Notes on Racism and the Brexit Referendum


The question is not whether you are racist but whether the things you do have racist effects.

In the reaction to last week’s Leave vote in the Brexit referendum, people who take aim at all ‘the racists’ who voted Leave, and others who defended Leave voters as ‘not racist’, are both missing the point. The basis for the Leave campaign, the grounds upon which it was fought, the way in which it was presented in Britain’s media, and indeed the way prominent figures in the Remain campaign treated the question of immigration as a ‘legitimate concern’ were all racist.

The assumed premises of the referendum: that some sort of stop would be put to immigration, and that one group -‘the British people’ had the absolute right to decide on what ought to happen with millions of other people living in the UK without them even being consulted, were racist.

Under such conditions, even a verdict of ‘the people have spoken’, uttered in reluctant recognition of a result one did not want, is racist. Anyone who thinks that this can be ignored or set to one side, because the ‘real story’ is the articulation of legitimate grievances about the immiseration under neoliberal austerity and rule by an aloof elite through a resounding Leave vote, is deluded. Indeed, not recognising this makes it all the more difficult to do anything about the legitimate grievances.

There have been strong critiques of phrase ‘take the country back’ that featured so much, or so it appeared, in the vocabulary of Leave supporters. Yet there is no a priori reason for this phrase to have racist, nativist content, or that it should carry with it a silent “from the immigrants”, or indeed “from the Brussels mandarins”, or whatever. However, that is how it resonates because a successful campaign has been fought to identify refugees and migrants as the source of contemporary ills.

You cannot argue with the idea of ‘taking the country back’ in the abstract, because it defies argument. However, the automatic association of this idea with racist content obscures some concrete truths. British liberals would prefer to pour scorn on Leave voters to whom this idea appeals, because it suggests that its content is at once retrograde and conservative, whereas the EU project -assuming we can ignore the wholescale economic destruction wrought against entire countries and the tens of thousands of human beings killed by its border controls- is forward-looking and progressive.

There is a real sense in which ‘the country’ has been taken from people, notwithstanding the fact that the UK has never been run by anything other than an elite few. Electricity, water, railways, the health service, housing, education: all these things have been privatised either wholly or in part, with more coming down the line. Why would it not be entirely right and understandable that people should feel a sense that they have been robbed? They have.

What is more, they have even been robbed of the sense that such things ought to be theirs -that is, everyone’s. The British Labour Party abandoned such principles long ago, communications media is overwhelmingly in the hands of big business and what remains public largely serves the conventional wisdom that privatisation is a good thing. Thatcher’s vision of a ‘property-owning democracy’ carries within it the notion that if you do not have property you are a failure. All of this is a recipe for a severe sense of dislocation, and it is fertile terrain for scapegoating.

Take education: a commonly held fear is the idea that the local school is full of children who do not speak English, and the presence of such children -rather than a presence that enriches- are thought to be somehow depriving one’s own children of the proper start in life. Such a fear is stoked in The Sun today, as shown in the graphic above – ‘Streets full of Polish shops, kids not speaking English..but now Union Jacks flying high again’.

Such a fear may well be classified as racist, but is this wanting the best for your own child above all else not precisely the same practice that is seen as respectable in those who go out and buy a copy of The Times to peruse the league tables, to make sure that their child is kept apart from the failures and among the successful?

A function of neoliberalism is to eliminate a willingness to share with others, and to look upon everyone else instead as a competitor for resources and a threat. Many of those who denigrate Leave voters in their entirety as ‘stupid’ -as, for example, Oxford historian Roy Foster does in today’s Irish Times- share the same moral code, the same belief in hierarchy and private advancement, the same prejudices: in Oxford University in 2014, a black student applying for admission was half as likely to get in as a white student. It is as though part of the contempt for the stupid people from liberal elites stems from the fact that they do not know how to conceal their racism properly.


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3 responses to “Notes on Racism and the Brexit Referendum

  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts and Readings on Brexit | Muireann ODwyer

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