This post is a guest contribution by Josie Michelle.
“He was friendly. If you said hello to him, he would say hello back. He was not aggressive or anything. He wasn’t frightening.” (source)
One day the EU referendum was just another ridiculous piece of English political pantomime—harmlessly, cosily absurd, like The Thick of It does Wind in the Willows, complete with a summer’s day spent “messing about in boats.” America was where the real fascism was happening — white nationalism, a militarised police force, the Hess-lite rhetoric of Donald Trump — and our own right wing were harmless by comparison. It was just bantz, right? Just silly hubris. Just a few Facebook comments; just a few bacon butties thrown at mosques. Nothing serious. We shared memes of rightist activists talking about “Muslamic ray guns.” The figurehead of the imperialist anti-EU movement most closely resembled not Hitler, but Mr. Toad.
But then, overnight, it all went wrong. Nigel Farage, pictured only the day before recreating a still from I’m Alan Partridge, was photographed standing in front of a Vote Leave poster that recreated actual Nazi propaganda. And then, just a few hours later, news started to trickle through that a pro-Remain MP had been attacked with a knife whilst meeting with her constituents. And suddenly, it wasn’t funny any more. It wasn’t just about Bob Geldof sailing the Thames shouting about fish. Shit, we could say, got real.
As the news broke, the mood grew sombre. Jo Cox, the victim of the attack, was a Labour MP, relatively young; the mother of two small children, and a tireless advocate for Syrian refugees. Her assailant had stabbed her three times, shouting “Britain First!” with each attack,* and had shot her twice in the head at close range before strolling away. She was pronounced dead at the scene. In a small Yorkshire town, outside the library, the very thing that many of us, in the wake of Orlando, smugly claimed could never happen here had happened. It wasn’t funny any more.
*Britain First, for those who don’t know, are a fascist splinter group. They split off from the British National Party (formerly the National Front) in 2011, because the BNP were not right-wing enough. (Just process that for a second. A fascist party founded by actual skinheads was not right-wing enough for Britain First.) BF first became known for their bizarre Facebook strategy — they’d create shareable, heartwarming memes about sad dogs and the like, which circulated widely. And then they’d drop some anti-immigration rhetoric in there, and, like the fabled frog in a pan of water, nobody seemed to notice. They have lately advocated for “direct action” against the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan — and they have held training camps where members have been schooled in knife-fighting.
Tributes poured in from MPs across the political spectrum, and newspapers published profiles of Jo Cox, a newly-elected and little-known backbencher. She was, it seemed, assuredly centrist, a reform capitalist: while she nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership, she voted for the neoliberal candidate Liz Kendall. She cared deeply about refugees, asylum seekers, and the diverse community she represented. She was by no means a radical, or even, really, a leftist. So how did we get here? How did a moderate, middle-of-the-road politician become a target for fascist violence?
While I cannot speculate on the specific motivations that led Thomas Mair to do what he did, I can talk about the broader context of his actions. No man, as Wolfgang Tillmans reminds us, is an island; and no act is committed in a vacuum. We may speak of ‘lone wolves,’ but, even separated from the pack, a wolf is inextricably part of a wider ecology, existing within a context, a locale, a climate. And the climate in England is ugly. The air we breathe is toxic.
This pointless referendum — a demand that we answer a question that nobody asked in the first place — is, and has always been, a dogwhistle, a cypher, a conduit for the fascism that lurks at the heart of the English establishment.
Oswald Mosley, the Royal Family, Enoch Powell; the Brixton Riots, Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence — our 20th century offers plenty of examples of how those with power have sought to destabilise, dehumanise, and perhaps eradicate immigrant and/or non-white communities. The UKIP ‘Breaking Point’ poster says nothing new: it only makes explicit what has been heavily telegraphed for some time now. Did we think that it had gone away? Did we think that fascism always wears a uniform? Our fascists may be dressed in tweed (Farage) or comedically ill-fitting suits (Nick Griffin); they may be less eloquent than a Hitler or a Mussolini (Tommy Robinson); indeed, we may well have voted for them: they may sit in the House of Commons (disavowed though not expelled by their party leaders). They are, for all this, still fascists. And these are the people we have permitted to set the tone of public discourse. We have stood by whilst politicians of all stripes have used dogwhistle terms — recall Gordon Brown’s “British Jobs for British Workers”, a point about the need to curb global capitalist exploitation clothed, for some reason (spoiler: systemic racism and amoral vote-baiting), in language that Enoch Powell himself would have been proud of. And this from an ostensibly left-wing party!**
** The true left, too, is by no means immune from racism. Some of the worst anti-Islam rhetoric I’ve heard has been from Marxist atheists.
The Universities of Cambridge and Oxford (known collectively as Oxbridge) are picturesque cocoons, structured precisely like the English public school; the colleges employ domestic staff, and occupy historic, often medieval buildings. Five-course formal dinners are a norm; academic gowns are not a curiosity rented out for a few hours on graduation day, but a requisite part of a student’s wardrobe. There is a strange sociolect: plodge and bedders and tripos. Everybody seems to have glossy, voluminous hair, white teeth, and red trousers; needless to say, almost everybody is white and wealthy, and possessed of the dauntless confidence of the privately educated.***
*** There are, of course, working-class people and PoC who attend Oxbridge, and some even survive and thrive there! But they are overwhelmingly, oppressively white, wealthy places; places with a weight of colonialist-imperialist tradition that is brought to bear on even the slightest suggestion of difference. Many Oxbridge students I have met do not even consider class difference in a material way, having never had to encounter it. One assumes that the working-class people they have encountered have learnt pretty quickly to suppress, adapt, and blend in. This is one way in which dominant cultures operate.
The people who craft policy and political personae — the teams of speechwriters, special advisors, & civil servants who assist our politicians — are largely drawn from Oxbridge, much like our politicians themselves. These are people who have likely never experienced hardship or, in many cases, real discrimination; for whom everything is a game, a chance to score points against your opponent; for whom the party distinctions may be as arbitrary as the distinctions between the colleges at their University — each election a boat race, a chance to compete against the people with whom, the other 364 nights of the year, you’ll be having dinner. It’s all just messing about, isn’t it, no harm done, and may the best man win. It must be very easy not to take things seriously when you exist in an unassailable bubble of privilege. It’s pretty easy not to take things seriously when, as in my case, your whiteness protects you from the realities created and shaped by the current discursive climate. It’s all fun and games until somebody loses a life.
But Britain First takes it seriously. Thomas Mair took it seriously.
I’m reminded of the Great Game, the disgusting, euphemistic term for British and Tsarist Russian colonial activity in South and Central Asia in the 19th century. Everything’s a game when you’ve nothing to lose but your pride — but for the people of Asia (particularly the Indian subcontinent), who saw their liberty eroded, their humanity denied, their cultures erased, their people starved, massacred, enslaved, it was, one can imagine, anything but fun. And likewise the people of the Middle East (I loathe this term: see how Eurocentric imperialism delimits even our concept of space and place!), risking everything to find a place of safety, find their liberty eroded, their humanity denied, their people starved and murdered by neglect, by imperialism, by closed borders and the naval vessels that say you shall not pass. These are real lives. These are the lives that are referred to when referendum debaters use the word immigrants. Their search for safety, for shelter, is nothing human to our politicians. They are a swarm, a nuisance; an irksome intrusion that must be stopped. And every single politician that has caveated a humane statement of compassion with, “Of course, immigration is a problem, but — ” is complicit in this.
There is a great deal invested in convincing us that it’s only a game; that nobody will really get hurt by the sort of rhetoric being tossed around. But somebody — a mother, a partner, a daughter, a friend — has been murdered. And this rightward shift in public discourse is hurting people every single day — from the residents of the camps in Calais, to non-white residents of Bristol, who cannot even follow their local paper on Facebook without exposing themselves to racialised abuse, to the 10 year old child in eastern England who confided in my friend, a teacher, that they are being targeted by classmates for being a Bengali Muslim.
Meanwhile, we have Nigel Farage, pint glass raised in perpetual old boy bonhomie, ready to “introduce an Australian-style points-based immigration system”; Boris Johnson, stuck on a zip line, making racist, paternalistic remarks about the nominally most powerful person in the world. We roll our eyes and clench our teeth; we laugh, because we need to, to stay afloat. We laugh, because what else can we do? These people are ridiculous: absurdly pompous, unimaginably misguided; sketch comedy characters writ large; shambling, oafish, brayingly posh, dazzlingly white — a caricature of England. And when Nigel Farage is aboard a boat furnished with Union Jack deckchairs, with a waterborne Bob Geldof in hot pursuit, it’s hard, if not impossible, to keep a straight face.
But this isn’t just messing about in boats. This is life and death. Jo Cox spent her last full day of life on the Thames in a dinghy, opposing Farage’s dismal “Brexit Boat,” her children being splashed with river water by chortling racists. Her final tweet (barring RTs) was a picture of her family on the water, pro-EU flag raised high. It all seemed like good fun, high spirits on the high seas; very Swallows and Amazons, a jolly good laugh and all home in time for tea. The next day, she was shot dead at close range. He shouted “Britain First!”
It isn’t a game; it isn’t a sketch comedy or a WWE storyline. Absurd though he may be, the English fascist is powerful; his words resonate long after our laughter has faded. We fail to hear them at our peril — quite literally. A woman has been murdered for her moderate, centrist political beliefs. The fascist is a joke, yes — but that joke isn’t funny any more.
Art by Rilo Harris.