On the afternoon of March 22, a 52-year-old man born in Dartford, Kent drove his car into through and over innocent pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, crashed into a gate of the Palace of Westminster, and fatally stabbed a policeman before being shot dead. In total, this man injured 50 people, killing four. ISIL later claimed responsibility for the attack, though that does not mean the terror group planned it.
In the aftermath, shocked Brits drew together, reached out to make sure friends and family were safe, and shared messages of condolence and defiance. We were in shock, but we were also united.
And then, Londoners continued to do what Londoners do: Just get on with each other, united in their humanity, their fear, and their outrage. London may have creaking infrastructure and rocketing housing prices (among many other challenges), but people love this city.
Despite the recent Brexit vote, and the rash of racist crimes that decision has sparked, for the most part the UK does its best to get along. The UK is a place where there are as many definitions of what it means to be British (or Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish) as there are people. When we are asked to define British values, they often seem more like character traits: tolerance, humour, self-deprecation. You are British because of the way you live your life, not because of your heritage or family history.
And even though “White British” is easily the largest single ethnic heritage group, London is multicultural, multi-ethnic city that attracts people from all around the world to live and work.
Not that you’d know it listening to our right-wing commentators.
On the night of the Westminster attack, popular conservative columnist Katie Hopkins wrote a piece in the Daily Mail arguing that the UK is a deeply divided nation. “Please,” she wrote, “no hashtag, no vigil, no tea lights. I am begging you not to light up Parliament in the colours of the Union. Because we are not united. We are wrenched asunder.”
On Fox News, US broadcaster Sean Hannity was joined by “Brexit leader, Fox News contributor and also a personal friend” Nigel Farage. Farage also portrayed the UK as a country where diversity has failed: “The problem with multiculturalism is that it leads to divided communities,” Farage told Hannity. “We finished up with very divided communities. I’m sorry to say we ended up with a fifth column living inside these European countries. The idea that this whole country is united tonight, which is what we are hearing from our leaders, I’m not sure is true.”
And yet, to Hopkins and Farage and others, London represents the home of the liberal elite, a city out of touch with the rest of the implicitly white anglo-saxon country. As Hopkins put it, this was about “The patriots of the rest of England versus the liberals in this city.” Across the UK, it is correct that areas that voted most strongly for Brexit were typically also less ethnically diverse, but the picture is not that simple.
There are parallels between the Brexit vote in the UK and both the rise of Donald Trump in the US and the threat of Marine LePen in France. But there are important differences, too. Don’t get me wrong, racism and cultural chauvinism are a problem in the UK and will remain so until historic and current effects of discrimination and prejudice are removed. However, the UK has not yet become deluged by hate-mongering media outlets as the US has, nor is the UK based like France and the United States on a stated set of ideals. Talk of things that undermine the British way of life are as likely to be about unavailability of food as they are about clashes of civilizations. In the UK, we tend to treat citizenship as being what you do, not what you believe.
London works precisely because its inhabitants don’t have to subscribe to the same ideas to get along. As anyone who has ever ridden the London Tube at rush hour knows, Londoners manage to be polite to each other in the face of even the most intolerable situations.
The EU referendum campaign did create an opportunity for more radical parties in the UK to address a directly xenophobic agenda, but the aftermath of that campaign has been a story of party collapse, not triumph, for politicians like Nigel Farage. Far from attracting the backing and support of serious political players, Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), does not even have a representative in Parliament anymore. In the process, it has shown itself to be less a proper political party and more a single issue pressure group. And the outpouring of support following the Westminster attack has only solidified these feelings of national unity. The world may be awash in populism and prejudice, but there are millions of people ready and willing to fight for what is right, too.