Friday’s Brexit result was a devastating blow for London. Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, riding the tube into the city, or just having a hot chocolate in a café, all I have heard for these last two days is an outpouring of shock, disbelief, and finally despair. In the midst of news about the freefall of the pound and the tumbling of stock worldwide, Europeans who had spent years building their lives in London were panicking over their uncertain future, non-EU migrants wondered if the hammer would next fall on us, all while Nigel Farage’s grinning face gloated at us from our television screens and newspapers.
It was only a matter of time, then, until Londoners, looking at the stark divide in opinion between us and the rest of the country, started toying with the idea of London breaking away from the UK and remaining a member of the EU. A petition by James O’Malley, calling on Sadiq Khan to declare London independent, has reached 160 000 signatures at time of writing. On Twitter, hashtags like #Londependence and #Lonxit have cropped up, and those who favour an alliance with Scotland, who also overwhelmingly voted to remain, and who generally share London’s left-wing values, started talking about #Scotlond.
First, let’s get one thing clear. Many of these clamours, and even the petition itself, have a tongue-in-cheek element to them. James O’Malley’s petition contains little quips such as, “Ummm, we’ll talk about the Euro” and “Mayor Sadiq, wouldn’t you prefer to be President Sadiq? Make it happen!” Hardly the tone of someone calling for serious political upheaval.
In response to this, however, Suzanne Moore wrote an article in the Guardian yesterday, in which she lambasts London for its elitism and demands we “check our privilege”, mocking what she sees as us trotting along on our moral high horse — “[Londoners would build] a bridge, perhaps a tunnel… you would not want to step on any of those horrible leave voters in the rest of the country, would you?” It is clear that Moore is not alone in this thinking. The comments section, as well as elsewhere on social media, reveals a great deal of hatred for London. We are the evil bankers, the corrupt financial institutions, the out-of-touch elite; we are rolling in money while we scoff at the less fortunate around the country, we are Westminster.
Only… we are not. To dismiss London as a haven of elites voting to keep its cushy lifestyle with the EU while the the disenfranchised non-London working class vote to leave it, is to ignore the large swathes of working class Londoners who voted to remain. In fact, some of the poorest areas of London, such as Lewisham, Tower Hamlets and Haringey, came out very strongly in favour of remain. What lies behind these desperate cries of freedom for London, then, is not class snobbery, but a very real fear that our values are out of sync with the rest of the country, and that our diverse communities are under threat.
And who can blame us? A full 44% of Londoners are people of colour, who have watched with growing horror as the Leave campaign has capitalised on anti-immigrant sentiment, by demanding that Britons “take their country back” (take it back from who?), and by promising to make “Great Britain great again”, calling up nostalgia for the days of empire, and the extreme racial injustice that came with it. Farage’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster, depicting a crowd of brown people presumably entering the UK, as well as the cartoon by the leave.eu campaign caricaturing Muslims as money grubbers who sexually assaulted women, served to fan the flames of racial hatred.
Already, the vote for Leave has unleashed a monster that has always been lurking very close to the surface; it has legitimised a racism that white supremacists no longer believe needs to be kept under wraps. A Welsh Muslim woman was told on Twitter that she should “pack her bags and go home”, a 13 year old boy had schoolmates chanting, “Bye bye you’re going home” at him, flyers reading, “No more Polish vermin” were posted through the letterboxes of Polish families. And still the stories continue to pour in. Is it any wonder, then, that the people of colour in London, as well as white Londoners who are proud of their city’s diversity, feel under threat? Is it any wonder that, in the wake of this nightmare, many feel the need to band together and protect themselves from this hostility, to say that this is not a United Kingdom we want to be a part of? We have seen how the Leave campaign has managed to sidestep facts, logic and expert opinion, instead preferring to demonise a minority cast in the role of outsiders, and how voters have lapped this up. We do not need to look too far back into history to see how such hate can gather momentum, and where it can lead. Is it any wonder that we now feel terribly helpless, and terribly, terribly scared?
Perhaps, difficult as it is, we will find a way to heal and move on together. As Lola Okolosie eloquently writes instead of ostracising those who voted to leave and running the risk of further alienating them, now is the time to reach out, to listen to their concerns, to repair the damage and foster the understanding that migrants are not the source of their economic woes.
But, for the first couple of days after this disaster, let’s allow London its space to grieve, to unite, and to comfort one another with far-fetched fantasies, before we figure out how to fix the mess that we are in.
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Joy Goh-Mah is based in London and writes about feminism at Crates and Ribbons. She has a background in management and human resources and is passionate about equality and diversity. Joy is a triple threat ‘WOC, a threat to patriarchy & all forms of oppression’ Read her first Telegraph article Why are black female victims seemingly invisible? Find her on Twitter @CratesNRibbons