It has been an interesting couple of weeks. The fall-out from the ‘No’ vote has been unpredictably turbulent and complex because no-one really expected a ‘No’ vote. One of the fairly predictable facets of ‘No’ is that it would enable an increase in openly-expressed racial hatred; this because a large part of the Leave campaign mobilised by evolving anxieties about immigration.
Unanswered questions, unquestioned answers
We need to start by recognising that the political environment within which race and immigration are discussed in present-day Britain is extremely problematic. Analysis has largely been overwhelmed by commentary, commentary that rarely cares a great deal about evidence. The most prominent aspect of this is the glossing of Leave voters as poor and uneducated masses who are xenophobic.
In the largest and most reliable survey-based research on attitudes towards immigration, 75% of the British population favour reducing immigration (Oxford Migration Observatory): immigration is a generalised British anxiety. The Ashcroft post-referendum poll suggests that professionals and managers were the only social group among whom a majority voted to remain (57%). The lower middle class divided fairly evenly; nearly two thirds of the working class and unemployed (64%) voted to leave the EU. This does suggest a social bias towards leave amongst poorer and unemployed groups, but we do not know how many poor people hold xenophobic views; nor do we know why those who do hold them have come to those views. Being poor and working class makes you no more likely to have voted leave than being a member of the Conservative Party: the statistics do not provide innocent facts but the basis for political inquiry and debate. Perhaps people voted Leave in the hope of getting better representation or engagement with political institutions?
In the midst of this lacuna lies a highly problematic elitist discourse about racism being a problem of the great unwashed who exist in some kind of combined condition of existential prejudice, ignorance, or moral failure. People don’t know this; they assume it. It has what some sociologists of the media call ‘truthiness’.
We need to unpick what immigration and xenophobia mean and how they connect to Brexit. An obvious starting point is the police reports and anecdotal evidence that racial abuse has increased since Brexit. This is sickening. It seems likely that ‘Leave’ has, for some, validated existing racial hatred, phrases like ‘take our country back’ enabling some to say out loud what they have previously been thinking.
But, this is not evidence that a majority or large rump of Leave voters are racists. And a ‘No’ vote motivated by concerns about immigration is not simply a metric of racism. What we have is unanswered questions and unquestioned answers. We do not know why did a majority voted leave? We cannot assume that the answer is an essential xenophobia amongst the masses.
A quick diversion. When we imagine poor people voting leave, we imagine them as white. The British working class is not white. Since the 1950s it has been increasingly multiracial. The cultures of the street and estate have been vastly more ‘multicultural’ than the corridors of public schools and Oxbridge, and they have been more significantly multicultural in the sense that working class cultures have changed, not simply ‘added race’ to largely unchanged institutions. Even a cursory look at Britain’s popular music, dance, art, and fashion show this. And, of course, many anti-racist and immigration workers are working class, embedded in community centres, support and education groups, schools, and political organisations.
Back to Brexit and xenophobia. The Leave campaign, and indeed the mainstream political parties and mass media more generally, have done a terrible job in presenting immigration outside of simple culturally essentialist binaries: them coming over here. Immigration for work (fixed-term or permanently), to join family members, to study, or to seek asylum from violence, taking refuge under extreme stress, being trafficked, or immigrating illegally are all quite separate processes, have different repercussions economically, and have all risen and fallen in different ways. EU citizenry also affects all of these in different ways because of common EU policies concerning movement into and within the EU. The EU itself is a regional institution designed to keep people out.
Now, it would be an absurd conceit to expect everyone to delve into these differences as if everyone has the time and energy to be an amateur scholar. But the lazy amalgamation of all immigration into the Immigration Issue is standard practice, and thus the political issues related to immigration are too easily racialised or beset with culture-panic about mosques and what language is being spoken on the tube.
‘I’m not racist but…’
In any case, what people might mean when they express a concern with immigration or say – as do most Britons not just the poor/working class – they do not necessarily do so in the abstract. They are more likely to do so in a range of contexts about social provision, changes to lived environments, anxieties about crime and violence, poor prospects for the future, and so on. These kinds of contextualisations are not amenable to large-n surveys with questions like ‘do you think there is too much immigration?’ But a qualitative small-n survey with interviews, likely yield anti-immigration views that are (1) not abstractly racist – all non-whites are evil/inferior/alien – but rather associated with certain ethnically-distinct communities and in that light (2) connected to some kind of social grievance or conflict which is not a simple and essential racial/cultural difference.
This is not to justify but rather to explain. It is both elitist and intellectually lazy to assume anti-immigration values, racism, and poverty go together and to project from this that voting Leave was a sign that Britain’s gullible UKIP voters on housing estates led the country out of Europe and into a morass of provincialism and introversion.
Middle class revolt
I was at a rally called in the name of unity to express public condemnation at rising racism. It was a great event to attend and it produced a very visible public concern about race hate. The rally itself was attended mainly by what one might broadly call the middle classes: people like me who have flexibility over the scheduling of their working day, people who are in public service professional employment, students, established political campaigners some of whom I recognised from anti-war and anti-austerity events. There is nothing wrong with this at all. It put me in mind of a very reasonable and personally familiar letter published recently in the Financial Times that expressed a kind of middle class revolt against racism, austerity, and the cultural and intellectual bankruptcy of people like Farage and Boris Johnson. ‘We want our country back’, the letter ended and I agree. I am tired of the vituperative culture-bashing of ‘Guardian readers’ or the use of ‘middle class’ as if this is a pejorative which has reached its epitome in the increasingly crazy articles of the commentary website Spiked.
But, let’s not pretend that meetings like this are anything more than ‘us’ speaking to ourselves, focussed on decision-makers who are quite like us. This leaves a space both for prejudicial generalisations about the working classes, the poor, and poorly educated. When one speaker said that (to paraphrase) ‘we have to accept the outcome of the referendum’ there was a scattering of ‘no!’ cries and even a placard stating ‘Referendum 2.0’. Sheffield is a city in which the constituencies with the highest Remain vote (like my own) are full of well-paid professionals. The areas where the Leave votes was highest were in constituencies where the poorest people live. But the Leave vote won out – Sheffield was the only major northern city where this was the case. What does it mean when a rally full of people like me has calls to annul this outcome?
There is arguably a way to make a claim that the referendum result should not be treated as an absolute imperative for government, but it is not one I have heard in Remain camps. (You may be treated to my view on this in another blog.) What I have heard in liberal-left social media is insulting judgements on those who voted leave and regret it, of people in vox pop interviews getting the names of politicians wrong, satirical commentary about poor people in Barnsley and Doncaster voting Leave but receiving high proportions of EU social funding. This amounts to a blanket piss-take of the working class by the middle class in the pursuit of a shoring up of anti-racist identities of those who claim to know better.
We need to do better
Fear of immigration is wrong, but arguments as to why this is are hard, complex, and require some evidence. It is not enough simply to say ‘we are all the same’ because it is a fact that we are not and that is the constitutive condition of any political practice and discourse. Nor is it especially useful to note (as is common again on social media) that Englishness is a myth, that St George was Turkish, that fried cod is Portuguese, our language mainly French and so on. It is also equally true and irrelevant that the British empire damaged colonies so severely and that about 50 million European emigrated to the colonies in the Nineteenth Century. It is also true that the vast majority of us – however we define our indigeneity – are the progeny of immigrants as recent genetic testing has revealed. There is no ‘race’ of Britons. The political questions generated by these historical facts are what matters; their relevance to those outside this habitus of educated humane liberalism is no self-evident.
This is not only an argument for more and better education. It is also an argument for a broader public discussion about immigrations and their diverse and concrete impacts. It is about testing people’s understandings of immigration in the context of government austerity, and it is about the ability of those who work in cultural production and the media to generate ‘sympathetic stories’ about immigrations that have resonance with broad audiences. It is in part about speaking – perhaps uncomfortably – with others, and having some clear points to make about immigration. The fact that someone says they think immigration should be stopped does not mean that they are now incommunicado. They might simply fall back on an irredeemably racist point or they might not. Or they might think again before they speak. By and large, people – everybody not just the poor – change their political values slowly if at all. None of this broadening out guarantees anything, but without it there is a real risk that poor working class communities start to resemble a social group subjected to the kinds of essentialised prejudice not dissimilar to those imposed on ethnic minorities.
* With apologies to Mark E Smith