UK election: Issues of identity and culture all battle under the banner of Brexit

There are big issues that demand attention at this election. But one topic rules the roost, says Michael Clifford

UK election: Issues of identity and culture all battle under the banner of Brexit

There are big issues that demand attention at this election. But one topic rules the roost, says Michael Clifford

The hustings turned nasty in an instant. It was written on the face of Helen Cross, the Liberal Democrat candidate. She was quite obviously hurt after somebody in the audience had guffawed when she described herself as a “mixed race” woman.

She and the other candidates at the gathering in a west London hotel had been addressing the question that divides England right now: Are you a Leaver or a Remainer? The question was the fourth put to the party candidates sitting behind a long table at the top of the room in the Clayton Chiswick Hotel. All of the questions up to that point at this general election hustings were concerned with Brexit.

Ms Cross was explaining that she is a Remainer. She referenced the murder of MP Jo Cox in the run-up to the 2016 referendum and suggested that the Brexit issue is freighted with racism. That elicited an angry reaction from two people in the audience.

A middle-aged white man at the rear of the room shouted up something. Ms Cross didn’t respond but kept talking, referencing her own mixed-race heritage. Like so many people in a multicultural society it is unclear from her light skin tone what exactly her background is.

The reference to racism prompted a young black man, one of the few people in the room dressed in a suit, to get out of his seat.

“So you’re saying it’s fascism, that Brexit is fascism,” he shouted up. It was quite obvious that he and the other audience member were Leavers disgusted at what they saw as a smear on their positions.

The vignette highlighted the emotional divide in England right now. An appropriate slogan for this election would be, “it’s not the economy, stupid”.Instead this is about identity and culture, immigration, and regional disparity, all packaged under the label Brexit. There are many, far more pressing issues facing the electorate on a day-to-day basis, but it’s as if Brexit must be dealt with first.

The hustings provided a microcosm of the national picture. In the first instance, the fault lines between Leavers and Remainers are not easily definable. The average Brexiteer is often portrayed as white, middle- aged or older, poorly educated, and more likely to be living in a disadvantaged enclave of England.

Chiswick is smack bang in the middle of the second most prosperous area of Britain, yet Remain won the 2016 vote here by just 51% to 49%.

The Conservative candidate in the constituency, Seena Shah, is a young woman barely out of her twenties and of Asian heritage. She was a lone voice in favour of Brexit at the hustings, opposed by the sitting MP, Labour’s Ruth Cadbury, Ms Cross, and the Green Party candidate, Daniel Goldsmoth. The room was told that the Brexit Party candidate couldn’t make it.

As it is in Chiswick, so it goes nationally. The Tories want to get Brexit done. The Brexit Party is stepping back into the shadows to let the Tories get Brexit done. Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Greens want to get Brexit undone. A complicating element to the election is that the two aspiring prime ministers are either distrusted or disliked on an unprecedented scale.

More than half of the two-hour debate in the Chiswick Hotel was taken up with the B business. There were a few local questions, about sewage and plans for Heathrow Airport. One question concerned the NHS.

“You’ll like this one, Ruth,” moderator Alan Rides said to Ms Cadbury, a reference to Labour’s attempts to focus the election on the health service.

But there was no getting away from Brexit. Afterwards, Ms Cadbury told the Irish Examiner one of the reasons for the emotional divide in the country is that people were told lies at the referendum.

“Many of us are international and outward-facing and understand that facts about remaining in the EU,” she said. “Unfortunately, too many people believed the lies told which were [appealing to] emotion and not fact-based at all.”

She denied that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of advocating a second referendum, but not declaring how he would vote, is presenting the electorate with a muddy picture.

“People don’t live and breathe politics but now realise the impact on the NHS, friends in the EU, food standards, and they are beginning to realise that the EU is a big deal in a way they weren’t aware of in 2016. A lot of people are now actually saying: ‘I do want to vote again. I may vote to leave again but at least I’ll know the facts.’ ”

Earlier that day, in another part of London, at another gathering, Denis Fitzgerald provided his version of the facts about Brexit. He was attending bingo at the South London Irish Club in Wimbledon.

“It’s like going back to the old days, isn’t it,” said Denis, whose parents were from Kerry and Donegal. “They think we still have an empire and rule the waves. Little Englanders who think Johnny Foreigner lives on the other side of the channel, but they’ve got to realise that this is a multi-racial society we live in now.”

About 40 of these Irish and London Irish pensioners come here every Thursday. The club is located in a low, squat building on a residential road of red brick houses, sitting next to Wimbledon Spiritual Church. Those who gather for the bingo have been in London for practically all of their working lives but cling fiercely to their identity.

Kathleen McPhillips is a retired teacher from Monaghan. She has been here since she was 16. She sees immigration as a big part of the whole thing, but doesn’tconsider that the Irish areregarded as immigrants in the same way as those from other countries.

“The Irish have established themselves to an extent that we have integrated here,” she says.

“You’ll always get a minority who might look at you and say ‘you’re an immigrant’ but I think overall we are more appreciated. The Brexit push is definitely anti-immigrant but more directed towards ‘coloured’ people — Africans and Indians — because they stand out from the crowd.

How many are contributing? We don’t know the exact figure. And a lot are coming in illegally. It’s illegal immigration that is killing the country. That’s where the problems start. It’s putting legal workers out of business.

Despite such opinions, she won’t be voting for Boris Johnson.

“I don’t trust any of them,” says Kathleen. “So I’m going to vote Green this time.”

For Teresa Taylor, London was a refuge from her native country. She arrived here after a childhood spent ininstitutions in Dublin.

“I didn’t have a good time of it with the horrible nuns,” she says. “I don’t talk about it here, nobody would want to talk about it. It wasn’t very nice at all and then they sent me up to Donegal to be fostered and then to be fostered again. I love Ireland but it wasn’t very nice.”

Teresa’s retired now, having worked as a cleaner in London. She is grateful for what her adopted country has given her.

“Whatever happens with Brexit, my position won’t change,” she says. “I’ll still have my old age pension and I won’t get any more or any less. I’d like this country to be with the EU, they’ve supported us a lot but I suppose people in the election are voting for the man and not the policies.”

Johnson, she feels, is not as unpopular as Corbyn. Rory Godson offers a different perspective from the Irish in London. A former journalist, he runs his own communications business in the city of London and is the chairman of the British branch of the Ireland Fund, set up to help worthy causes in the old country. He sees the big issue as the exact shape that Brexit will take.

“Britain was never fully in the EU,” he says. “The question in the past was how far in [to the EU] it would go. The question now is how far out it will go.”

Rory doesn’t agree with the forecasts that suggest a downturn is on the way after the election and Brexit is sorted.

“There will be a boost to economic activity in the short-term,” he predicts. “There is a lot of pent-up decisions to be made. If Boris goes ahead and has a less regulated marketplace, you’ll have a lot of inwardinvestment.”

It won’t be all wine and roses, however, he says, pointing out that those who were most in favour of leaving the EU might come to regret the decision.

“The people who voted for it will unfortunately suffer the most and the metropolitan elite who opposed it will be fine,” he says.

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