The battle of Britishness in the age of Brexit: Akala talks to the Convention

How can Britain move beyond its postcolonial melancholia, selective memory, and national forgetting to confront its colonial past and present, and – finally – to understand the roots of Brexit?

31 May 2017

Because I'm not used to speaking for short amount of time, I've written something. Cause anyone that knows me knows that trying to get me to stick to 15 minutes is near on impossible. So I've written something that I've entitled "The battle of Britishness in the age of Brexit" and the title of the essay comes from a brilliant book by Tony Kushner that examines the waves of migration to Britain from the 17th century up until the 1950's. I suggest everyone read it to see how much depressing continuity, and also lack of credibility, there is around contemporary debates about migration.

I would like to talk about remembrance and forgetting. Before we get into my analysis, I would like to make some, what should hopefully be obvious observations, by analysing the role that narrow nationalism, xenophobia and often outright racism played in the Brexit campaign, we are of course not suggesting that everyone who voted leave is akin to the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, nor that remain voters are a homogenous group of revolutionary anti-racists.

This should be so obvious it should hardly be stated. I've met black socialists that voted leave, I've met absolute xenophobes who voted remain, and everything in between. the ruling class was of course itself massively divided on the issue, with the Murdoch press and Tony Blair – usually in such sublime agreement when it comes to waging war – occupying opposite camps.

I myself, am neither remain nor leave per se, as I wrote at the time. I think there are valid reasons to leave the EU, as there are to remain. But I was driven to a remain position, via (a) the xenophobic tone of the leave campaign, though the intellectual quality on both sides was absolutely shocking, and (b) an assessment of Britain's current political landscape.

So whilst there are obviously multiple motivations around such a complex issue, what I do wish to emphasise as a few other scholars have, is the role that race, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism and a-historical analyses played in the Brexit campaign, popular perceptions of it and thus, arguably, its outcome.

In Britain, our project of national forgetting and selective remembrance, has been so successful that we often like to believe that race is what happens elsewhere, in the USA perhaps.

But first, Britain's racial history 101: our project of national forgetting and selective remembrance, has been so successful that we often like to believe that race is what happens elsewhere, in the USA perhaps. But Britain built an entire global empire, nourished in no small part by the assumption that white humans were superior to all others. People that were non-white, came to be seen, and treated, not just as a lower class of humans, but often as non-human. 

This ideology was created not by poor people – this is important and has relevance to today, as often poor people are painted as the most or even the only racists, which is classist nonsense. Race rather was codified by some of the greatest thinkers, educated at the top universities of the modern age: Kant to Linnaeus, Blumenbach to Hume. And the idea of race was used by a pan-European ruling class to devastating effect. 

For example, Winston Churchill, often voted Britain's favourite person, could be found describing the Palestinians as dogs, or claiming that the extermination of the red man of America or the black man of Australia was, as he put it, no great crime at all. He also blamed Indians for breeding like rabbits, when millions of them were starved to death through British rule.

Yet sections of our political class worshiped this man, we put him on banknotes, and perhaps expect those of us, whose extermination he would call ‘no great crime,’ to say nothing at all. Of course, Britain, then as now, was not a monolith, and this philosophy sat uneasily or wrestled with, profound social movements, such as the abolitionists, the Chartists, the campaign to end child labour, the vote for women or for poor people, and, interestingly for me, the pan-Africanist movement – its first conferences, were not in America, the Caribbean or Africa, but right here in the heart of empire.

In the year since 1945, independence movements, the returning to pre-eminence of Asian economies, technological superiority of Japan and a whole host of other global trends have served to make the philosophy of innate European supremacy lose all serious intellectual credibility. 

Why is this important to Brexit, you may ask? Well, as many scholars have decisively shown, race has played a determinant role in much of Britain's entire post-war migration policy. For example, as Gurminder K. Bhambra writes:

"The BNA, British Nationality Act, was passed in light of India gaining her independence in 1947, and the white settler dominion colonies of Canada, New Zealand and Australia set to become fully independent in 1948. As Britain was still an imperial state, despite these losses, the form of citizenship outlined in the BNA was shared across the UK – its colonies, its former colonies and its dominion territories. These were citizen of the UK and its colonies and commonwealth citizen. All those from the former colonies, and dominions such as India, Canada and Australia, etc, were eligible.” 

“There was no separate or distinct category of citizenship for people in Britain. At the point of setting out the BNA in 1948, then, British citizenship, together with the right to live and work in Britain, was afforded to in excess of 850 million people, albeit within the wide dominion whites-only immigration policies excluding fellow british subjects. this movement of British citizens, from darker countries, as was their right under the 1948 british nationality act, was thrown into relief by a much greater movement of people to Britain, who did not have British citizenship, about whom very little was written then or is even discussed now. 

“In the five years after the end of the second world war, close to 100,000 Eastern European refugee workers from displaced person camps in Italy, Germany and Austria were recruited directly to work in Britain. Those who passed the medical examination were transported to Britain and allocated three years state-directed employment, accommodation, social welfare and education. They were then permitted to naturalise. Incidentally, European jews were explicitly prohibited from the scheme. In addition, approximately 128000 people of Polish origin, specifically Polish armed forces, in exile in Britain, along with their dependents settled permanently in Britain, under the terms of the Polish resettlement act of 1947".

What does this mean? It means that even though far more migrants came from Europe in the post-war years than did people from say, the Caribbean, and even though they were not British citizens – nor English speakers – they faded into obscurity and became official citizens of the UK, whose status as recent immigrants is largely unknown. By contrast, those of us, whose grandparents were British citizens and English speakers are often seen and referred to as immigrants.

Clearly, the culture is not the issue here. The presence of mass European migration in the post-war years did not elicit a 'Keep Britain Anglo-Saxon' campaign. I've heard it mentioned that the British people were not consulted about this post-war migration many times during the brexit campaign. But simply, this ignores the fact, that people who came from the Commonwealth were already British. This was paid to them, as Adam Elliott Cooper from Oxford University notes.

The 1962 Immigration Commonwealth Act, repealed the free movement of subjects of the British empire, migrating to the mother country. British imperial subjects now had to prove that they had a grandparent with a British passport. The fully intended consequence of this was to halt the migration to Britain by people of African or Asian heritage, with those from the white-settler colonies, South Africa, Australia, etc, being the only colonial citizens who could satisfy the criteria. 

The last Commonwealth Act was passed in 1971. Britain subsequently joined the EU. Europeans who spoke entirely different languages, came from countries that Britain had in living memory gone to war with, had been prioritised for citizenship over people whose land, labour and resources literally built the country. My point is, as stated, not to claim, that race and bigotry are the only factors in British politics, but rather to show, as should be obvious, that they have been, and remain, key factors in allocating space, treatment before the law, citizenship and perceived status and rights as "really" British. We've heard it said repeatedly that leaving the EU will allow Britain to stop neglecting the Commonwealth. But those of us who actually come from the Commonwealth countries, tend to shudder when we hear this. 

Why? What have we seen to reflect this new-found love for the commonwealth in recent years? “Immigrant go home” vans trawling the streets of Tower Hamlets. I wonder who they're looking for? Anyone who's been to Tower Hamlets knows they were certainly not looking for Swedish people or white New Zealanders.

In 2015, David Cameron announced that the UK would be building a 25 million pound prison in Jamaica to re-house Jamaican nationals currently in Britain’s prisons. The problems with this were multi-faceted. First, there are more Irish and Polish nationals in Britain's prisons than there are Jamaicans, so one may ask legitimately, why the focus on Jamaica? Two, there were only 700 Jamaican nationals in the UK's prisons. So one may equally ask, if that's really 25 million pounds. And three, perhaps the worst of all, the Jamaican government responded by saying what was being reported was inaccurate and no such deal had been signed, rather just the discussions had been opened. 

More recently, we've seen charter planes full of Jamaican nationals, Kenyans, Nigerians, Ghanaians and others, from Commonwealth countries – many of whom had spent decades in Britain, indeed most of their lives, had British children and British partners, and even those without criminal records – being sent back to countries that some of them had not visited since childhood. There will be no planes full of Australians, Swedes or Germans, I can promise you that.

If the British government was serious about wanting to engage for the first time in a mutually beneficial relationship with the non-white parts of the commonwealth, this is a strange way to go about it. Furthermore, there are now millions of Indian, Ghanaian and Jamaican Brits, who could, to any logical government, serve as natural mediators, trade partners and facilitators with their countries of origin. To my knowledge, our expertise, insight and ties to our nations of our origin, has not been sought out by these would-be Commonwealth lovers. 

When Farage unveiled that poster, he chose not to show a bunch of French or Germans hopping across the channel at whim... He chose to show a face of dusty poverty that would apparently sneak into Britain via the EU.

When Farage unveiled that poster, he chose not to show a bunch of French or Germans hopping across the channel at whim, despite Britain's centuries of imperial rivalry and world wars with France and Germany. He chose to show a face of dusty poverty that would apparently sneak into Britain via the EU. When one examines the data around Brexit voting patterns, and how they relate to geographic location, age, ethnicity and party allegiance, some interesting patterns emerge, that I can't see how sociologists could fail to examine.

According to Lord Ashcroft poll data, for example, 96% of UKIP voters voted leave, hardly surprising. Control over immigration was cited as the second most important reason for voting leave, though many many legal experts cited that the EU was not indeed in control of this immigration to Britain. Of the people that thought multiculturalism was an ill, 81% voted leave.  Of the people that thought immigration was an ill, 80% voted leave. Of the people that thought feminism was a force for ill, 71% voted leave.

The remain vote stats were almost shockingly an exact inverse. With 71% of the people that thought immigration was a net good voting remain, and roughly similar numbers for multiculturalism. Interestingly, 74% percent of black Brits voted remain – the highest of any ethnic group. What could explain this? Do black Britains just love the EU? I would suggest not. Many black Britains are well aware that European unity, if not of course the EU itself, was fostered in no small part by the pan-European project of racialised enslavement and the post-1884 Berlin conference that joined the scramble for Africa with the European powers. So it seems rather unlikely that an undying commitment to European unity is what drove this group, but more research will have to be done.

Of the 30 areas with the most old people, 27 voted leave. Of the 30 areas with the least university-educated people, 28 voted leave. Of the 30 areas with the most people identifying as English and not British, all voted leave. The young skewed remain, the old leave. The regions of England that are multi-cultural skewed remain, those that are not, skewed leave. 

Which brings us of course to the question of nationalism. Why did the Northern Irish and the Scots behave so differently than the English and the Welsh, even though their nations are much less ethnically diverse? Are we to claim that their distinct and recent histories and their relationships to English power had no bearing on their attitude? I'm not romanticising Scotland, even though my mum's family come from there, nor claiming that there is no racism there. I'm just saying that the political trajectories of the two countries and the vastly different attitudes to a whole range of things, including Britain's imperial legacies, the maintenance of Trident, immigration and asylum from the two major parties in each country, for me at least, are rather revealing.

Or, we could contrast the BNP with the SNP, or the tone of the Brexit campaign with that of Scottish independence, to see other cultural differences. That England, a country not invaded since 1066, apart from a very obscure attempt to invade through Wales, by the French in 1797. So, you know, a country not invaded very often in the last millennia, can have a party named the UK Independence Party, win 13% of the national vote, speaks volumes of our collective amnesia and ability to distort facts. 

Incidentally, why is election turnout so much higher in Scotland? and Why did UKIP get less than 50 000 votes north of the border? These question will also have to be examined further. We know that 44% of Britain is proud of the empire and we have a chance of Empire 2.0 from politicians to Piers Morgan. It may seem that many people in England's inability to reconcile themselves to the fact that it's no longer 1851 and Britannia does not rule the waves, what Gilroy calls post-empire melancholia, has to come as a part of any understanding of the contradictions of contemporary UK politics. 

Add to that the fact that former British colonies are now put in rockets on Mars for 10% of the cost NASA can do it, or that 8 former British colonies now have greater freedoms of the press than we do and you get a rapidly changing world – very unsettling for some people. We've been told that Brexit as so much else, was about class, economic anxiety, feelings of being ignored, and there is without a doubt, validity to that. 

However, to ignore that certain sections of the working class have had their poverty compounded by race or gender for that matter is the very opposite, to my mind, of class solidarity. It positions the white working class as the working class, which is a strain that runs through much euro-centrist leftist scholarship in general, so it's hardly surprising. But it has no basis in facts – as when Theresa May speaks of the patriotic working class who Jeremy Corbyn is neglecting, to whom is she referring? She means of course, as all rulers do, that those who follow me are patriotic, those who do not, are not. She insults history, as all rulers that invoke blind nationalism and patriotism do, by suggesting that dissent is not patriotic. 

May insults history, as all rulers that invoke blind nationalism and patriotism do, by suggesting that dissent is not patriotic. 

This is the rhetoric of dictators. As many, as many UKIP voters, as many UKIP observers have noted, it seems the Tories have stolen a large part of their philosophy, or rather, seeing 3.9 million people vote UKIP, the Tories realised they could safely unleash their less PC tendencies. So, what is the answer? In this particular regard, to me at least, the answer is education. Confrontation with difficult histories and developing an understanding of how those histories have shaped the present, this is no small challenge, but would include admitting that people colonised by Britain seem to have a strangely different memory of what it was like than do the British ruling class. 

It would mean that people in the UK are, like all humans, subject to irrational prejudices that have no basis in fact. Of course, large sections of the press depend on this very rationality for their existence. It would mean creating a new transnational intellectual culture. All of these strains of doing and being, have had and have their place in UK society, but they have never yet become dominant and maybe never will. But that won't stop us from trying.

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