Who voted for the intolerance poisoning the national conversation? | Seema Malhotra

The hateful tone of post-Brexit rhetoric is damaging our society and our image abroad. The clean-up must start at the top…

This weekend marks four months since the country voted to leave the European Union and there is as yet no consensus on how we progress. We are a nation stuck in an impasse, where a language and culture of intolerance are beginning to emerge. Left unchecked, this could take us to a place where neither Leave nor Remain voters intended us to go.

Theresa May must take her share of responsibility for this. Her approach to Brexit has been chaotic, at best. The lack of a strong vision has created a vacuum. And into this vacuum have stepped the hardliners, imposing on the result their own narrative, deciding what the British people really meant. Not all those who voted to leave voted for a hard Brexit. We all know the reality is far more nuanced. Moderate voices have felt attacked and pushed out. As a result, the tone and dialogue in our public spaces online and offline is changing. Intolerance, fear and insecurity are on the rise.

Last week, I asked a range of people across the country and in my local community what they felt, now we are four months on. What came back did not make for light reading. “Language used by people who were Brexiters has become much more aggressive,” said one. Another: “I saw a woman approached by a man on the street who shouted, ‘Are you going to go home now you – we voted you out.’” One headteacher said: “The day after the vote, for the first time in three years, our year 2 pupils were racially abused outside with ‘Go back home’.” Another said: “The elephant in the room is the incessant and systematic bullying, berating and gagging of a huge portion of our society, people who voted to remain and who still believe that in a democracy they should continue to have a voice in what happens next.”

The post-Brexit debate is becoming less reasoned, more toxic and more intolerant. Last week could have offered a chink of light. Theresa May faced her first electoral test and it did not go well. She pounded the streets and knocked on doors of this safe Tory part of Oxfordshire alongside David Cameron. The results of her campaigning? The Conservatives’ majority was slashed by nearly 20,000 votes.

Could this be a turning point? As the three Brexiters hurtle towards hard Brexit without a thought for casualties, perhaps, just perhaps, Witney could be the wake-up call for May that we need.

A nation of division, intolerance, lower living standards and a slowing economy is not what people voted for. Growth has been revised down, the pound has fallen to a 168-year low, inflation is on the rise. Around 40% of our household shopping basket is imported. As food prices rise, families on low incomes will be increasingly squeezed and hit the hardest. As May puts her party politics ahead of our economy and national interest, people are starting to notice.

Language matters and political rhetoric has consequences. The public mood can change quickly. We have a responsibility to watch the way we speak over the next years and how we talk about Britain’s future. It is not a coincidence that racist or religious hate crime incidents recorded have risen by 41% in the aftermath of the referendum. It is a consequence.

Something terribly unBritish is developing and it is damaging our social fabric and our image abroad. It is so very far removed from the Britain we have known for the last generation. We have built up a strong reputation as an outward-looking country and a global player. The debate after the referendum – more than the vote itself – is what may irrevocably destroy this reputation.

Amber Rudd’s call for a register of foreign workers and her misguided speech at the Tory conference at a time when we need, more than ever, to come together and work collaboratively with so many issues on the world stage was highly irresponsible.

Yet any challenge to this narrative can result in calls that question our patriotism. When it comes to Brexit, like anything else, it is vital for our democracy that we should be able to challenge and scrutinise. If parliamentarians raise concerns about the challenges ahead and stand up for the interests of voters, we are, it’s said, “undemocratic”. But voices of moderation or inclusion should not be frozen out. There is not only one way to Brexit.

Last week, Theresa May called for Britain to still have a central role in Europe until we leave. That’s welcome but, sadly, three months late. Because of her choice not to speak earlier, our MEPs doing important work on tax avoidance and other issues have already started to find themselves sidelined. And now that sidelining has extended to May herself – she cut an isolated figure as she was given five minutes to speak on Brexit at 1am.

In my 20 years of political activism, I cannot remember a time when we had such an unshared sense of who we are as a nation. Just four years ago, we stood together side by side as our nation hosted one of the most successful Olympics ever, our winning ticket being a message of openness, pride in our diversity and confidence in our place in the world. Mo Farah became a national hero, a young Somalian who had come to Britain as a refugee and grown up, like me, in Feltham, west London.

I’d like to believe that a young Mo Farah would today have the same chances and be able to serve his country, But with the language currently heard around child refugees, it does make me wonder. We are a nation with a bigger heart and a bigger purpose. It’s not too late to correct the course we are on. But it has to start at the top. It has to start with Theresa May.


Seema Malhotra

The GuardianTramp

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