Brexit used to sit on the far side lines of politics.
Indeed, the word ‘Brexit’ was only invented in 2012, and until the referendum, most people didn’t know what it meant.
(Now it’s in the Oxford English dictionary.)
Prior to 2011, tabloids such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express were more fixated on false claims about benefit cheats than false claims about immigrants.
But that all changed.
An in-depth study by the Migration Observatory showed that:
The volume of press coverage mentioning ‘immigration’ or ‘migration’ declined from 2006 to 2011 before rising each year from 2011 to mid-2015
Furthermore, when the press explicitly described immigrants and migrants during 2006-2015, 3 out of 10 times it was with the word ‘illegal’.
In 2004, when the Labour government permitted migrants to come here from new EU member states (formerly hidden behind the ‘Iron Curtain’) they were welcome.
The British economy was doing well, and businesses were desperate for more workers. EU migrants coming here filled a chronic labour and skills gap.
It wasn’t until after the Tories won the 2010 general election, and severe austerity measures were imposed, that some tabloid newspapers, and some politicians, started to heavily scapegoat migrants as the cause.
But even then, Britain’s membership of the EU was not a majority interest subject.
Some on the fringes of the Conservative and Labour Parties thought Britain should leave the EU, but they were small in number.
- Most MPs and members of the House of Lords strongly supported Britain’s membership of the EU (and indeed, most of them voted for Britain to Remain in the European Union.)
- Most people in Britain also didn’t want Britain to leave the EU.
We’d been members for around 40 years, and it was not a big deal.
Polling consistently showed that most people in the UK supported our continued membership, even in the year before the referendum.
Yes, 17 million voters voted for Brexit. But 17 million votes out of 46.5 million registered voters did not represent majority support.
Since 2016, however, Brexit is on the news every day. The word has become mainstream, not just in Britain, but across the world.
How did it happen?
It started when leading politicians, who should have known better, got scared of a little Eurosceptic party called UKIP, which promoted a fear and dislike of migrants, and blamed the EU.
UKIP was considered a threat to the mainstream of politics and so everybody started talking their language of fear.
Slowly and surely, the new language allowed migrants and foreigners to be blamed for our problems, with leaving the EU presented as the solution.
It was the start of the rot. It led us directly to Brexit.
There was no rational reason to fear migrants. But senior politicians in both the Conservative and Labour Parties began to be fearful of UKIP.
Instead of bucking the UKIP trend, they fell for it; they unwisely helped to promote and prolong it, along with most British newspapers, also guilty of inciting UKIP’s message of xenophobia.
So, when in 2014 the then Shadow Home Secretary, Labour’s Yvette Cooper, said in a speech in London:
“It isn’t racist to be worried about immigration or to call for immigration reform.”
What I think she really meant was:
“We’re not really worried about immigration; we’re worried about UKIP.”
When also in 2014, Rachel Reeves, Labour’s then shadow works and pensions secretary, wrote in an article for the Daily Mail:
“We have to listen to the real concerns that people have about how immigration is being managed.”
What I think she really meant was:
“We’re not really listening to people’s real concerns; we’re listening to UKIP.”
When Kelly Tolhurst, the Conservative MP, who won the 2014 by-election in the Rochester and Strood, wrote in her campaign literature:
“I wanted to bring the Prime Minister to this constituency to show him that uncontrolled immigration has hurt this area.”
What I think she really meant was:
“I want to show the Prime Minister that although there isn’t a problem of uncontrolled immigration in this area, uncontrolled UKIP could hurt us.”
(Because how could there be a problem of ‘uncontrolled migration’ in Rochester and Strood? It has a lower-than-average immigrant population than the national, and even regional, level. Its population is 87 per cent white British.)
The then Prime Minister, David Cameron (remember him?) also followed the same line. He said to the electorate:
“I know you are worried about immigration.”
What I think he really meant was:
“You know I am worried about UKIP.”
So worried, that he called for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU that he didn’t have to call.
It was all because of an irrational fear of UKIP and their irrational language of fear.
Reported the BBC on the rise of UKIP in 2014:
‘David Cameron’s historic pledge to hold an in/out referendum on UK membership of the EU if the Conservatives won the next election was interpreted by some as an attempt to halt the rise of UKIP, which senior Tories feared could prevent them from winning an overall majority in 2015.’
(Repeat: Previously hardly anyone in Britain was concerned about Britain’s EU membership – it was a minority issue on the far fringes of politics.)
In the same year, Nigel Farage, the then leader of UKIP, told The Telegraph:
“Parts of the country have been taken over by foreigners and mass immigration has left Britain as unrecognisable.”
It was nonsense of course.
Britons didn’t have a serious problem of migration before the likes of Nigel Farage told them they did.
If you look at a 2014 map of where UKIP had the highest support, it was mostly in the areas of Britain with the least migration.
And conversely, in the areas with lots of migrants, UKIP mostly had the least support.
The foreign-born of Britain only represent around 12% of the population – that’s a normal proportion for most modern, thriving western democracies.
Even among those 12% of foreign-born are many considered to be British, such as Boris Johnson, born in New York, and Joanna Lumley, born in India.
And citizens from the rest of the EU living in the UK represented only 5% of the population – that’s small and hardly ‘mass migration.’
A few weeks after the 2016 referendum result, the then Tory MP, Oliver Letwin, said that British politicians “made a terrible mistake” in failing to take on the argument about immigration, the argument spread by UKIP.
He told The Times:
“We all, the Labour party and the Conservative Party alike … made a terrible mistake, which was not to take on the argument about migration.”
He added that UKIP exploited the failure of mainstream politicians to “put the counter-argument” that “migration enriches the country in every way.”
Gandhi got it right when he said:
‘The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is really fear.’
Our main political parties and national newspapers could have saved us from an irrational fear of migrants that led directly to Brexit.
Instead, they pandered to UKIP and promoted the fear.
And now the fear has won, and it is still being encouraged by politicians and papers.
- Migrants are a boon, not a burden for Britain.
- EU membership has helped our country and did not hinder it.
Somehow, facts need to win over fear. And until that happens, Britain is on a dangerous and debilitating path.
▪ DAILY EXPRESS HEADLINES: The 2011 headline that millions of families were benefit cheats was entirely incorrect. See Full Fact report. And the 2015 headline that illegal immigrants were pouring into Britain was also false. See Full Fact response.
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