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Saturday, 19 October 2019

Counting the damage of Brexit

The UK’s Brexit nightmare is damaging the country’s political culture and bringing back the zombies of British politics, writes Manal Lotfy in London

Manal Lotfy , Friday 10 May 2019
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After almost three years of conflict, deadlock and polarisation over the UK’s decision to leave the European Union in the so-called “Brexit,” the country is becoming a shadow of its former self and a dystopic political nightmare.

One UK candidate for the elections to the European Parliament in May was asked by the police to stop offering free hamburgers and hotdogs at election rallies.

Another candidate refused to apologise after he said that he “wouldn’t even rape” a female Labour Party MP who has faced online abuse because of her firm support for a second referendum on the UK’s leaving the EU.

 As if this was not bad enough, he also called a disabled young woman “retarded,” used the “N word,” and said he “personally finds racist jokes funny.”

Brexit has cost the UK its international status and prestige, paralysed the government and parliament, divided the country’s political parties, damaged its ability to attract foreign investment and affected relationships with its European allies.

However, none of these things is as bad as the damage Brexit has done to British political culture.

Brexit has managed to push Britain to the far-right and bought back the “zombies” of British politics, from Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and Ann Widdecombe, a former Conservative Party MP turned reality TV star, to George Galloway, who has left his Respect Party to become a candidate for Farage’s Brexit Party in an astonishing turn of events.

The Brexit stalemate has enabled some unsavoury figures to enter the mainstream of British politics, from Tommy Robinson, former leader of far-right group the English Defence League, to Carl Benjamin from UKIP, to the detriment of both the Labour and Conservative Parties.

Nigel Farage, the “godfather” of Brexit, now the leader of a new party, has come back from political retirement to continue the fight. Recent figures show that Farage’s Brexit Party has soared in the polls as it vows to bring down both the Labour and Conservative Parties.

One in six British people would likely vote for the Brexit Party in a general election to the UK parliament, a new poll has shown.

There are two electoral tests slated for the coming weeks, with local elections in the UK scheduled for 2-3 May and elections to the European Parliament scheduled between 23 and 26 May.

Farage is adamant that his party will do very well in the local elections and will come out top in the European ones.

A poll released by the polling company Opinium has shown Labour and the Brexit Party tied on 28 per cent for the European elections, with the Conservatives trailing far behind. In a UK general election, Farage’s party would win 17 per cent of the vote, with Labour on 33 per cent and the Conservatives on 26 per cent, it said.

Thus far, the Brexit Party has drained more support from the Conservatives than Labour. Prominent Conservative MP Nick Boles compared the top Brexiteer to the Night King in the popular series “Game of Thrones”, saying that “they are both poised to inflict imminent extinction on the potentates holed up in Winterfell and Westminster.”

He warned that if Labour and the Conservatives fail to come up with a compromise on Brexit before next June, the Brexit Party will grow in strength.

The deadlock over Brexit and anger over the failure of the government to handle pressing issues such as poverty, health services and the rising crime rate could cause one in five Conservative Party councillors to lose their seats in next week’s local elections, polling data has shown.

Analysis presented by Michael Thrasher of the University of Plymouth on the TV channel Sky News showed that in the worst-case scenario the Conservatives could lose more than 1,000 seats, about 20 per cent of the 5,521 they are defending, while Labour could gain 840 seats and the Liberal Democrats 170.

The Conservative Party is not the only party that is in turmoil over Brexit, however, as the Labour Party also has massive problems with the issue.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is under growing pressure over his party’s position on a second referendum on leaving the EU after a leaked draft of a campaign leaflet included no mention of a second vote.

Corbyn faced an angry backlash over the flyer, with Labour MPs saying it had triggered “complete meltdown” in the party and left pro-EU MPs “utterly furious”.

As the row deepened, 75 MPs and 14 MEPs wrote to Labour’s governing body to demand that “a clear commitment” to another referendum be included in the party’s manifesto for next month’s European elections.

In their letter to the Labour National Executive Committee (NEC), the MPs and MEPs said Labour had “a clear opportunity to win these elections” if it fully supported a “people’s vote” on the final Brexit deal.

“These elections are about the kind of Europe we want to live in, and we can’t make a convincing case in them without being clear about Brexit. Labour has already, rightly, backed a confirmatory public vote. The overwhelming majority of our members and voters support this, and it is the democratically established policy of the party,” they wrote.

Corbyn’s team is split on whether Labour should support a second referendum, with several senior shadow cabinet ministers saying they want the party to support a public vote on any Brexit deal passed by parliament. However, Corbyn’s inner circle say he only supports a referendum on the government’s deal to avoid a no-deal outcome.

All eyes will be on Corbyn in the coming days when he decides on what should appear in the Labour Party manifesto.

Such bizarre scenes do not end with the two main political parties, as newcomers to the political mainstream are doing their best to ensure that the world is looking at the UK with disbelief.

Carl Benjamin, the UKIP member facing widespread condemnations over his declarations, has been criticised after a video was uncovered in which he made offensive remarks.

Benjamin, who is running as UKIP’s South West candidate in the European elections, posted the video in 2015 in which he calls a young woman with Downs Syndrome a “retard,” a black man a N…, and posts anti-Semitic pictures over an image of a Jewish man.

Asked about the remarks, Benjamin told Sky News that “I’m not really interested in discussing any of these comments because, you see, I’ve had something like 400 million views on my YouTube channels. I’ve got a huge audience. If people want to go to see them they can go to watch them on my channel and see the context of them for themselves. Personally, I find racist jokes funny,” he added.

UKIP declined to comment on the video, but party leader Gerard Batten has previously defended the candidate on the grounds of “free speech”.

Labour MP David Lammy expressed the view of many in the UK when he tweeted that “words cannot express how deeply sad it is that in Britain in 2019 we have people who use the word “N…” running to be elected officials. This is an ideology of hate. It must be confronted and defeated.”

The political debate became more surreal when the British police intervened to ask Tommy Robinson, the former English Defence leader, to stop serving free hamburgers and hot dogs to supporters at an election rally because it broke electoral laws and amounted to “bribing voters”.

Robinson, known for his xenophobic and Islamophobic views, was offering free hot dogs and hamburgers from a catering van as he is standing in next month’s European elections as an independent candidate.

Speaking in Manchester, Robinson told a crowd of about 300 supporters that he was engaging in a “David versus Goliath” battle to represent England’s “betrayed” working classes. He also said he would campaign across working-class communities in a bid to target Labour voters.

Labour MP Mike Kane said Robinson was “not welcome to spread his xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic, racist vitriol in my community or in any other community,” however.

Anti-extremism campaigners “Hope Not Hate” urged voters to oppose the “far-right thug.” Chief Executive Nick Lowles called Robinson “a far-right thug who uses his platform to bully, abuse and stir up division, monetising his hatred to rake in donations from his fans.”

The Brexit nightmare is dragging the UK’s political culture to a new low.

Historically, far-right ideology has found it difficult to penetrate British society or the country’s political classes. Before Brexit, Britain was largely immune to the far-right groups that have spread in Germany, France and Italy, for example.

With Brexit changing the country’s political landscape, the UK may be immune no longer.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Counting the damage of Brexit 

 

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