A clear majority of people of colour in the UK voted to remain in the EU Referendum vote, however a substantial minority voted to leave. Rarely discussed in the media, Anthony Mba talks to ethnic minority Brexit supporters about their motivation to vote contrary to expectations.
After the monumental shock of the decision to leave the European Union on June 26th 2016, some semblance of a debate as to how Brexit happened began to emerge as the dust settled. A fateful convergence of increasing poverty, what was seen as an increasingly disconnected political class, and Nigel Farage had produced the unimaginable.
However, the discourse surrounding the debate is heavily influenced by the views of that very same “liberal metropolitan elite”, centred largely in London. It’s been argued that most of the proponents for leave were i) uneducated, ii) didn’t know what they were voting for, iii) would probably change their mind if given the chance again, and iv) branded as racist simply for supporting the leave campaign, perhaps most unhelpfully. Notable in its absence among the discourse was any detailed analysis of the voting motivations of people of colour.
The Remain campaign predicated its argument on the idea Britain would be poorer if it left the EU – referred to as “Project Fear” – and the leave campaign based its vote on Britain taking back control of its “money, laws and borders”. Lord Ashcroft commissioned a survey following the result that sought to ascertain the attitudes that led to people voting either leave or remain.
“There’s no denying that a stirring nationalist sentiment contributed to the success of the leave campaign.”
What the survey revealed is that leave voters had two primary motivators: the principle that decisions affecting the UK should be taken in the UK was ranked first by 49% of leave voters and “a feeling that voting to leave the EU offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders”, ranked second at 33%.
There’s no denying that a stirring nationalist sentiment contributed to the success of the leave campaign. Understanding Society ran a study on the demographics of those who voted on the referendum and found that: “Of the race and ethnicity terms, being “White Other” (capturing EU and Irish citizens resident in Britain) rather than White British has a large and highly significant effect on support for remaining in the EU.”
On the other side of the coin, Black people were more likely to vote remain: “Being of mixed ethnicity or Black (British and other) rather than White British also has a large effect on supporting remaining in the EU.”
When you delve deeper into the data, you find that the coalescing of societal factors that led to the leave campaign sweeping to victory are more nuanced than the prevailing discourse would suggest and there needs to be a drive to demystifying the leave vote. What if we were to look at the motivations of leavers who are also people of colour?
The infamous Brexit Bus
Jermaine (not his real name), 21, is a student from London who couldn’t make it to the ballot box at the time of the referendum, but would have voted leave and if given the chance, would vote leave again. His reasons were simple:
“The EU has a long history of setting up lots of laws and barriers which hinder economic freedom leading to a slowed economic growth rate. Additionally, to reduce the heavy bureaucracy caused by EU leadership.”
Jermaine maintains that his race, how he experiences the world as a person of colour and how he sees himself had nothing to do with his position. He sees himself as a rational agent voting on a rational economic basis which, coincidentally, is how many remainers see themselves also.
When asked about the fact he was in the company of racists who did vote leave, he expressed his discomfort but simultaneously shone a light on a hypocrisy that is not often spoken about.
“Yes [it’s uncomfortable], but just because we made the same decision on the ballot paper doesn’t mean I agree with their views. In fact, if I was to apply (the same?) thinking (used by remainers) to this, I’d say that voting for remain is in itself racist since it favours those European immigrants who are majority white, as compared to immigrants of colour from other parts of the globe. So using this logic I could say everyone that voted for remain is a white European supremacist. See how ridiculous that sounds? But I’m not a remoaner so I won’t apply that logic.”
A queue at a polling station
Jermaine’s sentiments about remainers are echoed by David, a 26 year old professional of mixed heritage who has been involved in the Forex markets (currency market) since 2011.
“I would argue that remain voters are just as racist when you consider that the majority of the EU is white yet they do not want non-EU immigration. They do not mind refugees coming in though, since it allows their virtue-signalling to continue and show how ‘not racist’ they are.
This is because they do not want the compositional status quo of the EU being able to provide cheap labour to change when non-EU immigration tends to actually have higher skilled workers coming in – this would be in direct threat to elitist business owners due to effects on their profit margins, as well as potentially putting others out of work as the cream of the crop from non EU countries seek to come to the UK to earn their rightful wage.”
Through virtue of his profession, David possesses an intimate knowledge of the economics that underpins the EU and how it affects the UK and he also based his decision on the numbers.
“Large movements on the markets were much to do with issues arising from Europe. We had the sovereign debt crisis as an example with Greece and Italy showing distress during this period.
This led me to investigate what the component was that was causing these issues, and clearly it was monetary union and the introduction of the Euro. Over this period I looked deeper and deeper and I noted that the Eurozone was not an economic feature but a political one; a means to consolidate power at Brussels and allow Germany to rule the union.”
When asked about his vision for Britain after the EU David’s answer was simple:
“I didn’t have one. I just knew that without the EU we would not have this overarching cancer governing us. We are a massive country and many do a disservice to us. We will be just fine outside of the EU.”
The headquarters of the European Commission – the executive of the European Union – in Brussels
Gwen, 58, a carer from London who came to the UK from Sierra Leone in the 1980s, is adamant that black and brown migrants were shunned for the benefit of white, European migrants.
“Unskilled European migrants have been given free rein to come into the UK whilst skilled African workers have fallen to the wayside. That doesn’t seem fair to me. I understand that the UK cannot become a haven which any and everyone has unbridled access to. But it that’s the case why given preferential treatment to the Europeans? Everyone should be on a playing field determined by how skilled they are. That is the fairest system I can think of.”
Gwen also cited EU spend on the other countries, a throwback to the leave campaign who claimed that the UK would save on our EU expenditure of £350 million a week (the real figure being closer to £250 million if you include the rebate) and spend that on the health and other public services.
“The money we put into the EU would be put to better use here. We could fund education or even health.”
It seems as immigration – for the younger parts of the electorate, no matter which way they voted – did not influence the direction of their decisions. The absence of an identity driven voting rationale is also noticeable and it appears to be a vice of mainly older voters. That begs the question why would any person any ethnic minority person – would vote leave on the basis of immigration.
“This isn’t to say that racism played no role in the leave vote – it almost certainly did. There was no doubt an added dynamic of racism in the immigration debate as demonstrated by the hysteria whipped up during the campaign by the falsity that Turkish residents would flock to the UK in their droves if the UK decided to remain”
Freedom of movement for EU migrants in a world that places strict restrictions on non-EU migrants has led to a buildup of resentment in certain communities, including those of people of colour. The government has made no effort to reconcile these differences and temper hostility, so for many affected, the only option was to vote leave to signal their displeasure with the establishment.
The archetypal leave voter being a disgruntled, anti-immigration British man is a picture too easy to draw and tells a story of an elite that has lost touch not just with native Brits but with the hardworking migrants who flocked to the UK in different parts of the post-war period.
This isn’t to say that racism played no role in the leave vote – it almost certainly did. There was no doubt an added dynamic of racism in the immigration debate as demonstrated by the hysteria whipped up during the campaign by the falsity that Turkish residents would flock to the UK in their droves if the UK decided to remain. At the same time, more damningly, the Windrush Scandal was bubbling under the surface. This was a failure of not only the draconian Home Office rules and the administrative blunder of destroying original documents that served as proof of residency for West Indian migrants, but also the awful handling of the situation by the Conservative government.
Afro-Caribbean migrants to the UK in the 1950s, commonly known as the Windrush Generation
The government’s approach was callous and disrespectful with a complete lack of regard not just for the contribution West Indian migrants have made to Britain but also for their basic humanity. The British government failed the Windrush Generation in way that would be almost unimaginable for European migrants – it was part of a “hostile environment” for migrants that has caused heightened hostility to migrants in our pubs and on our streets.
The economic factors, however, cannot be understated. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the prices of assets and other goods have continued to rise, wages have stagnated, and the very wealthiest have added £258 billion to their wealth. Democratic societies so often preach about fairness but it’s hard to convince proud workers up and down the country who now have to settle for contract, insecure, badly paid work that they are being treated fairly when reports of a rise in homelessness, destitution and the rise of food banks are a regular occurrence.
With that being said the decision to leave the EU was symbolic as much as it was practical. Up and down the country there are voices, concerns and worries that have been muffled for far too long, and that includes people of colour. And the result of that has now manifested politically. We can admit that, whilst simultaneously using this as a chance to confront the racist attitudes that do exist in Britain.
Parliament was due to convene on December 11th to decide on whether or not they would have accepted Theresa May’s deal. Following May’s triple-defeat in the commons last week the general consensus was that the Withdrawal Agreement was dead in the water because it simply can’t deliver on what voters on both sides of the fence envisaged in a post-EU Britain. May all but confirmed that by postponing the vote until at least January 14th 2019, citing the fact she would most likely lose in a commons vote.
The political and media establishment have been integral in creating divisions on the basis of race, culture and other identifiers within the working-class and the consequences of that are felt up and down the country everyday. All you have to do is pick up a newspaper and locate an article about Islam or immigrants to get a taste of the tone that has become acceptable in Britain. We have shunned our similarities, however we should not seek to absolve the racist elements from responsibility – people who are ever-ready to remind anyone who is not white and British of their ‘otherness’, and the negative implications of that. Their scapegoating is at odds with the fact that those same minorities face similar struggles to themselves.
If we took just a moment longer to listen rather than deride we would realise that the labourer in Yorkshire born and raised in Britain, the Romanian restaurant worker who migrated here for a better life, and the Nigerian civil servant who thought their skills would be put to greater use in the UK aren’t too dissimilar after all.
Anthony Mba currently works in communications and has a keen interest in Africa. Anthony is an avid debater and has a bachelors degree in Politics.