Opinion: Not all Brexiters are racists

The EU is an affront to any reasonable interpretation of the concept of democratic accountability, Dr Mark Avis says.

Dr Mark Avis.

As a UK citizen living in New Zealand, I have watched the media reaction since the vote for Brexit with bemusement. New Zealand is now my home, and because I have no plans to return to the United Kingdom, I did not vote in the EU referendum. But had I cast a vote, I would have voted for Brexit.

The notion that I would make such a choice baffles many people here, and it is no wonder; the media have continually portrayed Brexit as a malady of mind, and a position that is primarily founded on anti-immigration which, in turn, is founded on racism. 

The fact the EU is an affront to any reasonable interpretation of the concept of democratic accountability is barely mentioned. The best way to illustrate this point is for Kiwis to consider how they would view a plan for a new organisation to be established in Sydney. The organisation would write laws, and enact laws that would be binding on New Zealand and, once written, there would be no democratic mechanism for repeal.

In addition, a new court would be set up based on a system of civil law, not common law, and this court would be set above the New Zealand courts. The statutory law of this new court would be written by unelected bureaucrats, and they would not be accountable to any democratic institution. How many Kiwis would vote to join such an institution?

The people of the UK never, ever voted to join such an institution. Instead, they joined a common market that was later, without seeking their ongoing consent, to evolve into an organisation that was no longer about trade, but increasingly directed towards building a federal state of Europe.

The absence of any respect for democracy by the EU as an institution was shown during the Brexit campaign. Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, threatened the UK if it dared to leave,saying it would face “consequences”, and will not “be welcomed with open arms”, and that Brexit would not be “an amicable divorce”. 

How would Kiwis feel, I wonder, if some unelected bureaucrat was to threaten them in this way? How would they feel if they signed up for a trade deal, but found themselves part of an institution that was merging them into a federal state?

The International Monetary Fund, the UK Treasury and a host of other institutions predicted economic Armageddon if the nation voted to leave the EU. These same institutions also said that not adopting the euro would be a catastrophe. Of course, when the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer is predicting economic chaos in the event of a ‘leave’ vote, it is fairly obvious this will be a self-fulfilling prophesy. The pound has been volatile, and following the initial decline, has seen swings in both positive and negative directions. This appears to be driven by party political crises as much as any fundamentals of the economic position of the UK.

Despite the warnings of economic isolation, several countries are already signalling a desire to commence trade negotiations, including the United States. The big question that remains is how the EU will proceed in negotiations. There has been talk of a punitive approach to the UK to discourage other countries from considering an exit. If this proves to be the case, it raises the question of what kind of institution might need such an implicit threat to retain its members. Would Kiwis wish to join an institution that considers punitive action to be the best way to keep others in line?

Is it racist to merely be concerned about immigration levels?

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the Brexit vote has been an insidious attempt by much of the media to portray those who voted to leave as xenophobic and/or racist. Undoubtedly, there was a small minority of voters who held such views, but the attempt to tar anyone in favour of Brexit with a racist brush, was the most disgraceful component of much of the media coverage.  

Legitimate concerns about immigration became conflated with racism. The UK is a country with an extremely high population density and a net migration level of around 300,000 people per annum. To put that in context, Britain’s second largest city, Birmingham, has a population of around one million people. Current levels of immigration mean the UK needs to build the equivalent of its second largest city every three-and-half years.

Perhaps, concerns about immigration were not about racism. One 56-year-old Asian woman from Hertfordshire, who was quoted in the Daily Telegraph, certainly felt she had been unfairly tarred a racist. “There are only a select group of people I will talk to about voting Leave,” she said. “My main concern is immigration because I think the UK is just stretched right now. But I feel that in recent weeks, people have come to associate this opinion with racism, so of course I’m not going to speak out about it.”

I know of many people who have hidden their support for Brexit. People are afraid to express their views for fear of the torrent of abuse they will receive. When people are made to feel ashamed or afraid to express perfectly legitimate views, something is going very, very wrong in a democratic system. When people feel they cannot voice their views for fear of personal attack, society is moving in increments towards the kind of intolerance associated with fascism.

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