How The E.U. Referendum Exposed How Toxic “British Values” Really Are

The campaign to leave the E.U. traded on people’s fear of difference, and the U.K. may never be the same again.

June 30, 2016
How The E.U. Referendum Exposed How Toxic “British Values” Really Are Amad Ilyas

Back in April, an audience member on the U.K. topical debate show Question Time made an impassioned plea through choked-back tears: "I want my country back. I want Britain to be Britain." This woman, a resident of the northern English city of Hull, which is home to some of the most deprived areas of the country, wasn’t just addressing political pundits, politicians, and commentators on the prime time television programme on the subject of the then-forthcoming E.U. referendum — she was also speaking directly to a country divided. “I don't believe our country's free anymore,” she went on. “You only have to look at the European Union and what's going off there.” It was a regurgitated line that galvanized a movement.


This line, “We want our country back,” has been heard for years, in pubs across small towns in the mainly rural county of Shropshire, on EDL marches, and on Twitter, but it was inescapable in the weeks leading up to June 23’s E.U. referendum. It was heard from politicians’ mouths, across the political spectrum, displayed on placards at political rallies from racist political organizations such as Britain First, and shouted down megaphones by the likes of far-right party UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage while on a chartered flotilla sailing down the River Thames. It ended up becoming the unofficial slogan for a campaign spearheaded by Conservative politician Boris Johnson to leave the E.U., which scraped a win with 52% of the vote last week.


The idea that a very distinct notion of “British identity” needs to be reclaimed, and the reassertion of an abstract notion of “lost” sovereignty, has been key to the Leave campaign. As any one of the U.K.’s 7.5 million foreign-born residents knows, what “We want our country back” ultimately translates to is the promise of Britain without immigrants. By manipulating the idea of leaving the E.U. to fit into people's own pre-existing fears and prejudices, the Leave campaign neatly provided an explanation that Britain’s problems stemmed from immigration, and that stopping it was the remedy. For many white working class communities, still living with the crippling economic policies of Margaret Thatcher (U.K. Prime Minister 1979-1990), the fear and lived experience of unwelcome change is a real one. The Leave campaign plainly spoke to those uncertainties, trading on fear-mongering about the numbers of migrants in the country, and offering the solution of tighter border controls. To much of the country, who might have previously felt voiceless, it was a rousing argument, and one that led them to articulate their experiences through the vote. In the same way that Trump is “finally” speaking to the “common man” (a byword for white, working class Americans), the hard right has spoken to the U.K.

How The E.U. Referendum Exposed How Toxic “British Values” Really Are Nigel Farage (right) campaigns for Leave, June 2016/Jeff Spicer/Getty
Politically and culturally, the Us and Them binary has never felt more distinct.

The consequences of a nationalist rhetoric are already starting to be felt. The National Police Chiefs’ Council reports that there has been a marked increase in hate crimes since last week’s referendum, with initial figures reporting a 57% increase in incidents in the three days directly following it. Online, disturbing video footage of such incidents has been circling; one filmed in the West Midlands town Sheldon in the days following the vote featured a crowd of people opposite a mosque holding banners with the slogan “Rapefugees not welcome” while chanting “Who the f**k is Allah?” London’s Metropolitan Police reported racist graffiti outside a Polish cultural centre in west London's Hammersmith, while Twitter provided a platform for anecdotal instances of individually targeted racism with the hashtag #PostRefRacism.


While incidents of racism are on the rise, perhaps it is the insidious racism normalized through political rhetoric that has ignited racist attitudes to boiling point. The seemingly single narrative of the Leave campaign was effective because it aligned with attitudes that politicians across Labour, Conservative, and UKIP have been rolling out since last year: that the so-called “British Values” — of liberty, independence and strength — have been squashed by new immigrant populations who have muddied the waters of British Values. The referendum result provided the catalyst for attitudes towards immigrants to come to a head — and those who may have been quietly nodding along to Prime Minister David Cameron's claims might now feel legitimized to protect national identity through any means necessary.

This is not a new narrative. Last March, during the general election campaign, British Home Secretary Theresa May pledged to Britain that if the Conservatives came into power she would introduce, among other things, “a positive campaign to promote British values.” After her party were re-elected (this time, as a Tory majority), Prime Minister David Cameron, tweeting after Ramadan last year, stated how we, as the British people, could "tackle the poisonous Islamist ideology that is so hostile to British values."

What that looks like in education is a requirement, as of November 2014, for schools to promote “fundamental British values.” Advice from the Department of Education is to do so through SMSC (Spiritual, Moral, Social, Cultural) development, and describes these values as “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” On paper, this seems like it could be a positive measure encouraging inclusion; in practice, it feels like a demand to prove a one-dimensional idea of Britishness in all facets of your life.

For those who don’t actively appear to embody these British Values (i.e. who are non-white), then allegiances must be proven, and the pressure to prove them is amping up. (This might partially account for why a small number of those from immigrant communities were swayed towards Leave: a third of Asians and a quarter of black voters.)

Politically and culturally, the Us and Them binary has never felt more distinct. In urban centres like London, confused members of the liberal intelligentsia are collectively head-scratching at just how the rest of the country can feel such amnimosity. (Only five London boroughs voted Leave, and the majority vote was to Remain across the city). For many people of color, the outcome of this campaign that preyed on prejudice might only confirm what we had long suspected: that there are people across the U.K. that don’t like people that look like us.

How The E.U. Referendum Exposed How Toxic “British Values” Really Are London Mayor Sadiq Khan (center), June 2016/Jack Taylor/Getty
Immigrant communities are forced to show and prove their allegiance to the core values of Britain — and if we’re found lacking, then there is a punishment.

This insight is at odds with a historic moment that seemed to indicate things were getting progressive. In May 2016, Sadiq Khan, a Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants, was appointed Mayor of London after winning an election mired in Islamophobic character assassination. There was hope that this might send a message to the world: this is our home and racism won’t win. Despite Khan's attempts at trying to reinforce this point, that message has been slightly derailed. Addressing Europeans attending London’s Pride event two days after the vote, he tweeted, “To every European resident here at #Pride2016 and across our amazing city — you are welcome here.” The very fact that Khan needed to insist that indicates that the opposite might be closer to the truth.

This narrative of “We tolerate differences, we love you, honestly!” is a protestation that tries too hard. In a relationship, hearing “I treat you bad but I love you honest” is abuse. In the U.K. today, the emotional abuse has come to a head. It has become violent.

So how do you process the events from the last few days? For creatives, journalists, filmmakers, and beyond, there may be a collective push to see work and ideas commissioned, to take over spaces, to drive frustration beyond 140 character rage and into tangible solutions. This might be an opportunity for those communities who have long felt like their concerns were erased from the hallways of power to be heard. In a period of uncertainty, it might feel obvious to say that moving forward is our generational challenge, but it is a point that needs to be remembered. As we move into a new Britain, we need to think creatively how to use the resources available to us.

Back in August 2015, I made a zine celebrating immigrant communities called British Values. It had Theresa May as the cover star (in a photoshopped hijab, making a point about her aggressive immigration proposals). Her stringent approach to tackling immigration seemed extreme at the time (like a proposal to deport non-E.U. migrants who didn’t attain a yearly salary of £35,000 within their first five years in the country — this was later scrapped). Nearly a year later, following the resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minister following the Leave campaign’s success, she's in the running for the leader of our governing party. Now, making issue two of my zine, the joke isn't funny anymore. Pulling quotes as satire to highlight government lunacy or side-eyeing political rhetoric has taken on a new edge. How do you make jokes when the joke becomes real? How do you make a point about visibility when no-one seems to care? The result is a win for the idea of Britishness as the Holy Grail, and as the western world appears to shift ever closer to the right, immigrant communities are forced to show and prove their allegiance to the core values of Britain — and if we're found lacking, then there is a punishment.

For me, as a child of Indian immigrants, reclamation of immigrant identity is crucial. Remembering to see myself through my own lens, rather than aggressive political projections, is more crucial still. It’s something I hope fellow children of immigrants in places like Hull can do for themselves now. The wish by the hard right has been granted and the country has gone back — to a time of trauma, and aggressive enforcement of its values. Britain has been claimed “back,” to throwback “Go back to your own country” racism, and it might never feel the same again.

Things look like they may get worse before they get better; these are testing times for proud first, second, and third generation immigrants, and for British identity across the U.K. Deep down, we have always known that our contributions, as people from immigrant communities, enhance day-to-day British life. It’s why we reject the idea that we are “lucky” to be here. For people used to being tolerated, not celebrated, we’ve lost hope that Britain will ever realise that it’s lucky to have us. Our economic and cultural contributions are widely documented in our own communities, and while many of them are often written out of history and culture, perhaps it is up to us to shout louder about them if no one else will. For real allies with structural power to showcase our stories, perhaps it’s time to put the safety pins to rest and use this as an opportunity to provide real solidarity through proper platforming of our history and future in this country. For people who have spent their lives making a home here — working, studying, and thriving despite unimaginable obstacles — it may be a comfort to remember: this is our home, and we’re not going anywhere.

Issue 2 of Kieran Yates's zine British Values will be out later this year.
How The E.U. Referendum Exposed How Toxic “British Values” Really Are