign was also profoundly misguided, as by 2016 his approval rating had sunk to 34%, with 58% claiming he was not “doing a good job.” When the Panama Papers showed to the public that their prime minister had benefited from a comfortable family nest of offshore money—which inspired the famous nickname “Dodgy Dave”—another good chunk of public confidence went missing. With 68% of surveyed Britons claiming they would not trust him on tax avoidance, David Cameron’s “remain” campaign inevitably came to suffer from another important blow.

Brexit Orientalism 

While the analysis of the Brexit saga’s economic backdrop provides a partial explanation of the sentiments with which millions of British citizens approached the referendum, it also sheds light on the dynamics that helped to frame the E.U. vote within an anti-Muslim discourse. Indeed, keeping in mind that the last decade has witnessed explosive tensions in the Middle East—first with the Arab Spring, then with the rise of IS, and then with the war in Syria—the popular mood created by Cameron’s austerity program helps understand why anti-Muslim rhetoric came to the forefront during the campaign and, more violently, after the vote. Two reasons can be found for this. 

First, Cameron’s view of migration contributed to the creation of a space for anti-migrant sentiments to emerge so forcefully during the Brexit campaign and, ironically, in limiting the effectiveness of his own “remain” campaign. Having already advocated “good immigration, not mass immigration” during a 2011 speech in parliament, Cameron repeatedly lashed out at Brussels’s free movement policies claiming that the weak economies of certain member states were preventing Britain from reducing its capacity for migration. As noted earlier, he sought to reduce immigration by making the prospect of living in Britain unattractive, first through the emergency break discussed with E.U. leaders in the 2015 summit, and second through the Immigration Act 2014, the goal of which was to “create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration” by making it increasingly difficult for non-British to access basic services such as employment, healthcare, housing, education, banking, and others. 

What is particularly striking, however, is that Cameron’s position was not limited to the issue of free movement in Europe, but extended to a racializing narrative that effectively created an overlap between the need to control migration and the issue of multiculturalism. In October 2011, the government’s view on this became abundantly clear, as a direct connection between the economic difficulties faced by many and the presence of minority communities across the country was spelled out:

“Excessive immigration brings pressures, real pressures on our communities up and down the country. Pressures on schools, housing and healthcare and social pressures too. When large numbers of people arrive in new neighborhoods, perhaps not all able to speak the same language as those who live there, perhaps not always wanting to integrate, perhaps seeking simply to take advantage of our NHS, paid for by our taxpayers, there is a discomfort and tension in some of our communities… And there is also the concern that relatively uncontrolled immigration can hurt the low paid and the low skilled while the better off reap many of the benefits. So I think it’s absolutely right to address all of these concerns because if people don’t feel that mainstream political parties understand these issues, they will turn instead to those who seek to exploit these issues to create social unrest.”

Remarkably, the October speech followed another memorable moment in Cameron’s relationship with cultural diversity. Speaking in Munich in February 2011, he stated that multiculturalism had failed, because “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream…We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.” The speech was significant, as the juxtaposition of multiculturalism with terrorism effectively reframed interfaith and interethnic relationships along the lines of securitization. In the space of a few months, Cameron had thus managed to link multiculturalism—and Muslims specifically—to both economic issues and terrorism.

As such, while much of his follow-up measures created a strong degree of separation between the government and British Muslims (for example, during the Trojan Horse scandal, or when he rejected calls for annual meetings with Muslims, or when he threatened deportation for Muslim women who failed English language tests, or when he introduced the concept of “British values” to tackle extremism, or when his cabinet asked Muslim leaders to demonstrate that Islam is compatible with “British values’), they also contributed in conflating the issue of economic immigration with that of multiculturalism and race. Thus, by the time the Brexit campaign came to be centered squarely on immigration, “leave” came to be construed as a means to stop Muslims from entering, or living, in the UK. The high circulation of Islamophobic tweets in the immediate aftermath of the referendum effectively showed that Brexit had “framed “western” identity in non-inclusive terms and unleashed social anxieties about Muslims as the foreign “other’.” 

The second factor that contributed to bringing Brexit about, among other things, Muslim existence in Britain, ought to be found in UKIP’s political revival. Moving from being a fringe party of “loonies” and “closet racists”—as Cameron once described them—to becoming one of the fastest growing parties in British politics as early as 2013, UKIP traditionally ran on inflammatory political agendas centered upon strong anti-E.U. and anti-immigration sentiments. Its 2015 manifesto, for example, spells out the party main objectives and shows its aggressive stance in relation to the issue of immigration: 1) End immigration for unskilled jobs for a five-year period; 2) Tackle the problem of sham marriages; 3) Introduce a new visa system for workers, visitors, students, families and asylum seekers; 4) End access to benefits and free NHS treatment for new immigrants until they have paid tax and NI for five years; 5) Require all visitors and new immigrants to the UK to have their own health insurance; 6) End welfare tourism with a five-year embargo on benefits for migrants; 7) Allow British businesses to choose to employ British workers first.

UKIP’s nationalist agenda accompanied an even more concerning stance about Muslims and Islam. The investigative group Powerbase identifies many links between the party and Islamophobic organizations such as the Dutch Freedom party, the EDL, Pegida UK, Liberty GB (formerly British Freedom Party); as well as with European far-right parties within the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) umbrella. Even more, UKIP’s then leader Nigel Farage had never made a mystery of his views on Muslims and Islam. In 2012 he argued:

“On the issue of Islamification, I think we have to do a bit more, probably starting in our schools to actually teach people about the values of our Judeo-Christian culture… There are over twenty police forces now in this country turning a complete blind eye to the operation of Sharia courts and Sharia law…  if you’re not prepared as a nation to stand up for your cultures and your values, then those cultures and values will be threatened.” 

In 2014, he blamed Muslims for anti-Semitism in Europe; in 2015 he claimed that people’s concerns over immigration were founded, as Muslims were attempting to create a “fifth column” to effectively “kill” Britons. He further added:

“There is an especial problem with some of the people who’ve come here and who are of the Muslim religion who don’t want to become part of our culture. So there is no previous experience, in our history, of a migrant group that comes to Britain that fundamentally wants to change who we are and what we are. That is, I think, above everything else, what people are really concerned about.”

 A few months later, he accused Muslims of having “split loyalties”; and later in 2017 he stated:

“There are quite big areas of east London that have become wholly Muslim areas… There are gangs of men out saying to women in short dresses there shouldn’t be there; to people in having a drink that they shouldn’t be there. There are parts of Paris and parts of Brussels that are even worse. Any woman, in a normal manner, if she walks down the streets, she will receive abuse.”

With such a long history of Islamophobic comments, it is perhaps unsurprising that when Farage became one of the most recognizable faces in the “leave” camp, the Brexit campaign turned squarely on a debate about multiculturalism, which focused on Muslims above any other ethnic group. Indeed, while pro-leave MPs and activists were “playing defense” on the economy for the entire duration of the campaign, a shift in focus towards the issue of immigration afforded them the greatest yet fighting chance. Farage himself knew too well that immigration had to be played up if “leave” wanted that chance. He was so sure of this that in April 2016 he declared:

“What I have urged “Vote Leave”—the official designated vehicle—we have got to get onto the other part of the pitch, we gotta start attacking the enemy’s goal, and where the enemies are at their absolute weakest is at this whole question of open door migration, the effects that it’s had on the lives of ordinary Britons over the course of the last decade, and the threat that it poses given the new terror and security threat that we face in the West… I would love myself and UKIP to work with you [Vote Leave] on this campaign. Because actually we are the form horses when it comes to immigration when it comes to the impact that it’s had on people in this country.” 

The official “leave” campaign never allowed Farage to add his name to the team, and promptly distanced itself from his most controversial moves. In a bid to secure a favorable outcome, Brexiteers across the political spectrum found themselves resorting to very similar arguments. 

Conclusion

Research conducted by Hope Not Hate showed that 49% of “leave” voters believed that “There are no go areas in Britain where sharia law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter,” against a mere 19% of “remain” voters. Similarly, 54% of “leave” voters agreed that “Islam is generally a threat to the British way of life,” against 17% of remainers. Subsequent polls showed that 47% of “leavers” believed that the government was deliberately hiding the truth about the number of migrants living in the UK, and 31% believed that “Immigration to this country is part of a bigger plan to make Muslims a majority of the country’s population.” 

The conflation between the issue of E.U. migrants and the securitization of Muslims came to the forefront of the Brexit campaign as a result of clever political calculations on one side, and not-so-clever political mistakes on the other. 

Mistakes punctuated Cameron’s political career since the announcement of the referendum up to his resignation. Failing to read popular moods stemming from his aggressive austerity policy, the prime minister called for a simple in/out referendum on the future of Britain in the EU, incidentally at a time in which his approval rate was at historical lows. This was followed by a series of missteps that directly helped the “leave” side to build a case for Brexit.

First, Cameron returned from the E.U. negotiations without significant achievements. While it could not have been otherwise, as Brussels does not negotiate on the four indivisible freedoms, his mistake lied in his belief, or hope, that E.U. leaders would rescue him out of the political jam he had put himself into.

Second, Cameron failed to give practical reassurances on the question of Turkey’s entry in the EU, choosing to rely on the French government for a potential veto. This was further inflamed by his traditional pro-Turkey stance, which made his U-turn appear insincere and contributed to spreading conjectures about European power vis-à-vis Britain’s sovereignty.

Third, he put party politics above any other consideration or concern. This occurred when he called the referendum to strengthen his leadership; when he misjudged Gove and Johnson’s stance losing them to the “leave” camp; when he refused to debate conservative Brexiteers; and when he rejected the idea of lowering the voting age.

Finally, he blamed the failings of his austerity policy on migrants, further declaring the failure of multiculturalism and conflating Muslim existence in Britain with issues of terrorism and extremism. On the opposite side, Brexiteers displayed incredible flexibility in their willingness to capitalize on such mistakes. Recognizing their slim chances of winning on the economy front, “leave” MPs, activists, campaigners, and newspapers bet everything on immigration, further strengthening the link between immigration and terrorism.

The vilest manifestation of this trend was Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster, arguably a culmination of a 20-year long career built upon the demonization of minorities. But while the poster might have horrified some of the most moderate Brexiteers, the increased support for UKIP during the 2015 elections, and the relentless anti-Muslim narrative upon which UKIP had consolidated its appeal, proved that the “Muslim card” could indeed be a wise one to play. 

Brexiteers across the political spectrum capitalized on this. Gove, for example, claimed he “shuddered” after seeing the poster, yet his speech in support of Brexit was built within the framework of security, terrorism, and immigration. Hardly a surprise. His view that “The west faces a challenge to its values, culture, and freedom as profound in its way as the threat posed by fascism and communism,” had made him a key player during the infamous Trojan Horse affair.

To be sure, the entire “Vote Leave” campaign—the mainstream face of the otherwise ugly affair—came to be centered upon the Muslim-Immigration-Terrorism triad as soon as Brexiteers realized technical arguments on the economy were unbeatable. At the sound of “Murderers, terrorists and kidnappers from countries like Turkey could flock to Britain if it remains in the European Union,” they secured the long-awaited victory—condemning millions of Muslims to violence and discrimination in the process.

Antonio Perra

Dr. Antonio Perra is a Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London. Dr. Perra has authored several papers on Middle Eastern affairs, as well as a book titled “Kennedy and the Middle East: The Cold War, Israel and Saudi Arabia,” (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2017).

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