VIEWPOINT: Brexit, Class and British ‘National’ Identity

VIEWPOINT: Brexit, Class and British ‘National’ Identity

Gurminder K. Bhambra

On the day before the referendum on our continued membership of the European Union, I was wondering about what the result would be and how I would respond. While I hoped that Remain would win, I couldn’t say that, even at that point, it would have felt like a victory given what it had already cost us. What had been unleashed in the weeks prior to the vote was the most toxic discourse on citizenship and belonging, and the rights that pertain as a consequence. This discourse provided a context for the brutal killing of a socialist and progressive MP before the vote followed by increasing racist and xenophobic attacks on migrants and minorities after the decision for ‘Brexit’.

Alongside this politics, I also felt growing unease about the complete erasure of understanding – on the right and the left – of how Britain came to look the way it does today. Within the popular discourse of the traditional media, as well as more generally within social media, there was an almost universally accepted belief in the idea of Britain being a nation and having always been a nation. This belief in a national history, with a national population, then determined who should or should not have rights, including the rights to decent living conditions.

The right to belong and to have rights was associated with a perceived longstanding historical presence within the nation. The most visceral attacks came in relation to a sense of that national community having been betrayed by a metropolitan elite that appeared to care more for the situation of ‘non-British’ others than it did for the ‘legitimate’ citizens of Britain. ‘Put Britain first’ was the call that resounded not only from Batley and Spen but, in various degrees of intensity, from up and down and across the country. It was also mobilized in media and social scientific accounts that sought to focus attention, in particular, on the plight of a white (English) working class.

What happens when, instead of Poles, it is poor white English people herded into the polytunnels of Kent to pick strawberries for union-busting gangmasters?
Paul Mason

Racializing the working-class in the context of a populist discourse that seeks to ‘take our country back’ both plays into and reinforces problematic assumptions about who belongs, who has rights, and whose quality of life should have priority in public policy. It also works with a misguided sense of who ‘we’ are and how ‘we’ came to be. If we do not understand how we came to be politically constituted as a nation, as Britain, then our solutions to the manifest problems we are facing are likely to be profoundly misguided.

Since its very inception as a common political unit in 1707, Britain has not been an independent country, but part of broader political entities; most significantly empire, then the Commonwealth and, from 1973, the European Union. There has been no independent Britain, no ‘Island nation’.

In contrast, for most of this period, there has been a racially stratified political formation that Britain created and led to its own advantage. It is the loss of this privileged position – based on white elites and a working class offered the opportunity to see themselves as better than the darker subjects of empire (hierarchies of class and caste if you will, embodied in the hierarchies of race) – that seems to drive much of the current discourse. Austerity has simply provided the fertile ground for its re-emergence and expression.

What it is to be British cannot be understood separate from empire or the imperial modes of governance that remained dominant well into the twentieth century. While there is a much longer history that rests on the vicissitudes of empire and forms of imperial governance, here I am concerned with a shorter history: one that sets out the emergence of Britain, and what it is to be British, in the context of the decolonization of empire.

Debates on British citizenship only emerged in the metropole in the 1940s and it was not until 1981 that there was a legal statute specifying British citizenship as a category distinct from the earlier forms that had created a common citizenship status across the populations of the UK and its colonies. Disentangling a particular form of British citizenship from these earlier models was a protracted process and involved taking rights away from some citizens on the basis of race and colonial status (Karatani 2003).

In the immediate post-war period, Britain explicitly refused to consider itself as a nation and maintained empire and the Commonwealth as its key political imaginaries when thinking about what it meant to be British. This was so at least until 1973 when it entered the European Community. The idea of a special relationship with the Commonwealth also figured in arguments to leave the EU in the present, notwithstanding that the relationship had been negated in the 1970s.

Moreover, entry into the EU created a category of citizenship additional to that of national citizenship, that of ‘EU citizen’ whose rights in Britain are now being denied, as are those of British citizens in Europe; though Boris Johnson seems to believe they can be exercised by British citizens as ‘privileges’ (not rights) of remaining in a single market, while not being reciprocated for other citizens outside Britain.

In brief, up until 1948, when Britain enacted the British Nationality Act, the populations of Britain and its Dominions and colonies (both former and continuing) were understood as British subjects; after 1948, they were designated as Commonwealth citizens. People were not subjects of an authority specific to local territories, but were all subjects of British Empire or (later) citizens of the Commonwealth (whether they were in Britain or elsewhere).

At the very moment that the British government first sought to clarify what British citizenship meant, people in the colonies were formally stated to share citizenship with people in Britain and populations of the former colonies and Dominions were also regarded as citizens of the Commonwealth. This meant that they continued to have rights to travel to, and to live in, Britain by virtue of remaining within the Commonwealth.

1948 was not only the year of the British Nationality Act, but it was also the year that the Empire Windrush entered the Thames and close on 500 West Indians, holding British passports, disembarked at Tilbury Dock. This rather mundane event – of Commonwealth citizens moving within the bounds of the Commonwealth – has, subsequently, become foundational to mythologies of the changing nature (or, perhaps more accurately, face) of Britain. Mythologies that continue to reverberate in the present and have taken on a renewed political vibrancy in light of the debates regarding our continued EU membership.

While the event of Windrush is often cited as the inauguration of British multiculturalism, it should be argued, as the British government itself argued, that the British Empire and later Commonwealth was, in its very constitution, multiracial and culturally diverse. The only thing that makes the Windrush significant is the fact that it was the darker citizens of empire who were exercising their rights to move freely and legally (as many of their paler compatriots had been doing throughout history, albeit without the legal sanction of the territories they entered).

Notwithstanding the easy association of citizenship with the nation-state (and with histories of national belonging), British citizenship emerged in – and was configured by – the multiracial and ethnolinguistically plural context of empire and Commonwealth. It is this history that legitimizes the presence of Britain’s darker citizens in the UK and which gives them rights of belonging and of citizenship. Britain’s darker citizens did not come, for the most part, as migrants, they / we came as citizens.

passportOLD2The transformation of darker citizens from citizens to aliens over the 1960s and 1970s was based on a visceral understanding of difference predicated on race that brought into being two classes of citizenship – full citizenship and second-class citizenship. The institution of a common citizenship – Citizens of the UK and the Colonies – in the British Nationality Act of 1948 could not be undone while Britain still held formal colonies. As such, immigration into the country was increasingly managed by the passing of Acts to discriminate among citizens on the basis of race.

While the standard accounts of citizenship align it with the contours of the nation-state, and ‘aliens’ are (or can be) admitted to citizenship; within the British context, the defining of British citizenship has been predicated on the basis of making citizens into immigrants on the basis of an explicit racial hierarchy. Indeed, as Hampshire has comprehensively demonstrated, ‘the development of immigration controls in post-war Britain was governed by a racial demographic logic’ (2005: 77).

This points to the current British polity as deeply structured by race such that the state itself – and all associated concepts, such as citizenship – are themselves racialized. The issue of race is not simply about those who look different being present within British society; but about how the state is itself constructed on a racial ideology. It is this that social scientists and policy analysts seem not to take on board when making arguments only about, or prioritizing, the white working class.

Yes, the immigrants got the blame from the Brexiteers – but that’s perhaps because the Labour party and Conservative party alike have chosen to put class to one side in politics and concentrate instead on matters of identity, so long as that identity isn’t one of Englishness, which is what, oddly enough, most English people consider to be important.
Tim Lott

On the political right and the left, white commentators use ‘British’ or ‘English’ or ‘the working class’ always to mean ‘white British’, ‘white English’ and the ‘white working class’. They don’t even need to think of having to qualify what it is to be British; it is such the common-sense position that to be British or English is to be white. Those who argue for a class analysis on this basis are, in fact, offering the most racialized of identity politics, albeit one that is unconscious to itself.

The mobilization of ‘Churchillian’ values and freedoms by Boris Johnson and the use of the iconography of spitfires by Nigel Farage’s UKIP, aligns with the discourse of the far-right across the EU that sees Europe itself as white and under threat from the darker subjects it had previously subjugated. This mythology of a white Europe or a historically white Britain seriously misrepresents the multiracial political formations that were the context for the emergence and development of many European countries, including Britain, as they are today.

No subject of empire asked for that subjugation. Having been included through subjugation, it seems perverse to now be excluded by those, careless in their history and wanton in their analysis, who articulate a conception of the body politic and the body social as white, and do not wish inclusion on terms of equality.

We didn’t wish inclusion through subjugation, but we will not be wished away. If we want a future that addresses the injustices that blight our contemporary times, we must rethink our analyses to take into account the imperial configuration of Britain and all those who were subjects within it and subject to it. If this is not done, then that demonstrates a commitment to a racialized national history that has no space for its darker subjects. This is choice that clearly illuminates on which side of the line we stand as we move from the 2000s to the 1970s to the 1930s.

References and Further Reading
Hampshire, James 2005. Citizenship and Belonging: Immigration and the Politics of Demographic Governance in Postwar Britain. Palgrave: Basingstoke.
Hansen, Randall 2000. Citizenship and Immigration in Post-war Britain: The Institutional Origins of a Multicultural Nation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Holmwood, John 2000. ‘Europe and the “Americanization” of British Social Policy,’ European Societies 2 (4), 453-82.
Karatani, Rieko 2003. Defining British Citizenship: Empire, Commonwealth and Modern Britain. Frank Cass: London.


Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick and Guest Professor of Sociology and History at Linnaeus University, Sweden. She is author of Connected Sociologies and Rethinking Modernity. She tweets in a personal capacity @gkbhambra

48 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    July 09, 2016

    Your article is fascinating, and your analysis and insights are helpful in understanding the issues in Britain.


  2. Avatar
    July 10, 2016

    Thank you for this. It has shed light on the undercurrents of racism I have encountered all my life.


  3. Avatar
    July 11, 2016

    Excellent article/analysis. Thanks. As Stuart Hall said: “we are here because you were there.”


  4. Avatar
    July 12, 2016

    Stopped reading at “almost universally accepted belief in the idea of Britain being a nation and having always been a nation”. Only true since English “French” decedent Kings invaded Wales, Scotland & Ireland and perhaps with the Norman Invasion.


    • Avatar
      July 24, 2016

      Suggest you start reading again then, it’s a much more complex situation than that.

      BTW The English kings tried many times to invade Scotland without long term success. The current UK has its origins when the King of Scots, James VI, became King of England as James I by inheritance after the death of Elizabeth I, who was his second cousin. The parliaments united just over100 years later.


  5. Avatar
    August 02, 2016

    This is an excellent article and thoughtful in its displaying of historical and current events to expose the closet face of racism. Historically the so called Empires were created and maintained through governing policies and practices which either uniting its inhabitants or dividing them. British colonialism did not establish nor promoted a real Empire but created an artificial class and cast system initially based on a global criteria of wealth and power. The recent referendum expose and confused the voters whether the Emperor was or is indeed naked or lightly clothed for the season. Racism is an ignorant self defeating base for rational decision making.


  6. Avatar
    August 04, 2016

    The article echoes/relies on what I thought was the mainstream media and British government canard/stereotype that the vote to “Leave” was all racist and xenophobic. But, we know from various British people’s vote, and a number of political commentaries, that British people had all sorts of reasons for voting “Leave”, those who did, and that had nothing necessarily to do with being racist/xenophobic.

    Plus, I find the article’s description about how the issue, particularly the “Leave” vote, was some sort of rather abstract theoretical “progression”, some supposed “progression” up to today, from how the “definition” of British citizenship has “changed” since its legal definition in 1928 — was hard for me to follow the legal relevancy — i.e., the legal relevancy/definition of British citizenship itself — of that to the “Leave” vote.

    Also, since a British sociologist wrote the article, I didn’t see on what formal study/survey the author was basing his description of the “Leave” vote as all (or predominantly) “racist & xenophobic”, and having anything to do with how “the legal definition of British citizenship”pertains today.

    So, to me, it seemed to be just another misleading article stereotyping the “Leave” vote on the Brexit — and it seemed like perhaps interesting from an, or as, an academic article — although seemingly not well-supported with research at all — but it seems very academically rather circuitous to reach the author’s a priori subjective belief from the beginning that the “Leave” vote was, even before the vote was in, all (or predominantly) “racist & xenophobic”.

    Now I might personally believe that a social decision on some social issue was driven by racism/xenophobia, but if I just ignore plenty of information to the contrary — ignore plenty of information that there were all sorts of reasons, including perhaps racism/xenophobia among some of them, that people of all colors/”races”/ethnicities in Britain were deciding a certain way on a particular social issue — and then I didn’t conduct any study about those various reasons — then I would be intellectually, and perhaps even morally, remiss — especially if I were an academic — and especially one in sociology — if I went to publish a formal article/commentary saying and stereotyping that the only (or even primary) reason for a certain social decision by those who had it was driven by racism & xenophobia — and how the academic author went on such a circuitous “explanation” (besides racism/xenophobia itself) to me seemed like throwing up a lot of academic dust to cover what he just wants to subjectively believe anyway — without doing — or citing — any presumably valid academic/sociological studies/surveys (let alone for our intellectual/academic evaluation of them).


    • Avatar
      August 08, 2016

      If you read the article carefully, SMH, you’ll see that I don’t speak about Leave voters or the intentions of individuals voting. I am presenting a historical sociological account of the context which few people are aware of and which, if we took it seriously, would enable us to understand the situation differently.


      • Avatar
        August 09, 2016

        Thank you for your response, Mr. Bhambra.

        Perhaps it was the sentence in _your very first paragraph_ in your article/commentary,

        “This discourse provided a context for the brutal killing of a socialist and progressive MP before the vote followed by increasing racist and xenophobic attacks on migrants and minorities after the decision for ‘Brexit’”,

        that misled me.

        But, I will re-read your article more closely/carefully and focus on the “context” you wanted to present and see if I either understand and/or agree with that context.

        To that extent, in your defense, a Black British friend of mine did say that she thought your article is a good article on the complexities of British identity and its colonial past, …particularly ideas of British citizenship.

        So, I am especially interested in re-reading and focusing on that aspect of your article — even if I disagree about your generalization about “racist and xenophobic attacks” — since actually most of them seem directed — or majorly directed — against *Polish* & other *white* Eastern European people — the ones the more purely *xenophobic* white British working-/middle-class people are most worried about competing against *other* whites — particularly white migrants/immigrants — for jobs, housing, and other social resources that white Britons are at least comparatively more privileged, than Black Britons, to be able to get. I recently heard about a *Polish* cultural center in Britain (London?) being pointedly burned, but *not*, in the Brexit controversy, about a mosque being burned.

        Btw, just before the Brexit vote Lee Jasper was on a very prominent, progressive, San Francisco Bay Area radio show, his saying that the pro-Brexit / “Leave” vote was ‘all about white anti-Black racism and wanting to drive all the Black people out of Britain.’ An African American man, Twilight Bey, in England (at least then) was saying the very same thing. I warned the interviewer, the very prominent African American, Davey D Cook, on KPFA radio, in the San Francisco Bay Area, in Berkeley in particular, that there were *numerous* reasons — *besides* (or including) racism and xenophobia — that many Britons of ALL colors/ethnicities were going to vote, on both sides, either “Leave” or “Stay” — and some just wanted whatever had passed for their democracy back, and for British Tory or Labour parliamentarians/politicians to stop being able to make excuses, ‘Gee, *we* don’t want to *cut* British social programs but it’s the *EU* who’s making us *do* it’ — and that neither Jasper’s or Bey’s description was as ‘neat & tidy’ & narrow as Lee pretended or Bey thought.

        Again, thank you very much for your response.


        • Avatar
          August 11, 2016

          Clarification in a sentence in my August 9 reply:

          “I recently heard about a *Polish* cultural center in Britain (London?) being pointedly burned, but *not*, in the Brexit controversy, about a [i.e., any] mosque being burned.”


  7. Avatar
    September 21, 2016

    Hello there. I’ve posted some reflections in the link that follows, including a specific response to this piece. Kind regards, Camila Bassi