The recent referendum on European Union membership has been taken by some as a signal that racial and xenophobic abuse has been legitimised. Responding to the disgraceful slogans painted on a Polish community centre in Hammersmith, West London, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster condemned what he called an “upsurge of racism, of hatred towards others” as “something we must not tolerate”.
He added: “This is simply not acceptable in a humane society.”
It would be simplistic to paint the outcome of the referendum as entirely a rejection of the extra migration from EU countries that has arisen from free movement of labor.
The extent to which this was, nevertheless, a substantial issue can be laid at the door of some of the politicians campaigning on the Leave side – especially but not exclusively on behalf of UKIP, the UK Independence Party.
The way in which the electorate split so clearly on generational lines – the younger the voter, the more likely they were to vote to remain in the EU – as well as on educational level and by social class – showed profound differences in society. These are long-standing and existed before the vote. But the referendum, in effect, held up a mirror to modern Britain and not only exposed its divisions, but exacerbated them. Clearly the social fabric has been torn, and repairing it has to be a major priority in the coming days and weeks.
The gap in particular between the governed and government has opened wide. There is every prospect, as both warnings and promises from either side are inevitably discredited by subsequent events, that it will become wider still. Instead of falsehood and exaggerations, there is a crying need for a period of honest and straightforward government to restore people’s trust and to reconnect politicians with the electorate. With uncertainty simultaneously in the Labor and Conservative parties over both policy and leadership, however, that may take some time.
What all parties in Westminster need is a clear and comprehensive program that includes trenchant opposition to displays of racism and xenophobia, healing in divided communities, relief for those suffering deprivation or undue pressure from population growth however caused, and the revival of local government after devastating cuts.
It is hypocritical of those against the EU to demand decision-making as close to the people as possible, if government is then further centralised in Whitehall, leaving local councils powerless and penniless.
That is also part of the case for heeding the interests of the two constituent parts of the United Kingdom apart from England and Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland both voted by majority for continuing EU membership. The minimum required to meet their needs may well be full access to the EU’s single market, otherwise both will require customs barriers for the collection of trade tariffs. This is more than a technical matter. The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU may sharpen the sense of division of Ireland into north and south that EU membership has helped overcome – an extremely disturbing prospect.
Yet the price for access to the single market is likely to be retention of the free movement of labour plus continued payments into the EU budget – despite the implicit rejection of both of those in the referendum. So there are still hard questions ahead. It is also essential that the many detailed advantages of EU membership – for instance in having a joint environmental policy, in anti-terrorism co-operation, the European arrest warrant, pooled scientific and medical research, student exchanges, standardised mobile phone charges and so on – are not all carelessly thrown away. These benefits remain important ingredients in the concept of a common European citizenship. The EU may have wanted to take an “all or nothing” approach to membership, but one lasting legacy of the British referendum may be to show that that is no longer appropriate.
There is one overriding challenge facing Europe on which Britain, in or out, must not turn its back. The biggest flow of refugees since World War II is still causing a humanitarian catastrophe, inflicting untold danger and suffering on hundreds of thousands of people in refugee camps and at sea. Britain cannot resign from the principle of a European common good, for it is at root a moral imperative.
The repeated failure to share the burden fairly with the countries most affected is second only to its harsh treatment of Greece, in posing serious questions about the moral foundations of the entire EU project.
As Pope Francis said after the British referendum, those moral foundations urgently need repairing.
This article first appeared in the The Tablet.