Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Xenophobia and the UK referendum

The world was shocked this week by the British decision to leave the European Union, with the debate revealing a society profoundly troubled over issues of identity and immigration, writes Manal Lotfi

Al-Ahram Weekly

“England will never be like it was before ... but I’m English. I don’t want to be European,” one British woman from London’s East End told Al-Ahram Weekly on the eve of this week’s referendum that voted in favour of a British divorce from the EU.

She spoke with a mixture of pride and wistfulness as she thought of Old England, the “leader of the Industrial Revolution” in the 19th century, the “saviour of Europe” from the scourge of Nazism in World War II, the England which “had done more than any other country in the world” to bring peace, prosperity and democracy to Europe.

However, the British Empire on which the sun never set is no more. Today, the country accounts for less than one per cent of the world’s population, a long way from the era when the empire stretched across large tracts of the Middle East and the whole of the Indian subcontinent.

There is a general impression among the British public that they are growing poorer. The value of the British pound has dropped 20 per cent since 2008, and economic growth rates have slowed. The present government’s austerity programme has strained the working class and the lower middle class. To many, this week’s Brexit vote was a last-ditch attempt to save Old England, or at least the England that they remembered.

The referendum result in part reflected the mindsets of those, like the woman from the East End, who see themselves as English even before they are British, let alone European. The majority of those who voted to leave the EU were older, working or lower middle class and without a university education.

In other words, the referendum result reflects a sharp division in British society, one that centres not around political party affiliation but around identity. Above all, it centres on those who are believed to threaten that identity — namely, immigrants, who, according to the Brexiters, the EU allows to enter Europe without restriction.

According to a breakdown of the vote, 72 per cent of those who saw themselves as English voted to leave the EU, as opposed to only 43 per cent of those who listed their identity as British. Only two per cent of those who identified themselves as European voted in favour of leaving the EU.

Around 58 per cent of the British middle class voted to stay, in contrast to 27 per cent of the working and limited-income classes. The majority of university graduates voted in favour of remaining in the EU, while a majority of the less-educated voted in favour of leaving.

Seventy-three per cent of people aged 18 to 24 voted to remain in the EU, in contrast to 62 per cent between the ages of 25 and 34, and 52 per cent between 35 and 44. The ratios decline dramatically in the older age brackets: 56 per cent of voters between 45 and 54 voted to leave, as did 57 per cent of those aged 55 to 64, and 60 per cent of those over 60.

The main reason cited was “so that Britain can enforce its own laws without having to refer to EU laws, regain control over the borders and prevent immigration.”

It is little wonder, then, that within days of the results being announced, hate crimes began to spike in London and elsewhere against identity-threatening immigrants. Such crimes in Britain since the referendum are 57 per cent higher than they were at the same time last year, sending a clear message to immigrants that they are seen as the enemy.

This sad development is the product of diverse factors. The Brexit referendum was reduced to a conflict of identities in which the two major parties did not play a major role. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have been steadily losing support among the working classes, which have been drifting in larger numbers towards the ultra-nationalist right, as epitomised in the UK Independence Party (UKIP) headed by Nigel Farage.

Today no subject has a larger impact than restricting immigration to the UK. About 77 per cent of British voters want to reduce immigration, and 56 per cent want to reduce it a lot. These are the highest figures since the subject first came up in the 1990s.

A major reason for this is the rise of UKIP, the most important transformation of the British political scene in the past quarter of a century. To best appreciate the whys and wherefores of UKIP’s popularity, one has to go outside the big cities, the centres of cosmopolitism, diversity and multi-ethnicity.

UKIP voters are varied. But large numbers of jobless, not permanently employed, or limited-income young people without university degrees from the cities of central and northern England are UKIP supporters. So too are large numbers of elderly citizens and retirees who complain of poor healthcare in marginalised areas where they suffer from government neglect and insufficient funds for public services.

Many UKIP supporters have shifted from what were formerly Labour and Conservative party strongholds because these two major parties have been losing their ability to speak to the British working classes.

As socioeconomic crises mount, so too do identity issues. The rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) over the past two years has sent tremors through British politics.

“If the Scots have a national party that expresses their national identity, and the Welsh have a national party that expresses Welsh national identity, and the Irish have a national party that expresses their national identity, what party expresses English national identity?” many ask.

Such people hold the elites in London responsible for the submergence of white English identity beneath successive waves of immigration and unstable relations with the other members of the British union.

The debate in Britain today is not necessarily objective or just economic. A large part of it is governed by nationalistic emotions that some express in the succinct and starkly revealing words of “Britain’s for whites only”.

Or, as UKIP leader Nigel Farage put it, “Even if we get poorer as a result of curbing immigration, I don’t care.”

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