When the remain-supporting Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right supporter shouting “Britain First” days before the EU Referendum in 2016, it was clear we had reached a horrific low in the Brexit campaign in West Yorkshire.
Her murder spurred me into action. I was out canvassing for remain in Halifax town centre on the day of the referendum. Person after person parroted back to me the anti-immigration views expressed by politicians or the lies on the side of a bus. I went home and told my husband I thought Leave would win. I was one of those who was saddened but not shocked by the result.
And of course, the anti-European and anti-immigration rhetoric didn’t end when the UK voted narrowly to leave the EU. If anything, the politicians who had fanned the flames of xenophobia were emboldened – as were those who saw it as their patriotic duty to spread their hate speech in our communities.
Post referendum racial abuse and hatred
Several of my friends were racially abused in public. One was shouted at to “go home” by a group of schoolboys as he jogged through his local park. Friends who were EU citizens told me they had taken to speaking as little as possible in public – and only in a very quiet voice when they had to, for fear their European accents would attract abuse.
A friend’s mixed-race son was told the local park was “whites only” by other boys when he turned up to play football with friends. I heard from people working in education that white schoolboys – often from the most-disadvantaged backgrounds – were being targeted by far-right groups operating in the area.
Hatred, much of it spouted by politicians and whipped up by the mainstream media, was in danger of becoming a permanent fixture on our streets.
Intimidation of pro-EU demonstrators
As the Conservative Party battled it out amongst themselves over what type of Brexit they could get through parliament with an ever-decreasing majority, the pressure for a second referendum continued to mount.
I attended a Stop Brexit march organised by Leeds for Europe, and the divisions across the city were clear. A bus driver shouted “traitor” at us as we walked past. Men came out of pubs to shout abuse at us as we marched along The Headrow.
When I went down to London for a national Stop Brexit march, the atmosphere at Leeds city station was intimidating. I saw a man approach an older woman with a ‘Grannies Against Brexit’ banner and shout abuse in her face. The march in London was a good-natured affair, with no abuse coming our way. Only when I got back to Leeds that evening did things change. I held my placard upside down and sat down quickly on the train. But a man opposite came across, demanding to see what was on my placard. I tried to make light of it, and he eventually went away, but I was aware that had the colour of my skin or my accent been different, it may not have ended that way.
A terrifying incident that inspired a novel
The proof of that came when a French friend wearing an EU sticker and her 11-year-old mixed-race son were racially abused on a train home from Leeds on a Saturday evening by four white, middle-aged men. One of them took hold of her hair, pulled it back and screamed “no surrender” in her face. They also shouted racial abuse at her terrified son. No one on the train said or did anything at that point.
It was only after one of the men said “We are going to trolley you out of the UK” to my friend that a young woman came to sit near her and talked to her son. She asked if they wanted to get off the train with her at the next station, which they did. My friend contacted the British Transport Police, and the main abuser was eventually convicted and ordered to do community service.
I realised that the scenario of a Brexit-inspired attack happening in public and people having to decide whether they should intervene or offer support, was an ideal one to build a novel around. I wanted to personalise the experiences of those suffering hate attacks and racial abuse and make people stop and think about what they would do.
Romeo and Juliet in post-Brexit Leeds: an exploration of social divisions
Leeds, which narrowly voted 50.3% to remain against 49.7% to leave, seemed an obvious setting for the novel. And a reimagined version of Romeo and Juliet the obvious way to tell the story of a young couple’s love being beset by the hate between the divided families and communities around them.
I also wanted to explore issues around class and social deprivation where Brexit was concerned, particularly as the national media had perpetuated a false narrative that the north of England was responsible for the leave vote, when major northern cities such as Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle had all voted remain. It was northern towns, many of which had borne the brunt of unemployment following the miners’ strike and the collapse of the coal mining and steel industries, leading to a feeling of being ‘left behind’, that had fuelled the northern leave vote.
Two fictional families at the sharp end of Brexit Britain
I created the working-class Cuthbert family to show how that sense of resentment and hopelessness could lead to young people becoming susceptible to far-right views and grooming. But also, that it was perfectly possible within that family for other members to have entirely different views.
And I created the professional, middle-class Mastour family – with French and Moroccan parents – to illustrate how EU citizens living in this country had been made to feel so unwelcome and had to deal with a bureaucratic nightmare to claim their right to stay. While their British born children raised as Muslims in this country, faced increased racism in their lives.
I hope that by shining a light on these issues, my novel In Little Stars will help to raise awareness and understanding and continue to change hearts and minds for years to come. In Little Stars is published by Quercus in hardback, eBook and audiobook. Linda Green will be launching her novel at Waterstones Leeds on 16 February at 6.30pm.
CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT THE BYLINES NETWORK CROWDFUNDER!