BREXIT has destabilized the social, political, cultural and economic life of an entire nation. It has exposed Britain as a country divided between outward-looking metropolitan urban centers and disaffected, blighted hinterlands; a young, cosmopolitan, well-traveled generation that embraces internationalism and freedom of movement, and an older generation that clings to traditions of sovereignty, and is fearful of fluid borders and untrammeled migration flows. Why should any of this concern Filipinos?
I have ridden the London bus number 52 since I was a child. The bus brought me to school. The route gives one of the best views of modern migration in the capital.
Starting from the garages in the suburbs of northwest London, the bus sweeps by Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian shops. There are signs in Gujarati and window displays of sari cloth, piles of sweetmeats, joss sticks and paan (betel and areca chew). Turning right, past the local library where the author Zadie Smith used to borrow books, the bus goes up, then down a hill, and follows the rows of workmen’s terraced houses that trendy hipster types are rapidly gentrifying and where fewer and fewer Greeks and Irish live. Pretty soon, we reach Ladbroke Grove, once a haven for post-war refugees—Slavs and Serbians. Later, a vibrant Afro-Caribbean community settled in the area but that, too, is now diminished.
An assortment of Poles, Hungarians, Filipinos, Portuguese, and Latin Americans is now filling up the bus. Some of the Filipinos will get off soon to remit money at the Philippine National Bank’s office, a poky room above a shop in Notting Hill Gate. At Kensington, where the Philippine Embassy once was, some will change buses that take them to Earls’ Court, London’s Filipino enclave, or they will go to work in the grand, white-stuccoed houses that always remind me of wedding cakes, or meet friends in McDonalds on the High Street, a Filipino hangout since the 1970s. In nearby South Kensington and toward Knightsbridge reside French and American elites, and fabulously rich Russians. Nobody here is an “economic migrant.” This is “expat” territory. By the time the bus swings round Buckingham Palace and onto Victoria, the final stop, the passengers are mainly tourists. The Filipinos who are still on the bus are going to hear mass in Westminster Cathedral.
The communities that populate this multi-ethnic wedge of London may or may not have voted in the Brexit referendum. Perhaps they could not care less about the EU. But the triumph of the “out” vote unleashed a vicious xenophobia that spits in the face of anyone brown, black, or foreign. Of course, not everyone who voted leave is racist, but the result certainly emboldened bigots, racists and thuggish vigilantes. Physical attacks, taunting shouts of “send them home” and “F*** off, we voted out” dog excrement pushed through letterboxes, the word “vermin” printed on flyers and plastered on Polish homes, “pack your bags” spray-painted on the walls of ethnic community centers, all happened just hours and days after the result. This is an outraged populism on the rampage.
Filipinos in the UK are a head-down lot. None of them, so far as I am aware, has come forward to report incidences of hate crime or abuse. At least not yet. The Philippine economy, we have been told, will remain largely unaffected by Brexit. Mr. Asif Ahmad, the emollient British Ambassador to the Philippines, recently used some soothing words: “It’s not that we are suddenly shutting the gates to people moving.” But when every migrant is now becoming fearful, his assurances ring hollow. This is no time for complacency.
Here’s why we should care and learn from Britain’s self-harming lunacy.
First, when half the electorate is angry, alienated, and frustrated at being left behind, ignored, neglected, patronized, demeaned, and excluded from the wealth and rewards that globalization has brought to metropolitan centers, government has clearly failed. The out vote was an inchoate cry for change. Second, political jockeying for power among a bunch of opportunistic and self-serving elite politicians does lasting damage to democracy and recklessly gambles with everyone’s future. Third, both sides waged campaigns that were irresponsible, inflammatory, and fear mongering. Half-truths, misinformation, and outright lies were peddled, which sections of the press fueled rather than countered. Fourth, complex issues were reduced to bile-laced vulgar politicking, or crude and simplistic polarities—yes or no, for or against, in or out. Finally, the shooting on June 16, of Jo Cox the Labor MP and Remain advocate, cast referendum politics into the abbatoir. There is a short, direct and scary line connecting right-wing nationalism, isolationism and nativism that spouts from the mouths of certain politicians, or is propagated by some newspaper columnists, to intolerance and hate toward immigrants and progressives.
It is this last point that is truly frightening. When neighbor turns against neighbor, an ordinary bus ride through the city has the potential to turn murderous. The Brexit mess has brought nothing but uncertainty and disgrace to Britain. We should care because when outward-looking cosmopolitanism is repudiated, when solidarity, civility and universal ethics are trashed, when deception, fear and hatred win out, everyone, and not just the Brits, is in serious trouble.
My last week‘s column, “Burying Ferdinand Marcos,” erroneously stated that Lord Byron was buried in Kensal Green cemetery in London. I thank the reader who pointed this out. It is, in fact, his wife, Anne Isabella “Annabella” Noel Byron (Lady Byron), who is buried there.