Playing with fire in asbestos underpants

Nick Cohen explains how the Brexit campaign embraced xenophobia as the path to victory.

Vote Leave, the respectable campaign of those “progressive” Conservatives Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Andrea Leadsom and Chris Grayling, promised not to incite racial tension. Last October, it barely mentionedimmigration in its propaganda. In May, its officers tried to ban Nigel Farage from the airwaves, so wary were they of contamination.

For all that, Farage proved to be the Mephistopheles of the Tory leavers. He offered them victory in return for what paltry souls they possessed. Going hard on immigration was the only way to win, he said. After a glance at the polls, “progressive” Tories agreed. On 3 June, a triumphant Farage could boast that their conversion was the “turning point”; the moment when Ukip’s wining stance on immigration became “mainstream”. It is still not true to say that race and immigration were all that mattered to everyone who voted leave. But they were all that mattered to Vote Leave. Mainstream Tories accepted that creating and exploiting fear would take them to victory. They played with fire and you can hear the flames crackling.

And Nick doesn’t see any potential for a not so bad outcome.

Whatever choice Brexit forces on us, Ukip and forces to its right will prosper. They will be able to say to supporters old and new that they were lied to and betrayed. Either immigrants would still be coming or their grievance-filled followers would be getting poorer.

I cannot imagine better conditions for resentment to rise. A referendum that was meant to let “the people take control” and “restore trust” will have achieved the opposite. You do not need an over-active imagination to picture the threats to the safety of anyone who looks or is foreign that may follow.

Last week’s violence could just be the start. Naturally, not everyone will suffer. No one is going to vandalise the Hurlingham club or firebomb Fortnum & Mason. Johnson, Farage, Gove, Leadsom, Duncan Smith and Grayling will have played with fire safe in the knowledge that, whoever else burned, it would not be them.


They’re all right Jack.

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