Capitol Beat Opinion

Britain Reveals Its Ugly Underbelly, But At What Price?

Linda Pentz
Written by Linda Pentz

An elderly London neighbor of my sister’s was celebrating this weekend. “My father fought two wars to get rid of the Germans and now we have finally done it!” he proclaimed.

Like many similar such pronouncements — against Poles, Muslims, immigrants in general, government, you name it — his entrenched opinion was wrenching to those who voted on June 23 for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union.

Old grudges die hard, but even if they do, new ones rise up to fill their place. Make no mistake about it; just as the Orlando massacre was indeed an attack on the LBGT community, despite right wing claims it was all about terrorism, so Brexit was an attack upon immigrants, not an effort to repaint Britain in the comfortable image of Masterpiece Theatre.

The coming months of economic chaos and divisive civil stress may lead some who harbored the illusion of an “independent” Britain to delusion. But for the millions who voted for Britain to remain in the EU, the morning after the vote brought immediate disbelief and despair. Including to my sister.

She just happens to run one of the world’s leading research labs on Hepatitis B. She relies on hiring the best and the brightest — including from other European countries —to get to the bottom of this viral infection that kills at least 780,000 people a year. But Brexit, her European colleagues told her, has likely “doomed the future of British science and academia in general.”

Hepatitis B is a viral infection that attacks the liver and can cause both acute and chronic disease as well as death. Gay men are at particular risk. Yet Hep B is the forgotten stepchild to HIV, where funding and research has been the focus.

“Many men have not been vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B, even though a safe and effective vaccine is available,” notes the Centers for Disease Control. Despite the availability of this vaccine since 1982, education about Hep B prevention remains under-emphasized in the gay community.

International collaboration is an essential component of scientific and medical research. In the UK, a borderless EU has greatly facilitated these partnerships and accelerated progress. But now all this could be stalled. “I will have to completely re-think how to staff and fund my lab without the European input in the future,” said my sister.

The common adjective she shared and which was felt by many who voted for the UK to remain in the EU was “gutted.” Which is precisely what Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative government did to essential social services across Britain.

So that even though the deprivations of British working people could be directly attributed to the real culprit, government cuts, the die had been cast for a Brexit campaign rooted in xenophobia and racism that pointed the finger at an obvious if erroneous scapegoat: immigrants.

An ugly underbelly had been laid bare, but it had been there all along.

To those confronting the frightening specter of a Trump presidency in the U.S., all this might sound familiar. It should certainly serve as a warning.

None of this was lost on the revelers at the London Pride Parade that fell two days after the EU referendum. Even though on that day, “out” was something to celebrate, many recognized that the decision to leave the EU undermined an essential tenet of the LGBT rights movement: acceptance.

Beyond the economic damage, the loss to science, medicine and dozens of other fields; beyond the freedom to live, travel, work and love in other countries, the Brexit vote hit at something deeper and sadder.

“Worst of all is the realization that we are living in a country where we feel so at odds with a large section of the population,” wrote my sister in an email.

“Now we are stuck alone on an island with a bunch of xenophobic bigots,” wrote another similarly “gutted” British friend on Facebook.

That could be the U.S. come November. It’s up to all of us who value tolerance and acceptance, and who embrace “love wins,” to make sure that a similar culture of hate and division does not win the day here as well.

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