Our group’s discussion on Brexit was focused on the role of nostalgia in both establishing and maintaining populist movements. A reoccurring theme that becomes increasingly evident when examining the history of populism within Europe is the dependence on a grand historical myth which can be used a point of contrast in order to reinforce and ideology of victimization and lost glory. This is seen in the rhetoric of historical populist movements such as that of the Italian fascists which harkened all the way back to the roman empire in order to portray modern Italy as a fallen power which had become victimized. Keeping this in mind it was interesting to see similar rhetoric used by the Brexit campaign in order to rally middle class Britons against the European Union. Throughout the campaign proponents of Brexit consistently portrayed the UK as power in terminal decline contrasting its current state with its former glory as the head of the British Empire. The blame for this decline was then pinned on various scapegoats which acted as symbols of the European Union whether they be bureaucrats in Brussels or migrant workers from Eastern Europe. While this narrative is plagued with historical inaccuracy as the UK was in steep economic decline prior to joining the European Union, not to mention the fact that the “greatness” of the British Empire was built of the exploitation of its non-British subjects rather than hindered by it, it had an undeniable impact on the course of the Brexit referendum. Not only does the image of a victimized and declining nation connect with a middle class which has been plagued by both austerity and stagnant wages, but the focus on a former glory exclusive to Britain prevents a sense of solidarity from forming between the British middle class and its counterparts across Europe. The decline of the middle class due to the relentless assault of austerity crippling the welfare state is not exclusive to Brittan. It is a reality across Europe which requires cooperation and solidarity across national boundaries in order to effectively address, the isolationism advocated by the Brexit campaign will do nothing but worsen the situation. The true tragedy of anachronistic propaganda of the “leave” campaign is that it has blinded much of the British middle class to its most valuable ally that being the middle class across Europe, in favour of a delusion desire to restore Brittan to a semi-mythical state of glory that was supposedly experienced in the distant past.
Our discussion on Friday centered itself mainly around the aspects of Brexit and British populism that are perhaps overlooked by scholars and media. Namely, feelings and sentiments held by the “leave” camp surrounding immigration.
Of course the role of immigration in British culture has been a touchy subject long before Brexit, particularly in regard to eastern Europe. The migrant crisis of 2015 worked to exacerbate these existing anxieties and as we discussed, is perhaps not as well recognized as it ought to be.
In class we saw the areas of the UK and the demographics that tended to vote for the “leave” side on average. In discussion, this was built on and unpacked some more. Older, more conservative individuals in the UK were worried about immigration and wanted to maintain autonomy from the EU.
This got me thinking about the built-in biases that individuals such as ourselves carry into these analyses. Most people do not think the way we do. There is a large portion of society that is never exposed to post-secondary thinking or the liberal values that are so well-drilled into students or faculty such as ourselves.
This makes topics like immigration an intimidating and confusing unknown to a lot of people, which subsequently became a focal point for the “leave” campaign to utilize.
As we discussed, these issues are therefore brushed aside in conversations similar to ours. We would never even consider going into the subject of immigration as a factor for Brexit, as they are wrong and therefore inherently sterile in our eyes.
What should be checked at the door by more by journalists, academics and professionals is their principles when delving into these kind of issues. If you want to understand populism, maybe you need think along the same lines.
Many of the first responders this week focused on the topic of immigration. In our discussion, one of our first responders chose to open the conversation with a question on whether or not the focus on immigration tells the whole story. The consensus became that fears over ‘excessive’ immigration is a significant factor in people voting for Brexit, as shown by the statistics in the readings. However, it is a part of a larger narrative of concern about economic prospects and underfunded social programs. Immigration becomes the (misguided) scapegoat for these issues and therefore dominates the conversation. This also may explain why Brexit happened now: the refugee influx coupled with still-present economic issues created an environment for this radical re-thinking of political norms.
The second part of the discussion today focused on underlying nostalgia for the former British empire. A part of these anxieties seem to be a sense of unease at no longer being a hegemonic world power. In the speech we watched in class, Margaret Thatcher explicitly mentioned Britain’s past as a “civilizing” empire and European integration, in some instances, may serve as a reminder that they are no longer the leading military or economic nation anymore.
While Brexit might have come as a shock to the rest of the world, history teaches us that its sentiments have been around for a long time. This weeks readings and videos circled around the idea that Brexit has historical roots, with a long past of Britain feeling anxiety about their economy and immigration.
A major factor in Britain’s decision to leave the EU, is its fear of immigration. In Enoch Power’s speech, “river of blood” we begin to see how the anti-immigration sentiment is one that is present in the past. We see how the fear of immigrants and the idea of losing national identity has been something that has effected prior times as well.
Britain’s involvement in the EU has also been historically problematic according to the Meon and Selter article which highlights how Britain was not apart of the European coal or Steel community and that they still used the pound as currency. This disconnect is also a factor in rising tensions between Britain and Europe.
What I found interesting about this week’s readings was the Hobolt article, and the explanation of how Brexit occurred due to many differences in its demographic. Some of these factors include difference in age and education. This idea of old and new mentality and its impact on citizen’s political opinions was fascinating to me, and something I can see in other cultures as well. We can see how many older citizens feel nostalgic to times when Britain was a superpower. This idea of importance of nationality and superiority is something that we have discussed in our class, and it is interesting to see it played out in our time. Just as though immigration has been a fear of the past, it is a fear that is still evident in the present.
Will Britains exit from the EU lead to more nationalism amongst its country? Could this been seen as a problem? What does Britains need to stop immigration over its economic security say about how its citizens feel about immigrants? Is this an example of the “fear o the other” sentiment that we have discussed at length in class? In Brian Lewis’s video, he discuses right wing politicians used strategies such as support of same-sex marriage as a tool for political gain. Is it fair for the government to alley with groups such as same-sex supporters as a political tactic? What does this say about the government and its willingness to do whatever it takes to win a vote? Is this democratic?
Enoch Powell, the man behind the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, has found newfound appreciation in the 21st Century, a fact that unfortunately can be laid at the feet of those responsible for the European immigration crisis. Prior to this, Powell and his speech had effectively been placed into the same box as Mein Kampf and “Segregation Today, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever.” However, among the formerly stigmatized nationalists and even modern conservative intellectuals (including Douglas Murray, who had mounted a defense of Powell in his otherwise wonderful and eye-opening book “The Strange Death of Europe: Identity, Immigration, Islam”), Powell has become a figure of nearly prophetic vision with regards to the changing demographics of Britain. When put into the proper historical context, the fears expounded upon in Powell’s speech are groundless and blatantly racist–the speech was, after all, a reaction to the increasing presence of black people in England and the groundless accusation of interracial rape which instigated the Notting Hill Riots. However, it is easy enough to recontextualize words spoken almost exactly fifty years ago today in order to find a prophet–religion gets away with such blatant intellectual dishonesty all the time. There will always be people who are hungry for revisionism.
Consider the Hobolt article regarding the reasons behind the success of the Leave Vote. The fears of those who voted to abandon the European Union–anti-immigration stances, the desire to reassert control over borders, et cetera–are absolutely not irrational when we look at the disastrous consequences of the mass immigration policies of Europe. Nobody in their right mind would look at Germany, Sweden, Italy or any other country that allowed in such a ridiculous number of people without regard for available space, available resources to adequately care for and integrate these people into the society or the strain that this would place on the native population. Worse than that, transplanting millions of people who come from illiberal, hyper-religious (that is to say Islamic), ultra-conservative third-world countries was going to shift the zeitgeist of the society receiving the transplant. This was destined to be a disaster from the very beginning and, unfortunately, this is the kind of environment where racists, far-right figureheads and fringe groups like The National Front, UKIP, Geert Wilders and Enoch Powell find re-invigoration and, worst of all, vindication.
Unfortunately, years (if not entire decades) will be required to repair the damage caused by this immigrant crisis. Perhaps world leaders will look at these events and realize that they need to think carefully before virtue-signalling their countries toward the brink of illiberal chaos. Otherwise, the vultures of the far right will find a banquet of corpses on which they can feast.
As is was the first time this has happened, Brexit cause quite a stir. Following the relative shock that surrounded the results, many asked if this was an anomaly, or would we continue to see other nations vote to leave the European Union (EU). The reading this week, though, seem to suggest that Britain was perhaps a unique case, and so it should not be viewed as a potential first domino in a row.
Likely due to the geographical separation between the British Isles and continental Europe, Britons have long felt distinct and separate from the rest of Europe. Perhaps it is this reason that none of the major political parties in Britain chose to be entirely for or against Brexit. This national mindset has resulted in recent time in the reluctance to join the European community following the Second World War and the change for Empire to Commonwealth. Even since joining in the 1970s, Britain has continued to act reluctantly with the EU, particularly relating to issues surrounding further integration. With this historic and cultural knowledge, it’s clear that Britain was not just another domino, but a unique case in itself. This isn’t to say that other nations won’t leave the EU, though, but rather that if they leave, it will not be in any way because of Brexit.
A dominant feature across this weeks readings was that of the idea that those that were opposed to remaining in the European Union fell into a specific demographic of those that were disenfranchised from globalization. The idea that immigration and regulation were perceived as negative by the leave camp was made evident in both journal articles as well as the Rivers of Blood speech. The iconography of a river of blood clearly indicates the extremes that the leave camp feel globalization could potentially put them in.
A problematic aspect of this is the misinformation and logical extremes that arise from an issue such as Brexit. Powell opens his speech in the video by saying “In this country, in 15 or 20 years time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”. 40 years have elapsed since that time and this has proven to be in no way shape or form the case but the important aspect of that statement is the fear-mongering. Fear, as mentioned in both readings is a crucial aspect of Brexit. The fear of losing ones livelihood to immigrants or losing the identity of the nation are the two dominant fears surrounding Brexit.
The main question surrounding this is how valid are these fears? Obviously the ‘black man’ does not have the whip over the ‘white man’ but the idea of a loss of national identity is a much more valid fear. Over 50% of British people for one reason or another felt that the United Kingdom would be better off without the European Union but was this the right decision or was the fear it was based on unfounded?
What struck me most about these readings was the idea that immigrants are an economic drain rather than an economic benefit. Refugees, who fall into the humanitarian category, are one thing. But immigrants are people who come to the country in order to directly contribute to the economy, or to live with and support loved ones who contribute economically.
In the Brexit initial reflections reading, this line section really jumped out, “Cameron referred to the need to build the EU around ‘the right to work, not the right to claim’, stressing the need to prevent ‘vast migrations’ when new countries joined the EU.” These types of mass migrations and the perceived strain that they put on the UK were one of the main reasons the UK ultimately voted to leave. That quote comes from a 2014 interview. But these anti-immigration sentiments and the belief that immigration is a strain on the system originated much, much earlier.
In Enoch Powell’s 1968 River of Blood speech, there is a hauntingly familiar sentiment, “We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents.” This language of dependents is the same idea that Cameron invokes nearly 50 years later.
A cultural lack of understanding about the benefit and importance of immigrants is what, in my opinion, pushed the UK to exit the EU.
What makes the UK different from other countries in the EU? Are they more racist? More anti-immigrant? Or simply more desperate to reclaim their status as a global power?
The British disaffection with the EU, which lead to the final referendum to exit the supranational state, can be summed up in a few words: anti-immigration and the economy.
I think it’s difficult to determine whether some of these issues are long or short term causes, but nonetheless, it is apparent that some have fueled the fire.
In terms of structural causes, Britain was initially left out of some of the forming groups within the European Union. As mentioned in the Meon & Selter reading, they remained out of both the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC). Furthermore, the UK is not a part of the Schengen zone and still use the pound, meaning that they still retain control over their economy.
When I mentioned the issue of migration, this has been a longer term issue with Europe, but mainly within the British context. The “Rivers of Blood” speech said by Enoch Powell in the House of Lords in 1968 has become a focal point in a modern context around the point of anti-immigration. Yet, clearly, these ideas are nothing new. It is the conflation of immigrants with danger that perpetuates the fear and stereotypes. Furthermore, given the context of the migration and refugee crisis, it creates fear, and therefore an issue of ‘national security’.
As Hobolt stated there are a few reasons for some of these longer term issues, including: socioeconomic factors; geographical identities; feelings about the domestic political establishment; and, policy attitudes. As the information from the referendum has showed us, many of those who chose to stay were uneducated. Nonetheless, the government holds a lot of weight internationally, as England is still part of the Security Council.
It is important for us to remember the privileged position that England is in and how this makes them look on the international stage.
Our readings and videos this week focused on the rise of the Brexit movement and why/how such a movement could have come to pass. What I found interesting was the anti-immigration sentiment within Britain that has been around since before the “river of blood” speech. As history students, we know that Britain is probably the largest exporter of immigrants since the Early Modern Era. Canada, America, and others were once considered “British Colonies” and as a result our most prominent populations are white, all with claims to British or UK heritage. Do you think that the British past will play a part in the British image in the future? Do you think that Britain still considers their past as “colonizers” their ‘great past’?
Brian Lewis’s speech was particularly interesting as he navigated the strategies the British government uses to gain support for their movements, such as allying themselves with the Gay/Lesbian community for political gain as opposed to genuine support. Do you think these communities will see through political schemes such as this? The British population was almost perfectly divided over Brexit, as Brexit won by approximately a 1% lead. Do you think minority populations were in favour of Brexit? Or do you think persecutions of the past have made them wary of all government?
My final question is this: What is the future of Britain? Will their government lean towards the less democratic?
It was a democratic vote that won Brexit the day. Should choices that affect the country on an international scale be left in the hands of the voters?