Brexit, social class and ethnicity
According to research done by Lord Ashcroft, people in England and Wales who were older, lived outside major cities, had lower levels of education and a lower social class position tended to vote Leave. Conversely, people in London and the larger English cities, with higher levels of education and higher social class, tended to vote Remain. In England, not being in permanent employment was one of the strongest predictors that a person would vote Leave. Many commentators claimed that Brexit was a result of the excluded White English working class striking back.
Most BME people in the UK are working class according to standard classification, and two-thirds of them voted to Remain. Why would most BME people not want to ‘kick back’? Surely they are at least as neglected by the elite as White working class people? Being BME in today’s Britain is not without problems that have especially to do with structural forms of racialised exclusion. Well, there is one difference between the backgrounds of White and BME voters in England and Wales: a higher proportion of BME working class people live in urban areas, and the large cities in the UK all voted for Remain. But living in an urban area by itself cannot explain why BME voters overwhelmingly opted for Remain.
Most voters, whatever their background, would not have ploughed through the reams of writing on the history and workings of the EU or international trade. There is no good reason to think that BME voters are somehow inherently more insightful than their White counterparts. The biased media coverage in the tabloid press would have impacted on all voters as well since they all read these papers, and presumably form their opinions partly based on the information made available through them. I doubt that the average BME voter was ploughing through academic reports on the economic costs and benefits of Brexit. Unless we can show that BME voters had access to different information, and I do not see that they did, then BME working class voters processed similar information as their White counterparts, but arrived at a different conclusion, as reflected in their votes. Why is that?
Before going further, let me be clear: I do not reject the argument that the result of the vote was in large part due to a cry of dissatisfaction by the White working class in England and Wales, but I do want to raise several questions.
Why are Labour under Corbyn and the most left-leaning leadership in a generation so far behind in the polls? Labour accepts Brexit, and Corbyn is known to be ambivalent on Europe. Corbyn and his team have offered a range of policies more likely to benefit the White working class than anything offered by the Tories and UKIP: increased social spending, increased investment in affordable housing; investment in skills and development; a fairer system of taxation that makes the well-off shoulder a greater burden than they do now.
Perhaps White working class voters do no trust Corbyn’s Labour to deliver on these policies, but then why would these same voters trust the Conservatives to deliver on any promise to do more for the working class? If the White working class in England and Wales are angry that they have been ignored by politicians, then why have they empowered the very same Conservative politicians whose policies of austerity are the main explanation for the difficulties faced by the White working class?
For answers, we have to look at how the Conservatives and their UKIP allies have been able to take advantage of a political climate shaped by the right-wing media in the UK. These media have for years been stoking resentment against the EU and migrants of all kinds, through lurid and mostly untrue stories. A climate of suspicion and resentment against foreigners in general, and the EU in particular, was already in place, and it was, therefore, a simple task for Eurosceptic Conservatives, UKIP and opportunists such as Boris Johnson to exploit this by focusing the discontent of a significant part of the White working class in England and Wales on an external enemy as the cause of their problems.
An open appeal to ethnic nationalism would not have been effective for the Leave campaign because social attitudes among White people in England and Wales have been trending in a more tolerant direction since the 1960s, with hostile attitudes toward BME people now held by only a minority of White people surveyed. The Leave campaign could not invoke naked xenophobia and ethnic nationalism, so instead, they coded their appeal through a more anodyne patriotism and desire to have sovereignty, to take back control. Underlying this was nostalgia for a time when ‘Britain was Great’ and a desire to recapture past glories. There remained, nonetheless, the inconvenient facts of stagnant wages and strained public services.
Leave deflected attention away from the British government’s decisions to impose austerity, and directed voters to blame their problems on foreign workers undercutting locals and clogging up schools, hospitals and housing. And meddling from Brussels, of course. Playing to nativist sentiment required Leave to engage in more careful messaging aimed at how people imagined themselves to belong to the nation. Of people surveyed by Ashcroft, the majority of whom were White, those who saw themselves as more British than English were more likely to vote Remain, while those who saw themselves as more English than British were more likely to vote Leave.
This finding leads to a better explanation of the split along ethnic lines in the working class vote in England and Wales. The difference lies in how people place themselves in the space between two contrasting worldviews of liberal cosmopolitanism and ethnic nationalism/nativism. I stress the space between, because I am not suggesting that all or even most Remain voters, or all or most BME Remain voters are liberal cosmopolitans, nor am I suggesting that all or most Leave voters are ethnic nationalist nativists. I am suggesting that these contrasting worldviews were expressed as key values in the respective campaigns: there were overtones and undercurrents of liberal cosmopolitanism in the Remain campaign, and overtones and undercurrents of ethnic nationalism and nativism in the Leave campaign.
In the UK, and especially in England, ethnic nationalism and nativism, no matter how polite a face they might try to wear, have often drawn a boundary that excluded BME people, or to be more generous to ethnic nationalists and nativists, even if they did not intend to exclude BME people, BME people have tended to perceive themselves as being excluded by the ideas and politics of English ethnic nationalism and nativism.
Coda: Not all in it together
I will not be told as if I did not know, that White working class people suffer from
inequality. We’ve known this at least since Marx was writing in the middle of the nineteenth century. They suffer now under neoliberal capitalism because they are working class, just as they did under previous forms of capitalism. This is well understood by anyone who takes the trouble to look into it.
The unspoken message of the Brexit (and Trump) ideology is that ‘our’ White working
class voters deserve and will be offered better circumstances, not because capitalism is going to be transformed into something less unequal, but because ‘our’ White working class are natives in their own countries, and should, therefore, be at the front of the queue for whatever limited support is on offer (and make no mistake, it will be limited). Being White working class and suffering under neoliberalism should not entitle people to acceptance and sympathy when they express their pain through a politics driven by a xenophobia that diminishes the humanity of people who are not White natives, whether of the UK or the USA. I reject this political vision and so should you.
There is truth to the explanation that the White working class voters in England and Wales looked at the Remain side, saw metropolitan elites, experts and business in favour of Europe and decided that if the elites and business were for membership of the EU, then they would be against EU membership. Consider an argument in similar form, but with a different subject: BME voters looked at the Leave campaign, saw the nativism, xenophobia and far-right elements in that campaign, and decided that if nativists, xenophobes and the hard right were for Leave, then the BME voter would be for Remain.
With the start of the exit negotiations looming in early 2017, I still reject the notion that those who voted remain should shut up and accept the result. I reject platitudinous nonsense about having to stick together and make this work, chiefly because of the lies and misinformation of the leaders of the Leave campaign, and because of the nasty xenophobia that was an undertone in the campaign and which has become more pronounced in the aftermath of the vote. I know that not everyone who voted Leave is a xenophobe, and while I have no way of knowing what percentage of the Leave vote was made up of xenophobes, racists, nativists and latter-day imperialists, it is a safe bet that the xenophobes, racists and latter-day imperialists voted overwhelmingly for Leave.
The majority of BME people, whatever their class background, recognise that whatever comprises the nativist vision of Brexit Britain, they are not in the family portrait.
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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