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A Union Jacked The Fate of Nationalism in Post-Brexit Britain

In 1851, at the height of colonialism, London held what is now widely regarded as the first “Great Exhibition”. Within a giant iron and glass structure, known as the Crystal Palace, the ‘great men’ of the time—inventors, industrialists and entrepreneurs—presented “the wonders of industry from around the world”.

The exhibition was the first of its kind and was evidence of an increasingly globalized world linked by technology. In hosting, the British state showed its desire and commitment to control this new system. Symbolised in a glass dome, the wonders of this ‘world interior’, like the bordered West, were to be exclusive; accessible only to a minority. The exhibition introduced the tenet that ideas and wealth would move freely around the world, but people would not.

100 years later, following World War Two, Britain’s metaphorical Crystal Palace revealed cracks. In 1948, the Windrush ushered a wave of migration from the Caribbean, then, following independence in parts of Africa and Asia, thousands of former colonial subjects moved to Britain seeking a new life. These migrants were hardly embraced with open-arms, but were welcomed as a much-needed boost to a weakened labour force. Soon their food, music and culture permeated modern British life. In the 1970s, Britain joined the European Economic Community (soon to be the European Union), beginning a relationship that would see 40 years of increased closeness between the United Kingdom and mainland Europe.

Some have met the influx of foreigners into Britain with confusion and resistance. Cultural theorist, Stuart Hall’s response was the famous quip, “I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea”, referring to the British national drink and its Asian-Caribbean origins. Despite the diversity within Britain, significant parts of British society have long been ignorant of the world outside their shoreline. Many, for instance, failed to connect the dots when, in 2015, boats, and bodies, began to arrive on the shores of Greece and Italy.

While it was generally believed that ignorant Britain constituted only a minority, last June, this viewpoint was challenged. On the morning of the 24th, Britain woke to the news that a majority had voted to leave the European Union.

ANOTHER CRYSTAL PALACE?

Post-colonial theorist, Achille Mbembe’s claim, that Europe is fixated “on the question of immigration,” seemed to be confirmed, at least in the British context, by the referendum result. In the weeks after the 24th of June it was hard to escape the smug, celebratory face of Brexit’s chief architect, Nigel Farage, who, for years, had campaigned against the EU. Farage and his party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), have held an openly hostile attitude towards Europe for many years. Outside of Scotland and Northern Ireland where Remain had dominated, Brexit was immediately read as a nationwide vindication of this sentiment.

However, this interpretation of the referendum’s outcome fails to acknowledge the myriad factors behind the Leave vote. Specifically, that the triumph of nationalism in England and Wales was the guise for a more complex Brexit story.

Households with incomes of less than £20,000 per year (below the national average), and regions with lower-levels of higher education were some of the biggest supporters of Brexit. In the media these communities were singled out as the driving force behind the referendum result; and some circles accused them of being backward and illiberal. Commentators derided the populace of these regions, noting the fact that a high proportion had received EU bursaries: agricultural areas were recipients of farming subsidies, whilst deindustrialized zones, particularly in Wales and Cornwall, have been nurtured by years of structural funds (money intended to support sustainable economic development).

These funds, which had kept communities and businesses afloat, failed to ensure trust in the EU. Critics claimed that British distrust towards Europe revealed the extent to which the concerned populations were ignorant of Europe’s role in propping up their communities. However, what these pundits failed to acknowledge was that handouts do not necessarily invoke gratitude; on the contrary, charity was likely to produce resentment towards the faceless elite in far-off Brussels. Farmers were angry that their prices were dictated by a system beyond their control; deindustrialized communities looked at their closed factories and mines with similar disdain. These people didn’t want donations; they wanted proper payment for their goods and well-paying jobs.

In the 1980s, under the leadership of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, neo-liberal restructuring decimated many of the concerned regions. For many poor and disenfranchised Brexit voters, the EU’s gestural programmes were simply a continuation of a government policy that failed to seriously consider these regions as worth proper rejuvenation. Their anger was only compounded by the estrangement of an aloof body in Belgium. This frustration has been interpreted as nationalism, but was the referendum not simply a rare moment of self-empowerment? For many poor and disenfranchised, Brexit was a chance to gain some agency in their lives, whatever the consequences.

NATIONIALISM WITHIN BREXIT

It is undeniable that aspects of Brexit had nationalistic, often racial, overtones. Reports of xenophobic attacks in the UK rose dramatically after the 24th of June 2016. Clearly, many racists saw the result as vindication for their bigoted viewpoints; crawling out of the shadows, they acted on repressed impulses. Currently, there are weekly reports of violent attacks on ethnic minorities in Britain.

Nationalistic and anti-immigrant sentiment has long been encouraged by sections of both the British establishment and media. In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, the Daily Mail newspaper published a cartoon comparing refugees to rats, and the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, referred to the migrants as a “swarm”. These terms and images are bound up in the genealogy of hygiene and otherness, a ploy used by European colonisers when they built their settler towns in Africa.

Whilst the white working class have been held as the chief exponents of nationalism, it important to remember that millions, 59 per cent overall, of Britain’s middle class voted to leave the EU. Retired homeowners were one of the biggest supporters of Leave. When we consider that this demographic is one of the most economically comfortable groups in Britain, these voting habits suggest an innate conservatism. There is a serious paradox when the average British retiree holidays at least three times a year—are these trips not enriching British opinions of life beyond UK borders?

One key driving force behind the financially better off Brexiteer’s vote was the campaign over sovereignty. The leading arm of the Leave camp argued that Britain should not succumb to the rules and laws of those beyond its borders. Playing on the country’s nostalgia for its colonial past—when Britain’s vast empire made it a global superpower—the slogan “Take back control” became central to the Brexit campaign. The jingoistic phrase, therefore, worked as a coded form of xenophobia and, ultimately, failed to address who would hold this power should it be taken back. In reality, British sovereignty means very little when power is something jostled over by the political class, financial sector and corporate media.

BACK TO THE POLLS

Many read the Brexit referendum as the death knell for a progressive Britain; the result fit Mbembe’s description perfectly—the country was “provincializing itself”. However, results at the recent British election have challenged this narrative.

The vast majority of elections polls had predicted a Labour collapse. The party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist outsider and multiculturalism advocate, was accused of wanting uncontrolled migration—supposedly the wrong man for the current climate. Nearly all pollsters predicted that UKIP voters, having secured Brexit, would align themselves with the right-wing Conservatives, a party that promised to close the door on unskilled migrants. However, on June 9th, the country witnessed another shock result: the Tory Party lost seats to Labour and failed to secure a majority. UKIP collapsed as previous voters abandoned the party (as predicted), but surprisingly split their votes between Labour and the Conservatives.

Labour gains confirmed that the UK had not become a hotbed of nationalism, but that, for many low-income Brexit voters, the referendum had been an opportunity to express anger at the establishment that had ignored them for too long. Labour secured millions of Brexiteers with a manifesto that sought to unite, not divide promising economic justice, hope and tolerance.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

The one-year Brexit referendum anniversary has just recently passed and, as I write this piece, negotiations have supposedly begun. On a practical note, a recent report from the Financial Times suggests that leaving the EU will be a bureaucratic ordeal few can comprehend. According to the FT, 759 treaties that are currently arranged through the EU will have to be renegotiated with different countries around the world. Brexit will mean starting from scratch: trade, agricultural, fishery, nuclear, and many other international arrangements will have to be painstakingly brokered with different bodies in different countries. There are rumours that the British civil service will have to employ a further 30,000 people!

It is still unclear when and how Britain and the EU will agree on a new deal. Currently, the Conservatives are in disarray, forced into a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party, a small right-wing faction from Northern Ireland. This coalition hangs in the balance, as does Theresa May’s leadership; a potential snap election could be around the corner. Whatever the present political fate of Britain, it is pretty certain that Brexit will not be thwarted—even if that means years of negotiations.

Many remain confident that a future Britain will not become inward-looking. A more inclusive, non-divisive Britain that would make efforts to redistribute economic gains is the current vision put forward by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Should Labour gain power (a real possibility), the party claims it would not seek a discordant relationship with Europe; in fact, Corbyn has spoken on the two bloc’s shared values. Whether this relationship would mean a diminished role for the UK remains to be seen.

With Britain’s current political turbulence, there are rumours that the country could crash out of Europe with no deal at all, a situation likely to throw the UK into economic turmoil. Should this happen with the Conservatives at the helm, it is not impossible that the government would seek to foster division, in order to deflect from its errors. Divide and rule would undoubtedly create the conditions for an eruption of bitter, nationalistic fervour as scapegoats are sought for the country’s ills.

For now, though, that is all speculation. I remain hopeful because although Brexit is determined, the future is not⎈