Not in the family portrait: BME voters and Brexit – Part I
Martin is a Leave voter who was “unemployed … had his benefits suspended and been
summonsed for non-payment of council tax. For him, the EU referendum was a chance to kick back”. Martin’s story, as told in a June 20, 2016, opinion piece in the The Guardian, is framed around a widely-held explanation for the result of the Brexit vote: that Brexit was a protest vote by ordinary working class people in England and Wales, people whose concerns had long been dismissed by a distant metropolitan elite in London.
This is a plausible account that is supported by anecdotes and surveys, but it does not explain why working class people in Scotland, London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham voted Remain. Nor does it explain why two-thirds of Black Minority and Ethnic (BME) voters chose Remain: 67% of Asian and 73% of Black, according to the Ashcroft poll.
Striking a blow against the elites is not the main reason given by most Leave voters in England and Wales when asked why they voted as they did. Most people who voted Leave said that they did so to gain greater control over immigration and to be free of control by Brussels, ‘to take back control’. What has been little commented upon is that the working class vote in England was split along ethnic lines, with a majority of BME working class voters opting for Remain. Before we explore BME voting in the referendum, let us recall how the campaign was conducted.
A campaign of lies and misinformation
The Remain campaign was lacklustre and at times presumptuous, but Leave was much worse. The Leave campaigners were cynical and at times mendacious. Leave made unsubstantiated claims about immigration from the EU: that immigration benefits only the ‘metropolitan elite’; that immigration harms ‘ordinary people’ by lowering wages and putting too much pressure on public services; that a vote to leave the EU would ‘bring our borders under control’. Leave claimed that a European Army was being created, without also informing people that the UK as a member of the EU has a veto on the creation of any such Army. Leave wilfully misrepresented the UK as being the largest contributor to the EU, when it was the third or fourth depending on how you measure contributions.
The Leave campaign made no effort to educate voters about the many benefits of being in the single market; instead, they spread fantastical ideas about a world of free trade outside the EU, as if anyone on the planet who wished to trade with the UK was not already doing so. The weight of expert opinion was against Brexit on economic grounds, so Leavers attacked experts and made a virtue out of ignorance, all with the willing support of the popular press and right wing social media commentators.
With no sound economic arguments, Leave fell back on the £350 million a week that would be saved by leaving the EU and reinvested in the NHS, without explaining that the UK derives economic benefits worth several times its contributions because the EU is in the world’s largest single market. Within hours of the referendum result, Leave leaders were stating that the £350 million a week for the NHS was not something they could commit to delivering. Within days of the referendum, prominent Leave politicians were saying that a major reduction in immigration was not likely to result from Brexit.
Millions of working class people with justifiable worries about their economic well-being were manipulated by politicians who held track records of promoting politics that made working people worse off. But if White working class voters in England and Wales were conned by Leave messaging, then why were White working class people in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and ethnic minority people across the country, most of whom are working class, mostly not susceptible to the Leave message?
Dog whistles and useful idiots
Crossing into the Schengen area as a dark-skinned person with a British passport can be a little disconcerting at times: is it just your imagination or do immigration officials examine your documents more closely than those of White UK passport holders? There is a large store of anecdotes by Black and Brown UK citizens about the friction they encounter while crossing borders in Europe. Back home in the UK, some Black and Minority Ethnic UK residents resent that people from the EU have the right of free entry to the UK, while citizens of Pakistan, Jamaica, India and Nigeria need visas and are subject to intrusive checking before being allowed to travel to the UK, and when they arrive they are not allowed to seek paid employment. To people with family links to countries that were part of the British Empire, current UK immigration policy can seem unfair. Some in the Leave campaign latched on to this sense of resentment, claiming that a post-Brexit UK would have an immigration policy that was more transparent and fairer to skilled people from the Commonwealth, even hinting that the EU was ‘racist’ in allowing freedom of movement only to mainly White people. This was all calculated to appeal to those BME people who might feel that people like themselves were being shut out. It served the additional purpose of diverting attention away from the xenophobic and nativist side of the Leave campaign.
While there was lots of talk about reconnecting with the Commonwealth after Brexit, it was not always clear if Leave campaigners had in mind Canada, Australia and New Zealand (the Old Commonwealth that was majority White) or the wider Commonwealth of well over two billion people, most of whom are not White. We have no way of knowing what version of the Commonwealth Farage and others had in mind, but it was odd how often Australia came up in Leave campaigning as both a source of desired migrants and as a model of immigration policy. With a robust economy at home, it is unlikely that many Australians would come to the UK for low-paid jobs. As to Australian immigration policy, it is distinguished by harsh treatment of refugees, often disparaged as ‘boat people’ in the right-wing parts of Australian media.
Given what we know of UKIP politicians and the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party, through for example their attacks on the ‘failure of multiculturalism’, is it likely that they are in favour of Brexit because they aim to create an immigration policy that would be more open toward dark skinned migrants? And why the pro-Brexit emphasis on the Old Commonwealth of three faraway prosperous nations with relatively small populations anyway, when there are millions of skilled people nearer the UK who have English as a first or second language, and who, unlike most Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders, do want to come to the UK? For answers, we can look to the ethnic nationalism that ran through the Leave campaign.
There is no doubt that there were strong currents of nativism and ethnic nationalism in the Leave campaign, and these currents seemed to have wrong-footed some BME voters. Take the case of those curry house owners across England who claimed that the Leave campaign had promised that ‘fairer’ post-Brexit immigration rules would mean that they could hire more chefs from the Indian subcontinent to meet an urgent shortage. They were quickly disabused of any expectation in that regard: no sooner had Theresa May got into Downing Street, declaring that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, that the curry house owners realised that there would be no reform of British immigration policy to allow increased migration of chefs from the Indian subcontinent because it was the intention of the May government to reduce all immigration. That was what ‘the people had voted for’.
Brexit meant Brexit and Brexit meant no special immigration deal for curry chefs. Then there is the case of Black British crime novelist Dreda Say Mitchell, one of the most prominent BME supporters of Brexit, who wrote that she opposed British membership of the EU for leftist reasons. She did seem just that bit uncomfortable to have found herself on the same side as Nigel Farage in the campaign, especially when seated next to him during an awkward television debate. Mitchell would write in January 2017 that if May ‘betrayed’ BME Leaver voters, then they would ‘switch sides’.
Leaving aside Mitchell’s somewhat odd threat to ‘switch sides’ long after the referendum was decided, and the equally odd expectation that a right-wing Conservative government would be more open to migration from South Asia, in my follow up post I will ask how did BME people vote on Brexit?
Brian Alleyne is a sociologist who works on activism and hacker culture, using biography and other kinds of stories. Londoner by adoption, Caribbean routes, lifelong geek and hacker. You can follow his work at https://goldsmiths.academia.edu/BrianAlleyne
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