Editor’s Note: Mandeep Rai is author of “The Values Compass: What 101 Countries Teach Us About Purpose, Life and Leadership.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
“At least now Brexit is happening, all the immigrants can finally go home.”
I was sitting on a bus traveling through London, my 8-year-old son next to me, when I heard those words. They had been spoken to be overheard, spoken at my son and me, the only non-white passengers on the bus’s upper deck.
Immediately I was taken back to my childhood in the Britain of the 1980s, a place where racism was rife in a way we had thought could never return. Although I was born in multicultural Birmingham, I grew up in an all-white village in the county of Gloucestershire.
As British Sikhs, violence surrounded us. Bricks were thrown through the window of my parents’ shop, on one occasion hitting my mother in the head. We had to install bars on the windows. Our home, immediately upstairs, had petrol bombs pushed through the letterbox on more than one occasion. At school a boy deliberately tripped me, breaking my nose. He said he had wanted to see if I would bleed red or brown.
Anyone who has experienced racism will tell you that it does not have to physically hurt you to leave a scar. Having to explain to my son what the words on the bus had meant, and why they had been directed at us, caused me more pain than broken bones ever could.
Studies suggest that my experience on the bus was reflective of a miserable trend in the United Kingdom over recent years. A poll last year found 71% of people from ethnic minorities had experienced racial discrimination, up from 58% three years earlier. In 2018/19, the number of race hate crimes reported by police rose by 11%, to a total of 78,991 – more than double what it was just five years earlier.
At football matches, a prevalent barometer of social issues in the United Kingdom given the large cross sections of society that attend, incidences of racism had been on the steady decline, until last season when they rose by 50%, from 98 to 152.
I have seen my own community repeatedly targeted by racists in the past few years. An Edinburgh Gurdwara – a place of worship – was subject to an arson attack in 2018, and last year a memorial to the Sikh soldiers who fought in the British Army during the First World War was defaced just days after it was unveiled, in my hometown of Smethwick, Birmingham.
Many have linked this rising tide of racism to the Brexit referendum of 2016 and its aftermath. There might not be anything inherently bigoted about the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, but it has without question offered a flag of convenience and permission to old prejudices.
In my early adulthood it felt like the overt racism of my childhood had become a thing of a past. With hindsight it now seems that racism didn’t so much disappear as retreat to the margins of society. Bigotry that had been silenced by diminishing social acceptance has found a warmer climate in the Britain of recent years.
Another unquestionable reality is that Brexit has made the United Kingdom a more divided society. It is a division rooted not just in politics, but fundamental values. The principles that define our personalities and decisions as people have grown apart.
I have spent the past two decades reporting from 150 countries around the world, examining the role that values play in national culture and society. So often values are a cause for unity – ideas and ideals that bring together different generations, communities and ethnic groups.
But in the United Kingdom since 2016, we have seen a gulf open between competing value sets. Those who voted to remain in the European Union typically prize values of openness, togetherness and inclusion. On the leave side, ideas like control and national identity are prevalent. Research has shown that the gap in values doesn’t just exist between Leave and Remain voters; it has actually widened since the 2016 referendum. In particular, Remain voters have become more disposed to left and liberal positions than they were previously.
The last prime minister, Theresa May, inadvertently summed up this division in 2016 when she said that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” Akin to Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” in that year’s US presidential election, the “citizens of nowhere” line became adopted as a rallying cry by opponents of Brexit and the government’s hawkish approach to immigration – appearing on apparel, protest placards at pro-EU marches and even the title of a BBC comedy show.
For more than three years, the fundamental divide in Britain was between those who wished to deliver the result of the Brexit referendum and others who wanted to overturn it. Brexit is now a reality, but the divide it either created or revealed (depending on your perspective) is here to stay. The nature of UK politics and society in the years to come will be determined by whether both sides make efforts to bridge the gulf in values, or continue to stand on either side of it shouting at each other.
This is a depressing time for those in the United Kingdom who prize the values of a more open, connected and tolerant world. But there is also hope. Because there is no more powerful moment to recognize and be inspired by your values than when they have been trampled on. Values matter to us because they are a personal bottom-line: we cannot bear to stay in a job, a relationship or even a country where there is no room to express our values.
Many in the United Kingdom feel like their values have been on the losing side of the past four years. Changing that begins with robust opposition to the racism that has crept back into British society. But that is only half the battle. We also need to reassert our own values – showing what we aspire to as much as what we will not abide by.