According to much of what one reads and sees today, Britain is a smaller, meaner and nastier place after the vote to leave the European Union (EU) one month ago. According to reports across the media, there has been an explosion of nativist outbursts and xenophobic violence around the country, ranging from public aggression and hostility towards people of colour to an attempted firebombing of a halal butchers and a Polish family in Plymouth. However much trends and reports shared on social media should be treated with caution, and however far we are from the virulent racism of the 1970s when organised National Front gangs could terrorise ethnic minorities with impunity, there clearly seems to have been a public swell of xenophobia since the Brexit vote. Friends of mine whom I (obviously) have no reason to doubt or disbelieve have experienced open racist aggression towards them since the referendum – sometimes for the first time in their lives. However if it truly was the EU that provided a bulwark against such racism, then this should give every Remain voter, would-be progressive and anti-racist pause for serious thought.
On the face of it, it would seem self-evident that a vote to delink your country from a continental organisation based on cross-border institutions and cosmopolitan values would lead to strengthened national and xenophobic sentiment. Yet to accept this proposition would be immediately to admit defeat on issues of xenophobia and racism. Indeed, it would be to admit defeat long before the Brexit vote even happened. If anti-racism really was dependent on Britain’s political link to Brussels, this would only be to say that values championed by the left have no enduring social and political basis at the national level. If anti-racism was truly dependent on an organisation as thinly-stretched, weakly-institutionalised and undemocratic as the EU, then it would be simpler to say that political anti-racism had no real foundations whatsoever, except in EU rhetoric about ‘values’. Anyone who thinks that Brexit has caused racism should be asking themselves why they had been so complacent for so long before the Brexit vote that they had ended up investing all their hopes for racial inclusion and diversity in an institution as bankrupt as the EU. Why did the left out-source anti-racism to such a profoundly problematic institution? That should be the real question for the left after Brexit, more than theory-mongering about Britain’s imperial identities – an organisation whose very own representatives ironically enough openly described the EU as a new type of imperial project.
If we consider things a little more closely, then the notion that the EU provided any kind of rampart against racism begins to fall away. The EU has drowned tens of thousands of Africans in the Mediterranean – a record of racial mass murder that outdoes any of the far-right populist parties that have never wielded national power, whether that be in Austria, Britain, France or Germany. By building Fortress Europe with its miles of barbed wire, military patrols and odious deals with neighbouring states, it is the EU that has contributed to the siege-mentality gripping European countries, solidifying popular fears that they are being overwhelmed by migrants. The much-vaunted freedom of movement within the EU was always its greatest lie. Not only did this ‘freedom’ come at the cost of the EU’s bloody outer borders, but even within the EU itself, such freedom was always qualified, limited and stratified, especially for Easterners. Western states opted to limit migration after the accession of new Eastern states to the Union for years at a time, while Roma citizens were punished for exercising their right to freedom of movement.
Not only does all this further expose the catastrophe of vesting anti-racism in the EU, it also suggests that the vote to the leave the EU offers no meaningful explanation of post-Brexit xenophobia. As many have already pointed out, the idea that even a significant minority of all the 17.4 million Brexit voters are racists simply does not stand to reason. Unsurprisingly, a Remain campaign that insisted that a Leave vote was xenophobic ended up emboldening xenophobes after Brexit. Whatever the post-Brexit wave of xenophobia may represent, what it does not embody is the resurgence of any imperial racial or ultranationalism. To attribute the new xenophobia to resurgent imperial and racial nationalism is as delusional as the free market and libertarian Leave campaigners who stammered about the ‘Anglosphere’ – the politically correct code for the old empire – that Britain could join once it left the EU. Both positions are mirror images of the other, fixated on a receding imperial past and missing what is happening in front of them. The constitutional framework of the old imperial state that packaged its imperial nationalism – the United Kingdom – is itself unravelling and fragmenting, regardless of whether or not Scotland goes independent.
To the extent that Little Englander xenophobia has emerged from the Brexit vote, it is no resurgence of an atavistic past, but fully in keeping with today’s identity politics. The cosmopolitan and multicultural values championed by the EU have functioned as intended, to fragment mass politics by proliferating minority identities competing for the grace and favour of the state. Identity politics also helped to suppress and undercut old trade union demands for greater power, higher wages and redistribution as selfish, blinkered majoritarianism riding roughshod over minorities and oblivious to the outside world. Everyone was entitled to a special state-sanctioned identity, except the white working class. In truth, Little Englander nationalism is the logical end-point of cosmopolitan multiculturalism – it is identity politics for the ‘left behind’. If Brexit dealt a blow to EU cosmopolitanism and a boost to majoritarian democracy by giving people political control over their lives, it also has the potential to strike a blow against identity politics, too – including Little Englander nationalism.