Image: The infamous 'breaking point' poster during the EU referendum campaign. Philip Toscano/PA Images, all rights reserved.
As the Prime Minister prepares to address the Conservative party conference in Manchester, the shadow of uncertainty looms over her position and over the course of Brexit. What a difference a year makes. At the 2016 conference, May had solidified her position as PM and delivered arguably the most hard-line, right-wing speech from a sitting PM in living memory. She mimicked the populist style of European far-right parties, criticising ‘international elites’ and making the now infamous claim ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’.
May also spoke of building a ‘global Britain’ after Brexit. The desire for Britain to ‘go global’ has been consistently invoked by leavers interpreting 2016’s historic vote. In the run up to this year’s conference, Boris Johnson has attempted to reverse the negativity surrounding Brexit (and perhaps, his own role in it) by presenting his own ‘positive’ vision of a post-EU Britain. He argues that Britain should seek to ‘intensify old friendships around the world, not least with fast-growing Commonwealth economies, and to build a truly Global Britain’.
Johnson’s words echo those of Vote Leave founder and activist Douglas Carswell who claims the Brexit vote was ‘not an angry nativist xenophobic vote’ but ‘won precisely because it was an argument about Britain being open, internationalist, generous, and globalist’. They echo those of senior Brexiteers who call on Britons to ‘not be little Europeans; let our horizon be global’, to become more globalised, free from the oppressive shackles of Brussels.
But the idea that Britons voted to foster trade with developing economies or help African farmers who face restriction from EU tariffs is frankly just propaganda, which ignores the reality of the Brexit vote. The version of Brexit offered to the electorate during the referendum campaign and pursued by the Government since, has been largely been centred on one issue: immigration. Immigration was seen as a force for ill by over 80% of Brexit voters, according to polling by Lord Ashcroft. In another poll, out of those wishing to see fewer immigrants in Britain surveyed, 88% voted for Leave. Crucially, just one week before the polls in June 2016, immigration overtook the economy as the single most important issue guiding those thinking of voting to leave.
Many Leavers do not appear to simply dislike ‘uncontrolled’ immigration from other EU countries under freedom of movement rules. One study found that Leave voters cared more about restricting non-EU immigration more than EU immigration. Such findings suggest that it is nonsense to advocate that Brexit was motivated simply by concerns about sovereignty and Brussels, or by a desire for Britain to strengthen ties with prominent Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
The vote to leave the EU cannot be a surprise given the publics increasing dissatisfaction with immigration, which had been steadily growing since the turn of the 21st century, in line with historically unprecedented levels of net migration. Brexit, much like the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, can ultimately be understood better as a more general crisis of white identity which is afflicting the Western world, as migrants who arrived in the 50s, 60s and 70s become a more visible part of daily life and multiculturalism becomes embedded as a reality of a modern, post-imperial European country.
There had been warnings prior to Brexit that the public were becoming increasingly angry over the issue of immigration and some more militant in their defence of white British identity, which is discussed in detail in my book English Uprising: Brexit and the Mainstreaming of the Far Right. Between 2002 and 2009, the extreme right British National Party (BNP), whose origins lie in interwar fascism and neo-Nazism, began to make a historically significant breakthrough by picking up dozens of council seats. Nearly one million people voted for the party in the 2009 European Parliament Elections, before they collapsed. Notably, their collapse had little to do with a repulsion at their ideas on immigration, multiculturalism and Islam – which were legitimised by the tabloid media on an almost daily basis. Rather, the party descended into infighting and bankruptcy, leaving a void in British politics for a less extreme anti-immigration outlet. Telegraph columnist James Forsyth shrewdly predicted at the time that someone: ‘more plausible and with less baggage, will come along and seriously advance the BNP’s vile agenda.’ UKIP did just that.
The rise of UKIP – a party who deliberately linked scepticism of immigration and multiculturalism with Britain’s membership of the European Union – picked up more votes than the BNP could ever hope to. Boosted by their charismatic, media-savvy leader Nigel Farage, the party brought anti-immigration politics from the margins to the mainstream of British politics. In doing so, they were satisfying a demand which had existed for decades. The response from political elites was to ape UKIP’s language and co-opt their ideas, rather than confront them. Everything from Theresa May’s ‘Go Home’ vans to Labour’s ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs normalised anti-immigrant sentiment and legitimised the views of the far right.
The growing salience of populist, far right ideas became obvious during the EU referendum campaign. Michael Gove’s attack on ‘experts’ echoed UKIP’s rhetoric which polarised the country between ‘ordinary people’ and a rotten ‘establishment’. Leave.EU’s now infamous ‘Breaking Point’ billboard was but one of many incidents during the campaign which looked to exacerbate the suspicions of large portions of the electorate that a detached elite was imposing immigration and multiculturalism on them in collaboration with Brussels. What the Leave victory demonstrated was not a coup d’état by the far right, but the significant extent to which far right ideas had become part of mainstream political culture in Britain.
Many on the victorious Leave side have already sought to rewrite the history of Brexit by arguing that it was driven by a desire to open Britain up to the wider world. The truth is that ‘global Britain’ (dubbed mockingly ‘Empire 2.0’ by some Whitehall officials) is a myth which obscures the ugly truth of Brexit. The vote reflected the triumph of anti-immigration politics and was an indicator of the normalisation of the far right – previously taboo in the mainstream British politics. Worryingly, this process did not cease following the EU referendum result, nor has it slowed down as the government hurtles towards a hard Brexit.