Why we were so easily fooled: The UK’s Brexit Vote, Immigrants and BMEs, 28.6.16

Also published on openDemocracy UK.

One of the things that really perplexed me was how the issue of immigration really began to take hold of the campaign. I wrote at length about this from a black perspective before the Referendum vote. Why and how did this happen? Two very different if related questions. The “why”? The leave campaign needed to win and needed to tap into something dark and profound in order to light the flame of populist nationalism. The “how”? The elite managed to whip up fears by resorting to dog whistle politics to exploit the insecurities of mainly white working class voters, who, as we are told, are disenfranchised and increasingly voiceless. This is, of course, the narrative we were fed by mainstream commentators. Rather key in all of this, was that we did not hear very much from ‘immigrants’ at all in this debate, we only heard from them, briefly, when they resigned after discovering the not-so-hidden underpinning racism and xenophobia of their respective campaigns. But other than the elections of the Mayors of London and Bristol we did not really hear arguments about the Referendum from an immigrant or BAME perspective and in this context Gisela Stuart doesn’t count. Yet immigration was the defining issue of the campaign on both sides.

What did this omission say about us as a nation. For me as person of colour, this rather signalled that my stake in the UK’s future was not taken seriously at all. In fact, by not seeking out a BAME or immigrant perspective, which I admit are separate issues that were purposely elided in the campaign,[1] it almost became an underlying assumption that I did not have a natural stake in the UK psyche. At no point did I hear anything that acknowledged the contribution of my fellow BAME citizens to the cultural memory of the UK. In the LEAVE side’s slogan “taking back control”, there did not seem to be any room for any thought about the historically multicultural nature of the Empire that has led to today’s diverse United Kingdom. What was presented to us was, as Paul Gilroy calls it, a “melancholic attachment” to a recollection of a Great Britain that never was. A distorted memory of conquest and mastery, which ruthlessly holds everything within the cold gaze of Britannia.[2] So without a national conversation about our colonial past and how its multiculturalism fashioned our collective heritage as Britons, we never really peered through the looking glass to meet our historical prejudices head on. This unquestioned, unexamined distorted view of our past allowed large swathes of our population to be manipulated into thinking that their patriotism and its accompanying prejudices were part of a legitimate political and democratic discourse. We have just witnessed how this cynical promotion of a cultural amnesia of our true multicultural heritage[3] became twisted into political tools that actually undermined the democratic process of the Referendum. Here, I specifically mean undermined in the sense that the now evident lies that were fed to the populous about the NHS and levels of immigration were interwoven with this unexamined and distorted recollection of our idealised self.

So without any introspection about our native and Colonial multicultural heritage, is it any wonder as a nation we were ill equipped to appreciate the contributions of our most recent wave of immigrants or indeed our membership of the European Union, itself?

Education as Political tool of manipulation

In a previous piece of mine What’s education for? Privilege or meritocracy? I wrote about the (not so hidden) neoliberalism of our education system that works to obscure the real nature of the structural inequalities we face. Of course, one of the ways it does this is by erasing histories and cultural narratives that could help minimise inequalities. David Graeber in his paper, ‘Turning Modes of Production Inside Out’ calls this “social death”, where knowledge of “community ties, kinship relationships and so forth that shaped the worker, are, in principle, supposed to have no relevance in the workplace” (p. 79). Here Graeber, along with Jeremy Bentham and Friederich Hayek, is talking about how the system serves to isolate and atomise the individual entering the market so that without their social connections and connectedness, they are unable to perceive the true intentions of the market. For me, this is key because our progressively marketised education system has served to do just that. Our education system has been one of the main tools for preparing people to enter the market as (socially dead[4]) individuals. Here, as “individuals” in the market, the now social actor is duped into thinking that their “individuality” grants them market freedoms as consumers. Such are their market freedoms, the now social actors are told that they can re-invent themselves at will to become anyone they want,[5] as long as it is to the betterment of the market (i.e. self-gain, otherwise known as profit).

It is here that my original points about stakeholdership and cultural memory leap to the fore. In order to control the worker for the aggrandisement of the economy and those who control it, it is important that the worker is given a sense of collective identity. When this collective identity takes the form of a nationalism, the social death inflicted upon the atomised worker, allows the market to construct a synthetic identity where potentially anti-hegemonic histories are erased. As the Karl Marx wrote in his 1870 letters to Siegfried Meyer and August Vogt

The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker.

Workers are pitted against each other to do the dirty work of the ruling classes. In disentangling our contemporary concerns about immigration and multiculturalism, Marx in his letters also likened this social relation between the English and Irish to the poor white workers and slaves in the US. Rather presciently, he adds

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

So, it is as though Marx had an eye into our mass media dominated present to have been able to, so accurately call out the underlying workings of our Referendum debate. Enabled by our mainstream education system complicit in its omission and silence(ing), a synthetic call (reminiscence) for a mythical white Britain was fed to the masses replete with healthy doses of promises that were never meant to be upheld. Even some of our ethnic minorities were drawn into this trap as they also shared in the social death of the marketised ‘individual’, in this case temporarily uniting with their white working class counterparts as if occupying the same market space. Misplaced ‘unity’ because they were never going to be accorded the same market privileges or “psychological wage”,[6] accorded their white counterparts. We only needed to look at the unholy political alliance between the mainstream parties, UKIP and BNP (via canvassed votes) to see the folly of their misguided thinking.

So how do we move forward from here? Well, we won’t move forward by merely grieving without a genuine effort to analyse our national psyche, our cultural memories and our very real multicultural histories. In short, we will not move on unless we re-evaluate our stake in the United Kingdom and unlike in the Referendum, I mean ALL of us each from our own cultural and historical perspectives. If we were to truly and openly do this, we would as a natural consequence hear and welcome the voices of BAME and immigrant citizens in the mix of our forging an inclusive stakeholdership of the UK. However, I fear without such a frank national debate, we will descend into ever more fragmented self-harm ultimately only benefitting the neoliberal forces at hand.


[1] Being born here, I do not count myself as an immigrant but there was a distinct impression of ‘immigrant’ being used as a euphemism for non-white people, as well as its surface xenophobic connotations.

[2] Robbie Shilliam gives an excellent account of how the “gaze of Britannica” (p.3) fixes all those she surveys in to their static compartments never to meet, cross fertilise and grow (officially).

[3] For instance, not once was it mentioned what the impact of a Brexit would be on our devolved settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all of which gained their devolution powers through the 1998 Human Rights Act which is a domestication of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). With our implied withdrawal from the ECHR, all British legislation will need to be rewritten including our devolution settlements, as we decide upon a British Bill of Rights. The dissolution of our United Kingdom was never really considered.

[4] Despite the proliferation of social media connections, Tavia Nyong’o, Kenyan American cultural critic warns us in his ‘Queer Africa and the Fantasy of Virtual Participation’ that this is a “Participation as a Neoliberal Fantasy” (p. 52). What he means here is that our feelings of internet-mediated connection (and solidarity) are in themselves contributing to the accumulation of capital before they even have a chance to be felt in the ‘real world’. A contribution to the accumulation of capital in a real market sense that exacerbates the very social inequality being protested against online.

[5] The German sociologist, Georg Simmel in his Metropolis and Mental Life, describes this as a freedom of individuation granted by the size and relative anonymity of the metropolis and its capitalistic structures.

[6] A term coined by the African American writer and philosopher, W.E.B. Du Bois.


Related Posts

EU Referendum: Will We Stay or Will We Go? Can modern Pan Africanism help us to visualise a future of justice and equity post Referendum? 22.6.16

Book Release – International Perspectives of Multiculturalism: The Ethical Challenges, 3.1.16

Book Release – Urban Dialectics, The Market and Youth Engagement: The ‘Black’ Face of Eurocentrism? 22.1.15


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