It’s almost a fortnight since the referendum and no one seems to have figured out what to do with all the control we took back yet, least of all the architects of Brexit.
David Cameron, who risked the both the European Union and our own fragile one for the sake of Tory party management; Boris Johnson, with a party leadership campaign even more short-lived than Chuka Umunna’s; and Nigel Farage, who was cruelly separated from his family all these years by his full-time job of stoking the flames of xenophobia and racism across the country.
Boris and Farage’s macho chest-beating drummed our Brexit vote but has faltered now that the boring, serious work of unravelling it all needs to be done. I’ve read lots of grim opinion pieces warning that the nation will not forget. If only. We often choose to forget, because remembering is painful, humbling work.
We forget the different nations and races who fought alongside us in our World Wars. We forget, when we hail the UK’s “Independence Day” that we actually elected to join the European project and had a really flimsy grasp on notions of self-determination when it was countries in our empire. We forget that we haven’t really come to terms with losing the empire. We forget that violent, dehumanising discourse is not confined to Twitter trolls but mainstreamed by politicians with an eye to a short-term victory; drip-fed by newspapers daily and allowed to flow unchallenged on TV in the interests of “balance”.
We talk about post-referendum racism and xenophobia but we forget that as people of colour we have skin in this game and this game is long. What is shocking to people now is that you can be white and have your citizenship or right to belong constantly under review. As a migrant, I can attest that that game is long too. Quite rightly, many across the political spectrum are standing up for the right of EU migrants who are already here to stay. The spectacle of people being shuffled about as pawns in a Brexit negotiation should remind us of other migrants who feel just as powerless every day. We mustn’t forget.
So when facile headlines pop up asking if it’s time for the (Tory) women to step up and inject some feminist sense into the proceedings now that the men are gone, it’s done with no memory of the nature of power. This is not a revolution, it’s a rearrangement. The burning question is, who will trigger Article 50 and start the countdown to exit? (if like me, you’re new to constitutional scholarship, this is a good primer).
As the Tory voting starts, we may be looking at match-up between Andrea Leadsom, who was in favour of the EU a few years ago and is now a true be-leaver with the support of Leave campaign funder Aaron Banks; and Theresa May, who is not the ascendant feminist hero as anyone with any memory or lived experience of the immigration system will attest.
Her refusal to guarantee the rights of EU citizens already in Britain shouldn’t be a surprise as she has, as Home Secretary, presided over some of the cruellest excesses of the immigration system. They are too many to list. From the indefinite detentions of migrant women in Yarl’s Wood to the deportations of foreign students on flimsy evidence, from raising the amount that someone has to earn to bring spouses and family members to the UK above the minimum wage to the £35,000 income threshold for non-EU migrants to settle in the UK – her “hostile environment” policy has ruined lives and broken up families. Women fleeing domestic violence are at risk of having their immigration status revoked if they are on a spousal visa and the marriage ends. Doctors, teachers, landlords are expected to police people’s immigration status. In this system, we are all border guards. For migrants, the border is devastatingly endless and painfully intimate. To forget all this is to fail to put her current stance on EU migrants in context. There were questions earlier this year about over whether Home Office Operation Nexus was illegally deporting EU citizens (and, as in the case of the students, often on flimsy grounds).
Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster was a lowlight of the referendum campaign but xenophobia and racism has not been mainstreamed recently. It was under May’s tenure that “Go Home” was put on vans and driven around some of London’s most diverse boroughs. It can’t have helped Cameron’s credibility to be stumping for the Remain camp alongside Sadiq Khan, about whom he repeated the worst Islamophobic lies of the toxic London Mayoral campaign in parliament and refused to apologise. We must not forget.
We must not forget the broken promises of the Leave campaign. The NHS funding is perhaps the most emblematic. We must not forget that Osborne’s austerity was a political choice (now hastily abandoned) and that the proposed cut to corporation taxes, which are already low compared to other countries in Europe, will mean that the people who feel they have borne the brunt of the recession thus far will continue to do so because – this one’s a biggie – trickle down doesn’t work.
My grandmother died the day the Brexit results came in. I have been reflecting on how memories are the threads that tie you to a place, a time, a country; about the stories that tell us who we are. The referendum was a snapshot in time. While it’s a given that we all hope things will work out, when Boris chastised Remain voters for still being sad this week he, like so many, has already forgotten some of terrible things were said during the campaigns. For some of us for whom a sense belonging is conditional, and those for whom this is a new reality, we’re wondering if that’s who we are as a nation.
For the record, I don’t think so. I just need some help remembering.
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White Men Dancing is a weekly column. Kiri Kankhwende and Maurice Mcleod keep an eye on Westminster. Politics is too important to leave to politicians.
Kiri Kankhwende is a Malawian journalist and blogger specialising in immigration and politics. She has a background in French and Chinese language studies and holds an MSc in International Political Communications, Politics and Human Rights Advocacy. An accomplished public speaker, she has also written for the Guardian and the Independent, and has been a contributor to BBC TV and radio, Al-Jazeera and Fox News. Find her on Twitter @madomasi