British people don't like to talk about racism, much less admit that their fellow Brits—much less they, themselves—are racists. It's far too easy to point to other bad examples in foreign lands, from Jim Crow and segregation in the Deep South to men with Hugo Boss uniforms and gas chambers in the Nazi Reich. But racism is a thing in the UK, with deep-running currents that occasionally bubble to the surface. And right now we're getting a most unwelcome but richly deserved reminder of what it's about.
(Text below the cut contains strong language)
British racism is subtly different from American racism, because there is no long-standing internal sub-population who are visually distinctive and the target for racist hatred. One can point to the traditional English hatred and contempt for the Irish—it's still within living memory that boarding houses proudly displayed signs saying "no dogs or Irishmen"—but people of Irish descent aren't visually identifiable at a distance, unlike African-Americans. So the most visible expression of racism wears a different name: the primary epithet isn't "nigger" but "immigrant".
And our newspapers know that talking about "immigrants" is a legal way to push racist xenophobia (see the montage of Daily Express covers that I updated this essay with, above: source, twitter, @kwr66).
(Discursive point: this isn't to say that anti-immigrant racism isn't a thing in the United States. But it's not the primus inter pares expression of racism. That dishonourable status belongs to the generationally-installed white phobia of the descendants of the slaves they systematically raped and kidnapped over centuries, and whose bloody uprising the slaveowning caste were deathly afraid of.)
The UK is different because the black community established here mostly immigrated voluntarily in the 1950s to 1970s: for many years, British racists used the word "immigrant" as a synonym for "black", and kept with it because it was so useful for describing other groups.
Which brings me rapidly back to the current ongoing campaign over the BRexit referendum: a ballot asking the public if Britain should leave the EU. The vote is due to be held next Thursday, and I already blogged about it back in April. What I didn't say back then, because I didn't fully anticipate it, was that the "Leave" campaign (with the knowing connivance of most of the UK's media, owned for the most part by right-wing billionaires) was going to play power chords in the key of racism, not even resorting to dog-whistle rhetoric. Britons overestimate the proportion of Muslims in the UK by a factor of four and think there are more than twice as many immigrants in the UK as is actually the case—and the Leave campaign's rhetoric, when challenged on how leaving the EU would improve things for the UK, has focussed unerringly on reducing immigration, because that's what the voters respond to—not abstractions about trade deals or tax rises or interest rates, but the folks they see on the street who talk the wrong talk or follow the wrong dress code or look different.
And the Leave campaign have been pushing that lever so hard that UKIP have been rolling out material indistinguishable from Nazi propaganda posters of the 1940s.
Now, if your election campaigning material is only distinguishable from films emitted by Josef Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda by your use of Photoshop and color separation technology, then you might want to ask yourself why you are peddling warmed-over Nazi propaganda. (Also: the white faces in the foreground of the UKIP "immigrant" poster have been conveniently obscured. Fun, huh?) But that's not the most important point.
The unspeakable truth is that right now British politics is in a Naked Lunch situation: the "frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork", as William Burroughs put it:
Points you need to know, for the full context of this vile murder:
Jo Cox was an activist for the Remain campaign
Jo Cox was the former head of policy for Oxfam and an anti-slavery campaigner
Britain First is a far-right movement founded by former members of the (defunct) British National Party, a fascist movement. It takes inspiration from Ulster loyalist terrorist groups and has a vigilante wing that engages in direct action campaigns. Their policies include a total ban on Islam.
Britain First is strongly opposed to EU membership and supports the Leave campaign. Their primary campaign focus is against immigration, multiculturalism, and "the islamisation of the United Kingdom".
Britain First has threatened to target elected politicians for direct action earlier this year (specifically: Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London): "Britain First now considers all Muslim elected officials as 'occupiers' and will start to oppose their strategy of entryism and take-over of our political system."
The Leave campaign are recycling Nazi propaganda and directing it at "immigrants", pouring gasoline on the flames of British racism. They are doing so in a politically charged climate where mainstream conservative politicians have legitimized talk of "cutting immigration" as they run to the right to reduce the risk of losing their voters to UKIP, who are merely one dog-whistle away from being an explicitly racist party. They do so with the connivance of The Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the other right-wing newspapers that peddle racism (because outrage captures eyeballs and eyeballs sell advertising)—whose every front page loaded with a hate-filled message about "immigrant scroungers". Britain First are an explicitly racist fringe party, and it now looks as if one of their followers may have conducted the first politically motivated murder of a sitting MP (other than in the context of Ireland) since Spencer Perceval in 1812.
I've been saying a while that when fascism comes to Britain it will be wearing a tweed jacket and a cheeky grin, holding a pint of beer in one hand and a noose in the other.
I wasn't expecting to be proven right so soon.