LONDON — As political earthquakes go, that which Britain experienced on June 23 last year can justifiably be said to register high on the Richter scale. The vote to leave the European Union was the most significant and consequential event in the UK’s post-war history. Its tremors continue to convulse Britain’s body politic and will do so long after Brexit is scheduled to occur in 2019.
A poll for the Jewish Chronicle on the eve of the referendum suggested that Britain’s Jews were slightly more in favor of the UK remaining in the EU than Britons in general. Forty-eight percent planned to vote “remain,” while just over one-third — 34% — intended to vote “leave.” At the same time, divisions within the community — much higher support for the EU among the young, the north leaning more towards “leave” with London heavily backing “remain” — mirrored those in the country as a whole.
However, given the widespread view that, albeit narrowly, Britain would not turn its back on its 40-year membership of Europe, few predicted a particular impact on Jews if the country did vote to leave.
Like much else about Brexit, that forecast has been turned upon its head. The steep rise in hate crimes which followed the referendum result unsettled many Jews, including those who had voted to leave.
Broadcaster and journalist Angela Epstein, for instance, backed Brexit after deciding that, with the specter of the far right on the march across Europe, British Jews would be safer off out of the EU. She soon came to regret her decision, writing last August that “in voting Brexit as a kind of preemptive and protective move against European anti-Semitism and bigotry, I neglected to foresee the fallout in my own country.”
“How long will it take for the searchlight of racism to sweep across other minority communities, like, well, the Jews?” she asked.
One year on, that fear remains for many. Economic uncertainty — a prolonged “phony war” after the referendum when the British economy cruised smoothly onwards now appears to have come to a shuddering halt — has been compounded by political instability in the wake of this month’s inconclusive general election result.
Mark Gardner of the Community Security Trust views Brexit as “a fundamental part of the deepening mood of uncertainty and division pervading Britain.” He believes that it is “hard to imagine that this overall climate will do anything other than help fuel anti-Semitism, especially where Jews and Zionists are blamed or hated as somehow being part of the establishment, much as we have seen in France in recent years.”
However, Stephen Pollard, the “leave-voting” editor of the Jewish Chronicle, disagrees that Brexit is responsible for nurturing an atmosphere of bigotry that poses risks for Jews. EU membership, he contends, renders voters in its nation states “powerless to change many of the basic aspects of their governance.” The resulting frustration — the perception that “voters are [being] ignored and told they have to do what their betters demand” — has fed the rise of the far right.
‘As Jews we know who bears the brunt of “saviors” who promise to represent the views of the hitherto ignored’
“As Jews we know who bears the brunt of… ‘saviors’ who promise to represent the views of the hitherto ignored,” Pollard argues. “Brexit is not the progenitor of intolerance but its antidote.”
Nonetheless, just as the referendum sparked an outpouring of anti-immigrant sentiment, so the triggering of Article 50 in March — the formal notification of Britain’s intention to leave — and the increasingly hard line stance adopted by Prime Minister Theresa May provoked an anti-Brexit backlash at the polls two weeks ago.
The aftermath of the general election
The general election — “the revenge of the ‘remainers,’” in the words of political scientist Robert Ford — allowed Labour to make unexpected gains and deprive May of her majority in parliament.
Ironically, given Jeremy Corbyn’s lackluster performance during the referendum campaign — the result, many suspected, of his own longstanding hostility to the “capitalist” EU — the Labour leader has now emerged as the principal and undeserving beneficiary of this revolt by young, urban and liberal Britons appalled by May’s Brexit plans.
As has been widely noted, the so-called “Corbyn surge” during the general election unsurprisingly stalled when it reached the “bagel belt” of North London seats. Indeed, new research by Dr. Daniel Allington of Leicester University indicates that constituencies in London with the highest number of Jewish voters showed the lowest increase in the Labour vote.
In the context of the strong correlation between voting “remain” in the referendum and Labour in the general election, Corbyn’s lack of appeal to Jewish voters is graphically illustrated by the party’s failure to capture Finchley and Golders Green, where only 31% of voters backed “leave” last June, or Hendon, where nearly 60% of the electorate voted to stay in the EU.
None of that escapes the fact that, in the aftermath of the general election, Labour — just weeks ago dogged by allegations of tolerating anti-Semitism in its ranks under a far-left leader who counts Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” — now looks closer to power than at any time since it lost office in 2010.
As one senior Jewish Labour source suggests: “Brexit has upended British politics. The anger many young people rightly feel about it has been captured and exploited by Corbyn. It’s one of the main reasons he might now end up in No.10 [Downing Street, the prime minister’s office]. That once-unthinkable consequence is one of Brexit’s many pernicious effects.”