Bleary-eyed and battered, I had just finished a twelve-hour overnight shift when the sun began to glare down on a new day, a new dawn. Britain’s Independence Day, some called it. The UK had just voted to leave the European Union.
Despite needing sleep, I couldn’t close my eyes. This was a huge event, it had caught many off guard and the news just wouldn’t stop. My friend came round to mill over the news. “Everyone I passed on the way here was talking about it,” he said. Later that evening, the pub was buzzing with Brexit. This was London, the one region in England that had voted to remain within the EU. While the majority who voted to leave had cried “we want our country back,” the capital’s bubble was collectively staggering around in the new dawn wondering “what has my country done?”
While we had been warned of the financial uncertainty of Brexit - during the campaign “Project Fear” (as it was dubbed) saw gloomy economic predictions emanated seemingly from 10 Downing Street, the Bank of England and the City of London. But when Brexit dawned in the early hours of Friday 24 June the stories that came to proliferate were ones of a different sort of fear. Not only financial nor economic but now racial too.
I first became aware of it on the Sunday after the result when a friend of mine wrote on her Facebook page: “Yesterday someone pointed at me and shouted ‘go home’ as I was on my my bike.” There are always reports of racism in the capital, but the fact that my friend was told to “go home” was somewhat new.
Video emerged later that week which appeared to show three youths shouting at Juan Jasso Jr, a US army veteran, on a tram in Manchester. Shouts of “go back to Africa” and “you dirty f****** immigrant...Get deported,” were reportedly heard.
At Channel 4 News, we interviewed a young woman called Harj Sahota who experienced racism three times in one day, with one person chanting: “We voted leave, now you can f*** off.” At the BBC, one of their journalists was called the “p” word in her hometown of Basingstoke, the first time she’d heard such an insult in 30 years.
Both Jasso and Sahota believed the referendum result had contributed to their experiences, with Jasso saying Brexit had “maybe has pushed people to somehow justify that they think it’s okay now to act out in this way”.
While the anecdotes were few, they were backed up by recent statistics from the National Police Chiefs’ Council: more than 3,000 hate crimes were reported between 16-30 June, a 42% increase on the same period last year. On the Saturday after the vote, hate crimes reached a peak in England, Wales and Northern Ireland: 289 on a single day. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, told the House of Lords that there was a level of “poison and hatred that I cannot remember in this country for very many years.”
But these stories were a side issue to a larger whirlwind of emotions around the UK. For many, Brexit was a revolt against the political elites. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition campaigned for Remain and 52% ignored their advice. It was put to Tony Blair during the recent publication of the Chilcot Report that it was the Iraq War that possibly started the deep mistrust many have with the political class today. For them, a small number of stories about racism was being used to diminish their victory.
For the Remainers, the result and the initial apparent consequences caused defiance. Thousands marched on Parliament to speak up for the 48% that voted to stay within the EU, many of them Londoners - the one region in England that voted to Remain. Scotland began to demand another independence referendum to stay part of the EU while there were calls in Northern Ireland for unification with South after 55.8% also wanted to Remain. Was the UK beginning to fall apart?
Furthermore, the killing of Jo Cox MP by a lone gunmen was a huge shock to population, with more people descending on Trafalgar Square just before the EU referendum to ask for a kinder form of politics, and to criticise the language of today’s politics. Many commentators pointed towards the language of the Leave campaign, a notable moment being former Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s unveiling of a poster using an image of refugees at the Slovenian border under the banner: “Breaking Point”. That was unveiled the morning of Ms Cox’s death. Mr Farage apologised for the timing.
Yet for the Indian observer, it is worth noting the strong Commonwealth migration thread within the Leave campaign. Whenever he was accused of racism, Mr Farage was quick to point out that he wanted to make it easier for migrants from the Commonwealth to come to the United Kingdom over EU individuals, who enjoy freedom of movement.
On that point, Priti Patel, a government minister and prominent Leave campaigner who was born in the UK to Ugandan Indian parents, called on the voters to “Save the Great British Curry”. She argued that curry houses in the country were closing at a startling rate because they could not recruit trained chefs from the continent due to the difficulty of obtaining the paperwork.
Of course, that may not make Nikhil Pandhi feel any better. The Indian graduate studying and living in Oxford, experienced his own form of racism after Brexit at an airport in Lisbon. “Three British people were standing next to me and they were talking about Brexit. I was holding my residence permit and this man, who was in his early or late thirties, just sort of slyly smiled at me and snatched my permit.”
He asked where Pandhi, who was wearing a kurta, was from. “India”, he replied. Looking at the bearded Pandhi on the permit, he said: “Oh, you look like a terrorist.” Pandhi says he was “shocked, slighted and shaken,” while others around him laughed.
But Pandhi doesn’t take the view that Brexit was linked to his experience. “I would always be very cautious in making these connection because Brexit or no Brexit, racism is racism, intolerance is intolerance,” he told me.
For Pandhi, the make huge post Brexit assumptions would be to take a giant leap. After his experience, he thinks that racism “is more insidious than I thought it was. And that for me is the thrust of it: racism clings onto political fault lines because it is convenient.”
As Luke Gittos, a lawyer and legal editor, told Channel 4 News, the racism seen in the aftermath of Brexit shows that a “small number of individuals are feeling emboldened by this referendum because they’ve interpreted it as support for their views. But the key point is that they are wrong. This referendum was not a victory for racism and bigotry. Immigration was not the key reason they voted.”
Last night a Sikh radiographer colleague of mine was told by a patient "shouldn't you be on a plane back to Pakistan? we voted you out" 😞— Dr. M. Ali Abbasi (@drmaliabbasi) 26 June 2016
Indeed, Lord Ashcroft’s thorough polling showed of the referendum result showed that nearly half, 49%, of Leave voters said the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.” The referendum was about sovereignty and democracy for them.
There is, therefore, a mood among some sections of complete despair and uncertainty. That’s partly because there seems to be no clear plan on how the UK leaves the EU, especially as our Prime Minister has resigned and the key Leave campaigners, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, are leaving the political limelight.
For the Indian living in the UK or visiting, has Britain’s multiculturalism shifted? Does that small minority – who are using Brexit to voice their racism in new, shockingly vocal form – mean the atmosphere has changed for non-whites? Certainly there are those who feel Brexit has opened the floodgates for immigrants of all colours to be targeted.
But the thousands who marched in London in support of Remain did so also as a demonstration against intolerance. That display of unity showed that there are many within the capital who will not allow the few to frighten their friends. For those in London at least, Brexit has not shifted attitudes as much as hardened them: the multicultural and accepting nature of the capital will not be altered no matter what.
But within that bubble of confusion and countless questions, post Brexit racism cannot be discussed with huge certainty, for we are still only two weeks on from that historic vote. And if those last 14 days are anything to go by, there is a lot more to come in terms of the identity and the mood of the United Kingdom.
The writer is a journalist with Channel 4 News based in London.