Editor’s Note: Henry Wismayer is a writer and commentator based in London. You can follow him @henrywismayer. The views expressed are his own.
Britons will vote Thursday on whether their country should remain in the European Union
Henry Wismayer: Urge to leave has caught the wind of native disaffection
For any external observer curious to understand the issues shaping the debate over Britain’s membership of the European Union, last Wednesday’s edition of The Sun, the country’s most popular daily newspaper, produced a revealing metaphor.
A day after the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid declared its support for the “Leave” campaign, its front-page went full-hysteria. A “biblical swarm” of super-moths has invaded Britain from mainland Europe, it exclaimed without a trace of irony, “and is set to annihilate our cabbages.”
The prominence given to these ghastly foreign moths, accompanied on Page 2 with a helpful diagram depicting a battalion of Lepidoptera hovering over the English Channel, tells you all you need to know about Britain’s EU referendum debate, where fear and frustration have come to overshadow the biggest political decision in a generation.
The issues surrounding so-called “Brexit” are, of course, about far more than the petty nationalism of an island nation – what liberal commentators condescendingly call the “Little England” mentality. However, after weeks of rancorous argument, and with days to go until voting on June 23, Britain is wrestling with a disturbing prospect: if voters elect to leave, it will be xenophobia, as much as rational facts and forecasts, that will have carried the day.
If I had to identify a point at which the tone of debate started to deteriorate, it was when former London Mayor Boris Johnson, de facto leader of the Leave campaign, compared the European Union’s ambitions to those of Hitler, the continent’s ultimate bogeyman.
The inflammatory analogy signaled a shift in tactics from those in favor of Brexit that has since come to dictate their campaign. After the first few weeks of canvassing, Johnson’s “Leavers” were lagging behind. The economic argument had been lost – polling suggested that the opening salvos in the referendum debate had fallen for “Remain.”
But in response, and borrowing from the handbook that has seen the UK Independence Party rise from a fringe party into a major force in British politics, the Leave campaign brought the emotive issue of immigration front and center.
For moths, read foreigners: henceforward, the EU would be conflated with external invasion. And it worked, for a while, at least. In capturing the support of The Sun, a newspaper so adept at taking and influencing the national temperature that it has backed every UK election winner since 1978, Leave left the Remain camp struggling to rebut the one subject that its supporters would rather ignore.
How was the Leave campaign able to exploit a single issue so effectively, and leave the vote still too close to call?
Well, behind all the hysteria over immigration, many people in modern Britain have good reason to be angry.
After six years of government-led austerity, local services are overstretched – unable, so the Leavers claim, to cope with the growing influx of incomers from overseas.
Workers in traditional industries, who blame depressed wages and increasing rents on a glut of foreign labor, see the EU as just another agent in the machinery of corporatism and globalization.
Anger at the dilution of national identity that is an unavoidable corollary of the mass movement of people has simmered in the background of Britain’s political conversation for years. Now these vague itches of discontent have mutated into vocal rage.
Left behind, ignored, irrelevant to Britain’s London-centric economy, and harboring a rose-tinted nostalgia for a prouder past, many who would identify as traditional working class, particularly in England, are in open revolt.
Although the failure to address many of their grievances rests far more with successive British governments than with the European Union, the Leavers have found, in the shape of Brussels bureaucrats and, more generally, immigrants, irresistible scapegoats for it all.
Those spearheading the Leave campaign have been shameless in exploiting this latent xenophobia lurking on the fringes of the national psyche. In the wake of the Orlando nightclub massacre, a poster appeared showing Islamic State fighters, exhorting voters to “act now before we see an Orlando-style atrocity here.” A few days later, another poster portraying a meandering river of migrants bound for Britain was criticized for potentially inciting racial hatred.
But this is a sentiment that has had its fill of reason, and is seeking someone to blame. Cheap labor, foreign welfare spongers, Islamic terrorists, now crop-ravaging moths! For those who feel betrayed by the social landscape of modern Britain, the choice seems clear.
Popular expressions of Brexit fervor, voiced with increasing vehemence in the pubs, on the streets and on social media, have become steeped in the language of British exceptionalism.
In this nationalistic vision of European geopolitics, the EU is portrayed as an invading force: dictatorial, aloof and undemocratic, hellbent on the formation of a continental super-state. Britain, meanwhile, is a sceptered isle under siege, its bygone industrial might throttled by EU regulations, its welfare system exploited by feckless immigrants.
Like the rise of Donald Trump in America’s presidential race, the Brexit campaign has coarsened the political discourse, and uncaged prejudices that have been suppressed for decades. Leavers talk of “putting the Great into Great Britain”, and “taking our country back”, even, with tub-thumping pride, of how “we used to have an Empire.” A vote that many fear could sabotage the entire European project may now be decided by how voters feel when they hear foreign voices on the bus.
For the “Remainers,” those who want to stay in the EU, British Prime Minister David Cameron among them, the rise in anti-foreigner rhetoric has shaken Britain’s tolerant, pluralist self-image to its core. Confident that warnings about the potentially disastrous economic consequences of Brexit would be enough to guarantee them victory, the Remain camp overlooked a perfect storm gathering offshore.
The metastasizing threat of radical Islam and images of desperate migrants stealing across the Mediterranean on huge dinghies have provided Leavers with the perfect backdrop to prey on prevailing anxieties. It shows the extent of Cameron’s dereliction of leadership, and his complacency, that he bowed to party pressure to call this referendum at a time when the preconditions for rank emotion to influence the outcome were running so dangerously high.
Still, at the eleventh hour, Remain’s salvation may have arrived in the shape of violence and tragedy. For the last two weeks, images of English soccer fans fighting and shouting anti-EU slogans on the streets of Marseille and Lille, as much drunk on resurgent English nationalism as they were on French lager, have made the antagonism underpinning the Leave campaign feel all the more real.
Last Thursday’s shocking murder of Jo Cox, a popular 41-year-old member of parliament, has been held up by some as symptomatic of the hatred underlying the more extreme wing of the anti-EU movement. That the suspect announced his name in court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” raises the possibility of political motivations of the darkest kind.
These small echoes of the fear and loathing that inspired the EU to grow from the ashes of World War II have temporarily silenced the drumbeat of antipathy and division. Remainers will hope that the public’s growing sense of disgust at the “Leave” rhetoric will re-galvanize their support. At least one poll since Cox’s murder seems to bear this out.
Still, one thing is certain. As Britain prepares to vote in a referendum for the country’s soul, the result is likely to be far closer than David Cameron once dared fear. The urge to leave has caught the wind of native disaffection at just the right time. Because the moths are coming.
Henry Wismayer is a writer and commentator based in London. You can follow him @henrywismayer. The views expressed are his own.