Racist Incidents Have U.K. Worried What Referendum Wrought

Adam Posen: U.K. Policies, Climate Becoming Racist
  • Polish cultural center in London was damaged overnight
  • Britons take to social media to report racist comments

A spate of racist incidents in the U.K. in the wake of Thursday’s vote to leave the European Union have Britons concerned the result is emboldening extremist elements in society.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

Police are investigating a report of “racially-motivated” damage at the Polish Social and Cultural Association, a community center in west London, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said on Sunday. Twitter users described graffiti that read “Go Home” daubed on walls and windows. In Cambridgeshire, police are investigating flyers left outside a primary school that said “Leave the EU, no more Polish vermin,” the Evening Standard reported.

After a bruising referendum campaign in which supporters of leaving the EU were accused of stoking xenophobia, these and other incidents will intensify worries about whether a generally tolerant country is becoming less so. While politicians on both sides of the vote have urged calm and said the result does not reflect prejudice toward migrants from Europe or elsewhere, some aren’t so sure.

“There is no question the U.K. is shifting to a more racist atmosphere and policies. This is a rhetoric that’s showing up in the lives of schoolchildren," said Adam Posen, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee who now leads the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Lackluster Advocacy

British politics are in chaos after the vote in favor of a so-called Brexit prompted the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, spurred a rebellion against Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and opened the door to a second referendum on Scottish independence. On Sunday several senior Labour Party members resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet to protest what they said was his lackluster advocacy for staying in the EU.

The Leave campaign’s message was centered on reducing immigration, including by raising the specter of Turkish EU membership -- a prospect diplomats say is remote at best. A week before the referendum, U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage unveiled a billboard showing a column of hundreds of refugees walking on a road, under the heading “Breaking Point.” A day later, Labour member of parliament Jo Cox, an outspoken advocate for Syrian refugees, was murdered in her Yorkshire constituency.

‘Leave, Leave!’

Some incidents are occurring in the heart of the U.K.’s cosmopolitan capital. Sebastien, a 26-year-old Frenchman, was walking in the Kensington district on Friday with a friend and her mother, who was visiting from Paris. Hearing them speaking French, a man walking his dog began shouting at them to “Leave, Leave!,” said Sebastien, who declined to provide his surname for fear of retaliation.

The tone of some campaign discourse has "legitimized racist rhetoric," said Jasvir Singh, a London lawyer and Labour Party activist. "There is now a vocal minority who feel emboldened to use the result of the referendum as a reason to spout their hatred."

Schoolchildren were racially abused in a west London district this week, Seema Malhotra, one of Labour’s team of Treasury spokespeople, said on Saturday. “Someone shouted: ‘Why are there only 10 white faces in this class? Why aren’t we educating the English?’” she said, citing a letter from a teacher in her constituency about an incident on Wednesday. “Another went close up to the children and said: ‘You lot are taking all our jobs. You’re the problem.”’

Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, former Prime Minister Tony Blair said political leaders “have a big responsibility to help our country get through what’s going to be an agonizing process.” After a vote that largely pitted London, Scotland and a few other enclaves in favor of staying in the EU against the bulk of England and Wales, “we have a divided country but there is the possibility of bringing people back together if we are sensible about it.”

Britons have taken to Facebook and Twitter to report other racist incidents. One user, Fiona Anderson, described “an older woman on the 134 bus gleefully telling a young Polish woman and her baby to get off and get packing.” A professor at Coventry University, Heaven Crawley, said on Twitter on Friday that “This evening my daughter left work in Birmingham and saw group of lads corner a Muslim girl shouting ‘Get out, we voted leave’.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE