It’s sometime in October and I’m standing in front of Manchester Central Library, watching a white middle-aged man flick racial slurs over a barrier at a young man in a suit.
It looks like the latter has sauntered out of the nearby Tory party conference for his lunch, but was sidetracked by the half-hearted shouts.
A policeman is hovering at his elbow, opening his mouth and raising a hand to intervene.
This is, obviously, a Brexit protest, and the Stand Up To Racism troop have also dutifully turned up and are adding their chants about love and peace to the squeaky megaphone calls for democracy.
A man wearing a poncho and a skirt arrives, and starts exclaiming that Jesus wants Brexit, too.
I notice I’m not the only one who’s finding the protest wanting. After the policeman successfully splits the two men by the barrier, my attention is drawn to a figure hovering amongst the smattering of Brexiteers.
I’d watched him arguing for a while with a calm young man clutching a ‘Fuck the Tories’ sign, but the rest of the time he mostly keeps an eye on those on his own side of the barrier. At one point I hear him saying quietly to the man in the poncho that he’s “making our side not look very good.”
This scene continues for half an hour or so. As the group of anti-Brexiteers begin to gather belongings and sling banners over shoulders, a gleeful chant of “bye-bye lefties, bye-bye,” starts up.
Word spreads amongst the group of Brexiteers there is a Hong Kong protest nearby, and they flood around the corner to a much more organised and powerful scene.
Hong Kong demonstrators decked in black and with face masks are faced by a sea of red flags and communist symbols. I pick my way through the crowds, and find the man.
Jim is a nationalist and Brexiteer and had been, as I’d guessed, mortified by the disorganisation of the Brexit protest.
“It was abysmal,” he tells me. “I want to help portray them in a more wholesome light.”
He goes on to explain he’s been drawn to this Hong Kong protest because he’s interested to see if there is similar left-right split at play in the Hong Kongers’ fight for sovereignty, as there is with Brexit.
An intriguing comparison, I think. A few days pass in which I hunt for Jim’s details in the depths of various nationalist youtube channels, before we catch up over the phone.
‘BREXIT IS A SHORT-TERM MOVEMENT’
An ex-car insurance salesman born and bred in north Manchester, Jim embodies in many ways the stereotype of the white, working-class man who feels he’s disappearing amidst a global push for cultural progress and diversity.
The reason, though, I find myself having an hour-long conversation with him on a Tuesday evening, is his air of introspection and a willingness to critique the right-wing that I find curious, for a right-winger himself.
Diversity breaks down borderlines between what have been traditionally seen as set identities and groups, creating, says Jim, a serious existential threat for the white working-class man.
Although Brexit is a short-term movement, he says, it’s a “clear sign that we’re at a point of drawing that borderline.
“We’re bombarded with messages that seem to be suggesting that white Europeans should be discouraged from any kind of ethnocentrism,” he says.
“Whereas it’s actually promoted in minority circles that it’s ok for them to be ethnocentric. That seems unreasonable, I’m for ethnocentrism among all groups.
“The people on our side,” he goes on. “You can tell they’re the real people suffering in society, these are the people at the bottom.”
“Ultimately I’m for balance in as many things as we can get and I just notice that we’re out of balance towards the left, so we need more right-wing politics.”
I query whether Jim, who’s intent on being the ‘friendlier’ side of the right-wing nationalists, has considered the unintentional impact he might have. Divisive, exclusionary politics wrapped up with a ribbon of ‘reasonableness’ have even greater potential for destruction.
He admits he could start something that might get “coopted in the future.”
“There is currently a divide between me and Jim, we disagree on style of activism,” he continues, referring to the Brexit activist James Goddard, who was last year convicted of assaulting an MP, and who I’d also glimpsed throwing his weight around at the protest.
“His kind of activism – encouraging civil disobedience – I’m fairly against that,” says Jim.
“I’d rather show what English patriotism can be in a more positive light.”
I want to know where Jim’s obsession with ethnicity comes from. A feeling of group belonging is a wonderfully human urge, but whilst many of us get that partly from our racial heritage (and indeed importantly so), I’m interested in where it grew such overpowering roots in Jim’s head; and where the poisonous idea that ‘they’ are inherently a threat to ‘us’ took such strong hold.
His intense awareness of ethnicity and related “political polarisations” was hardened in childhood, he tells me.
The line crackles slightly as he references the “heavy Muslim population” at his school, and he explains this was at the time of the 2001 Oldham Riots – which a quick Google tells me were the worst ethnically-motivated riots the UK had seen since 1985.
“There was a lot of conflict,” he says. “I saw a lot of bias in the education system, there were a lot of complaints about some of the behaviour of the Muslim lads.
“Some tried to say it was racism but they were given the message from the headmistress that it couldn’t be, because white people can’t be victims of racism. So those kinds of issues had me conscious from quite a young age.”
BREXIT AND HONG KONG
Interestingly Jim claims that, actually, he’s for a united Europe.
“I just don’t think this is the way to go about it,” he says, “because the Europe we have is going down this route of ethnic diversity, and I think diversity divides us.”
This is where his interest in Hong Kong’s painful cry for sovereignty comes in.
I’m surprised when he remarks he does not support Hong Kong independence; it isn’t contradictory with his pro-Brexit stance though, he assures me.
“The Chinese and Hong Kongers are ethnically identical,” he says, by which I presume he means they ‘look the same’. They should be united therefore.
I point out that this might be a direct contradiction of his earlier emphasis on balance. Is a mono-ethnic society not the very epitome of imbalance?
“I’m not against in the future the world becoming ethnically unified,” he replies. “Part of the fear is the fact that we’re going so fast that there will be a backlash and it’ll actually be delaying that cause of us becoming unified as a human race.
“Ethnic unity is essential to the maintenance of the rich tapestry of the world’s population, true diversity,” he goes on. “Without the positive ethno-centrism that holds together the various ethnicities we all become one and we lose that richness.”
Jim hesitates when I ask him where he’d place someone whose parents were from Hong Kong, but they were born and raised in the UK and speak only English. That would depend on the situation, he says, before moving on.
There is a twisted mess of dangerous, underlying misapprehensions to Jim’s wildly blind remark that people from China and people from Hong Kong are ethnically identical.
Ultimately, and this is key, he thinks ethnicity, culture, race and values are ingrained and inseparable from one another.
Unless he’s played a very clever word game with me (and I’m inclined to think not) Jim is introspective and he’s also got brains. But he’s spun a politics which somehow allows him to claim he is pro-balance but anti-diversity; the champion of a unified future human race, but anti-racial mixing.
Everybody can see the horrifying humanitarian implications Jim’s opinions would have if they took hold, in promoting ‘peace and strength through division’. George Orwell would have a field day.
There’s a simpler contradiction in his argument though. You cannot truly be pro-diversity in the future if you are not pro-diversity now. The one leads to the other.
FASCISM IS NOT THE ANSWER
A week after we speak, an email pings into my inbox.
He wants to thank me for my questions, which have helped him “order his thoughts,” he says.
“In fact I’ve been thinking non-stop since then, particularly about the question on encouraging repatriation. I’ve decided I would never support or promote repatriation based on ethnicity/race.
“When people like me become so aware of so much of the history of conflicts between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Communism […], it’s tempting to turn to Fascism, we are after all often stronger together.
“It’s not the path to enlightenment though.”
Of course, Jim is just one man amidst a mass movement of anger that goes far beyond the European Union. But he has given an insight into the motivations of one segment of the UK’s working-class nationalists that I find fascinating and terrifying.
He has a point: left-wing activism is dominated by the (white, I’ll add) middle-classes. Fighting with and for those who are similar to yourself is appealing.
But we must listen to those opinions rooted in fear that we wished didn’t exist – because otherwise, as we’ve already seen, we’ll be totally unprepared if the time comes that they start to raise their heads.