Publication Date

September 1, 2016


  • Europe

Launched by the British activist organization Operation Black Vote, this controversial poster appeared during the run-up to the vote on the Brexit referendum.Launched by the British activist organization Operation Black Vote, this controversial poster appeared during the run-up to the vote on the Brexit referendum.

On Friday, June 24, the United Kingdom awoke to discover that it had voted to leave the European Union (EU) by a margin of 52 to 48 percent. The tone of the debate leading up to the referendum was largely negative: the “Remain” campaign was accused of running “Project Fear,” with dire warnings of what might happen if the UK were to leave the EU, while the “Leave” side traded on anti-immigration feeling and a vague anti-­establishment approach. (One Leave figure, Michael Gove, memorably stated that the British public had “had enough of experts.”) Without coherent positive arguments—either in support of the EU or in support of Britain striking out alone—the campaign became increasingly angry and violent, coalescing around issues of identity and “Britishness.” These contemporary issues grew in part from the deep history of the British working class and the way this history has intersected with race. Although the referendum cannot only be understood within the schema of race and identity, it cannot be understood without these frameworks.

“Brexit” fundamentally concerned definitions of nationhood, and a battle over the different futures that the UK imagined for itself. The campaign illustrated the geographic imaginaries of the British people in a number of ways. For example, much of the narrative around the campaigns invoked “Britain” as a political and cultural entity, thus eliding Northern Ireland entirely from a debate that was of special concern to the only population in the United Kingdom sharing a border with the EU. In fact, both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted strongly to remain part of the EU, raising the spectre of further independence referendums and the negative creation of what the Washington Post rather unfortunately dubbed “Wangland” (Wales and England) as an independent state.

The referendum can also be understood within a historic trajectory in British history of constant defining and redefining the nation along racial lines. Following Catherine Hall’s arguments in Civilising Subjects, scholars have shown that British imperial expansion was critical in creating a national identity framed around whiteness. As the empire expanded, the conditions for citizenship (rather than subjecthood) became more exclusionary. Whiteness became critical to Britishness, which was itself synonymous with civilization, progress, and modernity; the imperial subject was by definition excluded from the imagined British nation.

This attitude was echoed in the clear tendency, during the Brexit campaign and in the aftermath of the vote, to invoke the idea of the “working class” as homogeneously white. A week before the referendum, Nigel Farage (the leader of one of the two main groups agitating for Leave) unveiled a poster depicting a photograph of brown-skinned refugees, with the caption “Breaking Point” and the smaller heading “We must break free of the EU and take back control.” Although the picture in fact showed migrants crossing the Croatian-Slovenian border in 2015, the implication was unmistakable. The EU provided a gateway for “illegal immigrants,” that perennial Other in British tabloid culture, who could exploit British membership to gain access to welfare benefits, health care, and housing, which would otherwise go to indigenous British people. For many voters, Brexit was therefore a chance for the British working class to take back control, not just from Europe, but from the Westminster “elites” who had enabled this flood of migration.

What these Leave supporters chose not to emphasize was the long history of black and Asian migration (especially from the British Empire) into working-class jobs, areas, and politics. The poorest boroughs in Britain are some of the most ethnically diverse; the most deprived areas in London are those with some of the highest populations from Britain’s former Asian, African, and Caribbean colonies. Much of the British working class is profoundly multicultural, far more so than the elite institutions of British power, which remain overwhelmingly white (and mostly male). As Satnam Virdee argues, the British working class must be understood through “the prism of race,” and the working classes have historically been both targets of, and actors in, both racist and antiracist activism.1

It is true, however, that racial anxieties have long been invoked to conjure the image of a British indigenous working class that is threatened by and hostile to migrant communities. To take one well-known example, in 1968 the Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech (delivered two weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.) promised violence on the streets of Britain if immigration were not halted, describing his (white) constituents as “strangers in their own country.” Powell was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet by Edward Heath, although dockers, factory workers, and meat porters went on strike to support him. Four years earlier, in the West Midlands constituency of Smethwick, the Conservatives had managed to buck the trend of a national swing to Labour and unseat Patrick Gordon Walker with the slogan “if you want a N***** for a neighbour, vote Labour.”

Despite a British rhetorical identity as a humanitarian nation that offers respite to those in need, then, it can be seen that the Leave campaign (particularly the UK Independence Party, or UKIP) mobilized an anti-migrant, anti-refugee rhetoric that has been present in British society for years.2A few hours after Farage presented the notorious poster, Labour Party MP Jo Cox was shot dead in her constituency by a white British man associated with the racist nationalist organization Britain First. Many have assumed that it was Cox’s outspoken advocacy for Syrian refugees that made her a target.

During and after the Brexit campaign, there was a clear tendency to invoke the idea of the “working class” as homogeneously white.

But the Leave vote cannot be entirely understood through ideas centering the manipulation of white working-class voters and their racial anxieties. While UKIP clearly exploited fears that the EU might try to force Britain to take more refugees as part of a collective response to the international crisis, the migration that was mostly facilitated through British membership was that of (white) European workers. In fact, many voters who supported Leave objected specifically to migration from the eastern European nations that joined in 2004 and 2007. This definition of eastern European—but not western European—people as an irredeemable Other has long roots in British history, dating as far back as the anti-Slav feeling of the Crimean War.3 In fact, many of the regions with the highest Leave votes were in the least racially diverse areas in the country (and vice versa: London, for example, voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU). Many Leave areas, such as Boston, South Holland, and Great Yarmouth, are poor, rural, mostly white regions that have experienced a high level of eastern European migration, without much support from the central government, at a time when quality of life has been declining for many. For unemployed or underemployed people, living in substandard housing and with declining health and poor access to education, a Brexit vote was a protest—not just against immigration or the EU, but against their experience of British life in 2016.

The 2016 referendum was frequently cast as being fundamentally concerned with the direct democracy of the people. Turnout on June 23 was 72.2 percent across the country—not as high as the Scottish independence referendum turnout of 84.6 percent, but higher than the 2015 election, which saw only 66 percent of the potential electorate cast a vote. The narrative of this referendum was based on the public “taking control” of their destiny. In this language can be seen the creation of similar myths to those that have arisen around the election of Clement Attlee’s government in 1945. Then, too, political narratives focused on a newly empowered “people” taking control and making demands for change that were at odds with the wishes of the establishment politicians; in both cases, the populist nature—and popularity—of the movement has probably been overstated.4But the Leave campaign was successful, at least partly, because it managed to motivate large numbers of the white working class who had previously felt disaffected and disenfranchised by party politics that they saw as irrelevant to their lives and dismissive of their concerns.

A referendum is a fundamentally different flavor of democracy to the parliamentary system that governs the UK. It is both more representative, in its direct approach to the people, and more divisive, in its stark focus on a single issue, than an ordinary election campaign. This referendum, because of its focus on membership of the EU generally rather than a specific treaty or policy (such as membership of the single currency) was also curiously unfocused in its scope. Because of this, the referendum was fought not on specific issues of EU policy but on wider questions of “sovereignty,” “control,” and fundamentally what it meant to be British. By taking this question directly to the people, in a contest that bypassed the breaks and buffers of the parliamentary system, the referendum forced the British people to engage with this question directly. Since the electorate voted to Leave, the issue has not gone away.

is a lecturer in 20th-century British history at the University of Southampton. She works on histories of the Labour Party, British identity, the end of empire, and overseas aid. She tweets @lottelydia.


1.Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 1.

2.Tony Kushner and Kenneth Lunn, eds., The Politics of Marginality: Race, the Radical Right and Minorities in Twentieth-Century Britain (New York: Frank Cass, 1990); Gavin Schaffer, “Re-Thinking the History of Blame: Britain and Minorities During the Second World War,” National Identities 8, no. 4 (2006): 401–19.

3. Jimmy E. Cain Jr., Bram Stoker and Russophobia (Jefferson, NC: McFarlane & Co., 2006), 106.

4. Steven Fielding, “What Did ‘the People’ Want? The Meaning of the 1945 General Election,” Historical Journal 35, no. 3 (September 1992): 623–39.

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