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Essay: The Racialised discourse surrounding Brexit

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  • Subject area(s): Politics essays
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  • Published: October 19, 2021*
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  • The Racialised discourse surrounding Brexit
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The Racialised discourse surrounding Brexit is evident through the strong anti-immigration and nationalist narratives that drove much of both the Brexit campaign and the recent General Election of which Brexit dominated. Whilst there are certainly elements of ‘imperial nostalgia’ in this discourse, it is argued that the term simply fails to account for the ‘historical forgetness’ that plagues British Society, and the ahistorical framework in which imperialism is understood. Imperial Amnesia is therefore proposed as a more accurate analytical framework. The role of class is also examined, with the essay ending on the exploration of the historic links between class, imperialism and racialization.

The Racialised discourse

Before examining ‘imperial nostalgia’, it is useful to first explore the racialised discourse surrounding Brexit, and the way in which it manifests. Throughout the referendum campaign, a key and recurring theme was the issue of immigration, migrants, and the primacy of importance that ought to be offered to British people above all others. ‘Britain first’, ‘Taking back Control’, and ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ are just few examples of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that became highly popularised during the campaign. As noted by Bhambra, the referendum was primarily about ‘race and migration, those who belonged and ought to have rights and those who don’t and shouldn’t have rights.’ Although posing under the seemingly innocent guise of harmless nationalism, it is my view that such narratives are inherently rooted in racist, imperialist, and hostile frameworks. White Nationalism is itself a harmful exclusivist ideology, as it has been historically utilised to group individuals based on arbitrary and socially constructed terms such as borders, and consequently dehumanise and lessen those who exist outside of this framework. Functioning alongside racialisation, Nationalism seeks to deprive certain groups whilst simultaneously bolstering others. Rooted in white supremacy, White Nationalism is a form of racist violence. I draw upon Grosfoguel’s conception of ‘Racism’, and his reference to the ‘zone of non-being,’ whereby, subjects are ‘racialized as inferior and live racial oppression instead of racial privilege.’ As individuals in the zone of non-being are not recognised, their vilification is thus legitimized and perceived as reasonable. El Ehany observes the trend towards ‘extreme hostility towards people racialised as non-white’ in present day Britain, an observation supported by much research. A meta-analysis of 14,779 newspaper articles revealed that immigration was the most prominent referendum issue, with the coverage of migrants ‘overwhelmingly negative.’ The coverage of immigration was also found to have more than tripled over the course of the campaign , highlighting the way in which British people appear to have conceived of immigration as a real and insidious threat to British society. Alongside this anti-immigration sentiment, is amongst British people, a strong affirmation of antiracism and the absence of racism in British society. Through framing their racism as legitimate concerns regarding the future of Britain, a cognitive dissonance has been allowed to develop, whereby we are pushed to view ourselves as existing in ‘post-racial’ times . This phenomenon correlates to what Lentin refers to as the three Ds of racial management: ‘deflection, distancing and denial’ . To some, there ought to be a distinction to what can be regarded as ‘racial self-interest’ and racism, which Kaufman argues are distinct as concerns about the conservation of ones’ ethnicity is legitimate. However, as minorities simply lack the structural power and hegemony that the white majority possesses, it is difficult to perceive of any real threat to whiteness and thus I find it difficult to conceive white ‘racial self-interest’ as distinct from racism and agree with Lentin’s claim that ‘white anxieties about their number are a major mobilizing facet of racial rule.’ The racialized discourse surrounding Brexit is undeniable, and the refusal of this fact is consistent with Britain’s tendency to separate itself from its imperial and racist past (and present).

Imperial Nostalgia vs Imperial Amnesia?

Firstly, although the term ‘nostalgia’ is used, it is imperative to understand that imperialism is not a thing of the past and continues to reproduce itself through various forms which all serve to maintain white supremacy. Imperialism never ended with the fall of the empire, rather, it is now masked under terms such as ‘humanitarian intervention, European co-operation and international trade.’ What this essay therefore refers to is, in light of Britain’s decline as a major global power, the tendency for the British to romanticize and long for the era where Britain was a colonial power with control of much of the globe. However, whilst imperial nostalgia certainly features in the Brexit debate, arguably, imperial amnesia, is far more prevalent and insidious. Much of what appears to be imperial nostalgia, is in fact, rooted in a gross and shocking misconstruction of Britain’s imperial past, or a completely whitewashed and ahistorical account. During the Brexit debate, numerous references were made to the opportunity Brexit presents for the United Kingdom to reconnect with the Commonwealth , with Theresa May referring to the Commonwealth as indicative of Britain’s ‘unique and proud global relationships.’ Imperialism is portrayed as a successful project of which Britain should be proud, with many romantizing the colonial project and celebrating its achievements. Very little reference, however, is made to the horrific brutalization and treatment of the colonised populations, or the depletion of wealth and capital that arose from colonization. For example, Utsa Patnaik estimates that Britain ‘drained nearly US$45 trillion from the Indian subcontinent between 1765 and 1938, equivalent to 17 times the United Kingdom’s current GDP.’ Due to imperial amnesia, a 2016 YouGov poll revealed that 44% of British people were proud of Britain’s colonial history, only 21% considered it regrettable. In an attack on British artist Stormzy for his claim that Britain is racist, David Vance defends Britain for its role in ending slavery and freeing African communities from ‘barbarism’ . This display of amnesia has become so widespread in British society, with Stuart Halls referring to it as a ‘profound historical forgetfulness’, the end result of which is a state of ignorance and denial. Even worse, however, is the role in which this amnesia has in the sustenance of white supremacy through reinforcing white fragility and victimhood. As argued by Mills, white supremacy is difficult to identify ‘in part due to this collective ignorance and unwillingness to grapple with the ways in which history shapes the present .’ This ignorance enables the white majority to experience a total disconnect from historical atrocities, to the extent where any mention of them, is seen as a direct attack on whiteness through triggering feelings of victimhood and marginalization. This is brilliantly explored by Salsbury, who examines in depth the responses to his critique of Winston Churchill, particularly the obdurate accusations of racism directed at him. Salsbury found that ‘challenging dominant Eurocentric and white supremacist histories is constructed as an attack on whiteness’ , and thus, the white majority is able to deflect from and avoid any real confrontation of their imperial past. Consequently, in the Brexit debate, deluded notions of making Britain great again stand, despite the fact that it was never great, and there has never been an independent Britain distinct from the empire or colonial modes of governance.

The Role of Class

Another way to understand the racialised discourse surrounding Brexit is to examine the role of Class. Whilst for some, Brexit presents the opportunity for Britain to reconnect with its colonial legacy, arguably for ordinary working-class individuals, voting for Brexit was a means of protest against years of austerity, cuts, and marginalization. Whilst there are conflicting statistics, a recent study indicated that financial situation was the most significant predictor in the Brexit referendum, with those who were experiencing financial difficulty the most likely to vote leave. The role of class is reinforced in research by Goodwin and Health, who examine the ‘interaction effect’. This is the observation that individuals with good educational qualifications in ‘affluent areas more likely to vote remain than those in poorer areas.’ As a consequence of austere policies and neo-liberalism, inequality has rocketed in British society, resulting in the thriving of Populism and a radical changing of politics. The recent election results indicate rampant feelings of abandonment amongst the working class, with Brexit being the dominant theme and policy concern. As explored earlier in the essay, rhetoric surrounding immigration and anti-migrant sentiments dominated the Brexit discourse, and it is clear the way in which migrants were offered as scape-goats for the lack of economic opportunities and failing public services. The pitting of the working class against migrants, therefore, can be understood as a political means of mobilising communities against immigration. In Bale’s research on asylum seekers, she observes that ‘the most visceral attacks came in relation to a sense of that national community having been betrayed by a metropolitan elite that appeared to care more for the situation of ‘non-British’ others’. Similarly, Gurminder stresses the ‘analysis of class that is deeply racialized and ethicised’ to explain the Brexit result, emphasising the need for an intersectionist framework to understand Brexit. Whilst imperial narratives driving Brexit visualise the opportunity for Britain to re-establish itself as a global superpower via new trade deals, this can be seen as being in direct opposition to the interests of the working class, who view much of their demise as the result of globalisation and the shift of manufacturing and production to the ‘global south.’ A recent UN report confirms the fact that the most ‘vulnerable and disadvantaged’ will be affected by Brexit, highlighting how much of anti-immigration sentiments surrounding Brexit are misinformed.

Class, Imperialism, and Racialization

In the role of class in Brexit, it would be misinformed to discard imperialism and the historic way in which white working-class communities have been mobilised against immigrant communities in Britain during the colonial era. In Shilliam’s Race and the Undeserving Poor, he examines the way in which the British welfare state was bound in ‘imperial determinants that racialised those deserving and undeserving’ of welfare and social security. This saw further restrictions of who could and could not access welfare, with the very conception of welfare being to ‘address the weakness in the reproduction of Empire’s stock.’ Apart from the racial determinants of welfare, there was also a racialised division of labour that disproportionately favoured the white communities over the immigrant communities. This resulted in a huge wage disparity that fuelled sentiments of marginalisation amongst the Afro-Caribbean communities especially. As the British economy began to decline, there was a sharp rise in anti-immigrant sentiments, particularly amongst the white working class, similar to what we are experiencing now. This marked a significant period in British politics, where following the race riots of the 60s, white elites began to ask: ‘what about the white working class?’. This rise of Powellism saw the formation of ‘official racist policy at the heart of British political power’, with racist hostilities becoming more overt and popularised as well as the active policing of black areas. Powell’s popularity and support was firmly rooted amongst white working class populations whose lack of economic stability manifested as racism towards the colonial populations . Shilliam notes that the ‘white working class effectively became the prime national constituency of post-colonial Britain. In this post-colonial context, class is race’. This historical account reveals that the current Brexit discourse is nothing new nor surprising, and that whilst class is fundamental to understanding the racialised discourse, this is not to dismiss imperial undertones. As explained by Stuart Hall, ‘race is the lens through which people come to perceive that a crisis is developing’, and problems of the economy and class divide are projected through race.


Ultimately, ‘imperial nostalgia’ is a useful analytical tool, however it assumes some sort of informed consensus or acknowledgment of imperialism which is simply lacking in British society. Thus, there is the need to examine Brexit’s racialised discourse in the framework of imperial amnesia. Class relations is also a relevant framework to examine, however it is acknowledged that class, race and imperialism are connected, both historically and in the modern day.


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