Islamophobia and the New Britishness

How Brexit Revealed the Conservative Establishment's Intolerance

A taxi driver waves a Union Jack, London, June 24 2016. Toby Melville / REUTERS

Xenophobia has long been an overt feature of right-wing nationalism in the United Kingdom; in recent years, Islamophobia, too, has come to play a central part in nationalist rhetoric. The debate that surrounded Brexit revealed that these twin hatreds have also become prominent props in mainstream political discourse. That does not bode well for the relationship between the United Kingdom’s government and its Muslim population.

Perhaps the most arresting signs of this shift came during the week before the referendum. On June 16, Jo Cox, a Labour MP, was shot and stabbed to death on a street in her Yorkshire constituency. Cox had been a prominent voice in Parliament calling for the government to welcome Syrian refugees into Britain, and had worked with a Muslim hate-crime monitoring group, Tell MAMA, to combat Islamophobia in the country. Her assailant, Thomas Mair, had had long-standing associations with neo-Nazi and white-supremacist groups. (Some bystanders reported that, as he attacked Cox, Mair shouted "Britain First"—the name of a far-right anti-Muslim group that has since denied having any connection with him.) The killing sparked an outpouring of grief, along with criticism of the way in which prominent Leavers, including Nigel Farage, then the head of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), had fuelled anti-immigrant sentiments in the course of their efforts. Just a day before the assassination, for example, Farage launched a pro-Leave poster campaign that depicted a stream of refugees and migrants—people fleeing conflict and poverty—as a dehumanized swarm bearing down on the United Kingdom, under a headline reading "BREAKING POINT." The campaign caused widespread outrage for its similarities to Nazi-era anti-Semitic propaganda.

The Conservative establishment's attempts to revive Britishness went hand in hand with the normalization of xenophobia in British political discourse.

In the weeks since the referendum, Britain’s minority communities have suffered from a surge in abuse stoked by the Leave campaign's divisive rhetoric. Between June 23 and June 26, for example, the British National Police Chiefs’ Council received 57 percent more

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