Brexit's toxic legacy of hate imperils our hard-won freedoms

I've been thinking lately on how people across Europe felt in the early 1930s as they watched events around them and in faraway places with unfamiliar names. Of course, they were unaware of the future so could not imagine the horrors ahead. But would they have done anything differently? Or would most folk just have done what they did, put it all out of their minds and get on with their lives as best they could? Replace Pastor Niemöller’s “First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out, for I was not a socialist …” with Syrians, or refugees, or sick, poor or disabled, or immigrant, and you get my idea. Solidarity is all encompassing or it doesn't exist. 

Sunday Herald header

First published in The Sunday Herald, 2 July 2017

There’s a toxic energy in the air. Too many people are feeling powerless in the face of problems just too insurmountable. People are being nasty to each other online, in the street, and I fear where it’s going to take us.

I’m in Madrid representing Scotland at WorldPride. As well as marching with LGBTIQ brothers and sisters, allies and friends from across the world, I am taking part in an International Parliamentary Conference at the Spanish Senate on how we can better organise ourselves to support each other across borders. We have just signed the Madrid Declaration in solidarity and defence of global human rights.

Scotland has a stellar story to tell. We are a beacon of hope to so many other places, and I have been blown away by how many people not only admire us but want to learn from our experience. Scotland is rated top in Europe, only bettered by Malta, for equalities legislation.

But as well as our good news, I’m here with a warning. Things can go backwards, and the UK has proved that this year. Worldwide, we are seeing regression. Look at how the vote on Proposition 8 rolled back equal marriage in California.

It is the oldest political trick in the book – play on people's fears and tell them they are right to fear “the other”. The other being immigrants, Muslims. Push it a bit further – gays, blacks, Jews, the liberal elite, anyone. The Brexit vote unleashed a wave of poison that shames us all, and we cannot kid ourselves Scotland is immune. As well as a frightening rise in anti-immigrant, racist and Islamophobic crimes, recorded hate crimes against the LGBTIQ community in the UK in the three months after the Brexit vote rose 147 per cent across the UK as a whole. The Scottish numbers are better but complacency is our biggest risk. I have a bet with a Labour MEP friend of mine about when in the Brexit discourse in the UK “British values” will become “family values”.

There have been various surveys in differences in attitudes between Leave and Remain voters. Among Leavers, I have been staggered to see attitudes that are actually hostile to things I took for granted, like multiculturalism, feminism, equalities and freedom from discrimination. Turns out that a lot of folk still hold these views, and see Brexit as a chance to take back control and get rid of all that namby-pamby PC correctness.

Of course, there won’t be an “Abolition Of All Things Decent Bill” presented to the UK Parliament any time soon – that would be too obvious. But there are things coming that should chill your soul. Our rights are underpinned by European, either EU or ECHR, protection, with independent judges standing by to criticise the UK or Scottish governments if they step on our rights as citizens. Precisely the system of external scrutiny developed after the last war (in large part by English and Scottish lawyers) to ensure that the rights of citizens across our continent would be less likely to be stamped on by their governments. The extremists presently in charge of the UK Government want to take us out of that. Why? The Great Repeal Bill will delete that external scrutiny, with the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Court to be replaced in similar fashion soon enough. Will British judges fare better? The British judges described by the most influential newspaper in England as “enemies of the people”? 

So what will they do with this untrammelled power? I don’t know. Look at the UK Government, reliant upon the DUP for its very existence. This is the party that tried to limit the access of Northern Irish citizens to equal marriage in Scotland. Their attitudes to women's rights are something else as well. What power will they wield over a hapless and needy Tory administration?

And if my bleak vision sounds far-fetched, look at what is happening around us. Our rights as EU citizens are being stripped away against Scotland’s democratic will, by people who dismiss building fire regulations as red tape. Almost unthinkable barely a year ago, a combination of arrogance, apathy and ignorance left the field clear for the liars and the populists to hoodwink just enough people for just long enough, and now Brexit is happening. If we lose rights, they’ll be replaced by the grace and favour of a UK Government that I don’t trust with them. Be it an assault on health and safety, disability rights, or equalities, solidarity has never been more important. They’ll only get away with it if we let them. We need to remember the big picture, pay attention and be vocal, at home and abroad.