Bonnie Greer: With Brexit we have turned our back on the world – and our values

PUBLISHED: 12:04 21 March 2017

Right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders

Right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders

PA Archive/PA Images

Not everyone who voted leave is a racist or a xenophobe but the campaign and its aftermath has attracted some dubious supporters

Brexit and the Leave campaign have uncovered something truly ugly. And since they won’t confront it, I will, writes Bonnie Greer.

Their cause has become a flag of convenience: for racists, bigots and xenophobes.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone who voted Leave is a racist or a bigot or a xenophobe. That would be a racist, bigoted and ridiculous thing to even suggest.

But every Leave person I’ve asked either can’t or won’t answer this: Why do racists, bigots, xenophobes find, in Brexit, a flag of convenience, a refuge? What attracts these kinds of people to the campaign to leave the EU?

Because while it’s true that not every Brexit person is a racist, you’re more likely to find your classic, garden-variety racist voting for Leave. Gina Miller, who deserves a medal for her fight for Parliamentary sovereignty, has recently told me harrowing tales of what she’s had to face.

The racists and xenophobes have come out of the woodwork to get her, and their variety is staggering. Some of her stories of folk aroused from their quiet lives to battle her are funny and a bit weird.

Racial hate crimes since Leave won the referendum have spiked. That’s an obvious fact. And where is the kindly Labour MP Gisela Stuart, Vote Leave doyenne; German-born and surely someone who could understand what it might be like to be an Other? I apologise to her if she’s spoken out. I missed it.

And where is Michael Gove, who is reported to have had a portrait of Martin Luther King hanging in one of the offices he’s occupied as various Secretaries of State?

I think that I can safely say that MLK would want him to step up to the plate and speak out. After all, Gove’s a very vocal guy, so if I’ve missed his undoubtedly robust statements, well mea culpa to him, too.

This hatred/racism that seems to be rooted in anti-EU sentiment takes particular pleasure in attacking women. So you’d think that our second female PM, Theresa May, would take a particular interest. But you’d be wrong. The sound of crickets chirping and the gentle whoosh of tumbleweed rollin’ along is all we hear from her corner.

This just isn’t good enough. And it’s dangerous, too. Because everybody, everything, in the end, loses. Well, not everything.

No matter what the outcome of this week’s elections in the Netherlands, the Dutch blackface icon “Zwartze Piet” wins.

On the centre right, the incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte has reportedly said to a colleague of Surinamese descent something to the effect: “The good thing about you is that you don’t have to spend two days rubbing the black off your face (after “blacking up” to play Zwartze Piet” ) like I do.”

This response is considered benign, almost friendly. On the far right is Geert Wilders – and he’s still there, despite his less than stellar showing in the elections.

Wilders is the forerunner of what Trump and Breitbart News have done. But unlike Trump, he’s not emotional and unpredictable. He talks to voters without what he calls: “the filter of journalists”.

A good debater, he’s made his cartoonish anti-Muslim barrages effective simply because he says what he likes and doesn’t give a damn for convention. He appeals to a country politically constructed a bit like the US: conservative rural areas; progressive urban areas.

He advocates “Nexit” which, too, is tied up with the idea of the foreigner as other – unable, unwilling to assimilate. To him and his followers, there is something inherently broken – vile, strange, dangerous – in those “not like us”. Wilders reaches down deep to invoke sheer terror, naked hatred. For him, “blacking up” is Dutch, what the Netherlands does. Intrinsic.

Never mind the election result, he wins because he’s put the ugliness on the table. He’s made it OK in tolerant Amsterdam, for example, to use the term “useless piece of cloth” for the hijab. After all, it’s associated with what he calls the “Moroccan scum” who have no place in the country he aims to run.

The Netherlands, which prides itself on its inclusiveness, is suddenly being confronted with its Dark Side. It’s called “nativism”. Marine Le Pen invokes it in France; Nigel Farage in the UK; Trump in America.

Its younger disciples have taken to urging their associates to “breed” so as to offset the inevitable demographic curve of Europe. A Europe that won’t look like them. Be like them.

This is the side of the fence that the Leave campaign, that Brexit, too, stands on. Whether it admits it or not. Sylvana Simons, a Dutch television-presenter-turned-politician, entered the election as the leader of a party of her own making: Artikel 1.

She did this because of the threats she received after speaking out against the rise of racism and xenophobia that Wilders and the talk of “Nexit” has inspired. Simons has had her face superimposed on a slave hanging from a tree; she’s been told to get out of the country. So has Wilders, by the way. But he revels in being told to get out. It’s a mark of his authenticity; his not being a “regular politician”. His online brand.

In a recent interview, Simons said: “I was tolerated when I was an entertainer. But not now. You can’t be black, female and politically-involved without angering some people. Artikel 1 aims to represent all of Dutch society and our list of candidates alone shows we are truly reflecting the Netherlands. We have equal numbers of men and women. We have gay, lesbian, and transgender candidates. We are normalising what is already normal in society. We are a new and unconventional voice in society. We are emancipating people and politics.”

A New European. Like cultural curator, down-home cook and writer, the African American-Belgian Dorrie Wilson.

She brings together all ethnicities in the EU’s capital – Brussels – so that they can interact: eat good food, make art, talk politics, build an inclusive Europe. “It’s not easy in Europe, in Brussels”, she says. “Afrophobia is rife and you have to keep fighting it. I‘ve heard of people who go to work around Christmas time and find cupcakes decorated like Zwartze Piet. What do you do?

“They say ‘it’s the culture, get over it’. But how can you? It’s threatening, frightening. The day that Leave won, a lot of women cried. Because so much of the progressive stuff was driven by Brits. British women made sure there was equality and diversity in the work places they were in. British women pushed. Look, I know that the UK isn’t perfect. But they bring a culture, for instance, to the EU institutions. Now it’s going. The UK doesn’t get it.”

The British writer and performer Sylvia Arthur, moved by the fact that Barack Obama’s term as president was up, has devised and performed her own piece and brought it to Belgium. Called Obama and Me, its refrain is: “I am a cog in the wheel of free movement. I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams.”

A small story:

I was in a shop in the West End recently, and I started talking to one of the salespersons because I heard her French accent.

I asked her – in my bad French – if she was French and she replied that she was indeed. She was Parisian. And she had come to London to be free.

To her, and to many of her fellow French citizens of African descent, the UK offered a chance; allowed them to see who they were; allowed them to skill-up; to get ahead.

“I know”, she said, “that Britain is not perfect. And I love France. But I am young and I want to be free. I am accepted here in the UK. And I love it.”

The UK, in choosing Brexit, walks away from a legacy. In doing so, it inflicts not only real harm on human beings, but abrogates a position of moral leadership in this part of the world.

It makes this great country turn its back, pull up the drawbridge, put up the wall, curl in. I’m an immigrant and I know that what this country represents: the gateway to a world open and unafraid.

Fighting Brexit is not only a political position, it puts into action a set of values. It is refusing to make people not like you into the Other.

It’s about fighting for this with everything you have. And will have.

• Bonnie Greer is an Anglo-American playwright and critic

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