Geographies of Race and Class

Brexit and the British Left

June 11, 2021

In This Feature

The 2012 Brexit referendum—which saw a razor-thin majority (52 to 48 percent) of voters support Britain’s exit from the European Union—set in motion the most tumultuous period of British politics in three decades.1We benefitted from the careful comments on an earlier draft by Robert Knox, Parvathi Raman, Gareth Dale, Rafeef Ziadah, and Todd Gordon. Perhaps more than usual it is important to stress that their generous engagement with our text does not necessarily connote agreement with our argument.

The Brexit vote helped catalyze longstanding schisms in the ruling Conservative Party, with a rapid succession of three prime ministers—David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson—attempting to reconcile the party’s vocal proBrexit wing with the interests of the UK’s leading finance capitalists who were primarily concerned with minimizing Brexit’s potential impact on the City of London’s financial markets. The ongoing negotiations around future UK–EU relations have been marked by a series of Tory missteps and public gaffs, all of which serve to reinforce a widely held perception of a government that was not only self-serving and riven by internal feuds but also distinguished by a level of incompetence rarely witnessed (at least publicly) in British politics.

The UK’s main opposition party, the Labour Party, also experienced its own upheavals in the wake of the Brexit vote. The emergence of an energetic, youthful, and activist left united behind the new party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, threw Labour’s dominant right-wing bureaucracy into an existential crisis. Corbyn’s strong showing in the 2017 general elections on an anti-austerity platform was not enough to displace a Conservative Party led by an insipid Theresa May, but it did further deepen the internal battle lines between Corbynism and an entrenched layer of party bureaucrats whose intellectual and political formation drew deeply on the discredited “Third Way” neoliberalism of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Despite the widespread crisis of legitimacy that characterized the mainstream of British conservatism, a campaign to undermine Corbyn—waged both inside and outside the Labour party—was eventually successful. The 2019 general election saw the Tories returned with a large seat majority and, shortly after, Corbyn’s departure as Labour Party leader.

The reasons for, and implications of, the collapse of the Corbyn project are complex and beyond the goals of this piece. Rather, our aim here is to tackle a series of arguments that have been put forward by much of the socialist left in Britain (including some prominent allies of Corbyn) around how to understand the popular support for Brexit among the British population. According to this narrative—often abridged as the Left-Exit or “Lexit” viewpoint—the proBrexit vote ultimately represented a popular class-based revolt of those marginalized, excluded, and left behind by decades of neoliberal austerity.

This argument takes a geographical inflection: The deprived towns of Northern England that voted strongly Leave in 2016 and deserted the Labour Party in 2019 stand in contrast to the moneyed and privileged elites of London, who voted heavily Remain. According to Lexiters, the political implications of this analysis were clear: The Left should have campaigned for Brexit in 2016 and Labour should have taken a clear Leave position in 2019. This would have consolidated working class support behind Corbynism and undercut the pernicious influence of the clearly far right, xenophobic character of the mainstream Leave campaign.

In what follows, we strongly contest this particular class analysis of the proBrexit vote. We think that the Lexit argument is not only based on a weak empirical interpretation of class dynamics, but that at a methodological level it reveals a problem that has long plagued parts of the British far left: an inability to foreground race and migration in the making of class, and an accommodation to British (especially English) nationalism. To be clear, our argument is not based upon any illusions in what the European Union is and has always been—an imperialist bloc of leading capitalist states, aimed at expanding and reinforcing the interests of European bourgeoisies at the global level. Rather, our main concern here is to contest the widespread claim that Brexit constitutes some kind of “working class revolt” worthy of support.

The Brexit debate revealed divisions on the Left. As a result, there is an understandable eagerness among British socialists to quickly move beyond it and focus instead on combating the horrors of Johnson’s rule, Corbyn’s eclipse, and the unchartered terrain of Covid–19. And yet few political turns could do more damage to the prospects of emancipatory politics in the UK than to hastily repress the Brexit moment from the collective consciousness without fully coming to terms with the internal weaknesses that it exposed within the Left. At the very least we should insist on reckoning with the ways in which the Brexit conjuncture laid bare part of the British left’s enduring failures around racism, nationalism, and imperial nostalgia. Contending with these matters should also resonate well beyond the borders of Britain, in a global context in which the Right remains ascendant and the grip of xenophobic left nationalism secures itself more tightly around growing sections of the social democratic left.

Ferraris and Food Banks

Any analysis of contemporary class dynamics in Britain needs to contend first and foremost with the devastating consequences of Tory-led neoliberal austerity over the last decade. Following their electoral victory in 2010, the Conservative Party (then in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) embarked upon the most far-reaching restructuring of the UK state since the second world war. Utilizing the opportunities presented by the 2008–2009 global economic crash, the 2010 coalition government led to a raft of savage cuts to welfare and public services—including a 27 percent cut to local governments (a critical site of public service delivery) and a 68 percent reduction in spending on social housing.2Leah Bassel and Akwugo Emejulu, Minority Women and Austerity: Survival and Resistance in France and Britain (Bristol: Policy Press, 2017), 11–12. Despite some of the largest protests and labor strikes in British history between 2010 and 2013, these remained comparatively episodic and fragmentary outside of Scotland, and austerity measures and cuts to social spending were to be extended even further following subsequent Conservative Party electoral victories in 2015, 2017, and 2019.

Indeed, a decades-long decomposition of working class oppositional infrastructures and associated defeats suffered in the 1980s and 1990s by socialist, antiracist, and feminist political movements were prerequisites for the success of the right-wing Brexit campaign. Social movements and trade unions remained weak and fragmented, despite the popularity in polls of anti-austerity and Corbynista social democracy. Neither in electoral nor in movement terms did Corbynism have much of an impact on the Scottish scenario, still strongly in the grasp of the Scottish National Party. Momentum—the quasi-social movement organization attached to the Labour Party—would become over time almost exclusively concerned with internal party disputes and building for elections, with declining capacity and inclination to build social movement infrastructure and trade union power.

The result has been an unmitigated social and economic disaster. By 2018, more than 20 percent of the country’s 66 million strong population were living under the poverty line, with 1.5 million people utterly destitute—that is, lacking “basic essentials.”3Philip Alston, “Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom,” United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights (London: United Nations, November 16, 2018), 1, 18. One in three children are now living below the poverty line,4Harry Quilter-Pinner and Dean Hochlaf, “Austerity: There Is an Alternative and the UK Can Afford to Deliver It,” Institute for Public Policy Research, April 18, 2019. and over one million people are forced to rely on food banks—with the country’s largest food charity reporting a more than 5,000 percent increase in the use of emergency food parcels since 2008. Levels of homelessness have more than doubled under the Tories, with the gutting of welfare benefits forcing many people out of their homes and onto the streets. All of this has been buttressed by far-reaching moves toward privatization and market-based provision of infrastructure, education, and healthcare—including the underfunding and corporatization of large parts of the much vaunted National Health Service.5This is a key reason why the UK’s response to Covid–19 was so utterly disastrous. The destruction of the public health system meant that the country entered the pandemic with the lowest number of doctors per patient in the whole of Europe.

But as always, this decade-long process of neoliberal restructuring was felt in a highly uneven way across British society. According to a 2018 investigation carried out by Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, austerity in the UK has most severely hit “the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people living with disabilities.”6Alston, “Statement on Visit,” 1, 18. In contrast, the ultra-rich have seen their wealth skyrocket since 2010. In 2016, the UK’s Office for National Statistics calculated that the richest 10 percent of households held 44 percent of the country’s total wealth, compared to just 9 percent of wealth held by the bottom 50 percent of the population.7“Wealth in Great Britain Wave 5: 2014–2016,” Office for National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/incomeandwealth/datasets/totalwealthwealthingreatbritain A report at the end of 2019 found that the UK’s six wealthiest billionaires had a combined fortune of £39.4 billion, about the same amount as one-fifth of the entire population (13.2 million people).8Rupert Neate, “UK’s Six Richest People Control as Much Wealth as Poorest 13m: Study,” The Guardian, December 3, 2019. The UK had become a nation of “ferraris and foodbanks” according to the Equality Trust, with the richest one thousand individuals controlling more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of households, and where “the fabric of society” had been “ripped to shreds.”9“A Nation of Ferraris and Foodbanks: UK Rich Increase Wealth by £253 Billion Over Five Years,” The Equality Trust, May 12, 2019.7

Brexit as “Working Class Revolt”

For much of the British left, these unquestionable outcomes of Tory austerity are central to explaining the 2016 Brexit referendum result and the enduring support for Brexit among considerable sections of the population since that time. According to this view, the narrow vote in favor of leaving the European Union was a deflected expression of class struggle in the context of a decade of crisis and austerity—a form of plebeian revolt by those “left behind.” The more refined renderings of this position conceded that this form of opposition was “susceptible to the right” but emphasized that Leave voters were “not lost to the right.”10Ashley Smith, “No Exit from the Brexit Crisis: An Interview with Neil Davidson,” rs21, January 9, 2019. The notion that this form of opposition was only “susceptible to the right” serves to downplay the overwhelmingly right-wing character assumed by the Brexit campaign, the sheer irrelevance of Lexit to the balance of forces in the relevant conjuncture, and the further momentum that Brexit predictably gave to racism and forces of the far right. Neil Davidson was arguably the most sophisticated defender of Leave from an internationalist socialist perspective. See, for example, Neil Davidson, “Choosing or Refusing to Take Sides in an Era of Right-Wing Populism, Part One,” International Socialist Review, no. 104 (2017); Davidson, “Choosing or Refusing to Take Sides in an Era of Right-Wing Populism, Part Two,” International Socialist Review, no. 106 (2017). Davidson argued that Brexit was both product and accelerant of “three specific crises currently facing the British ruling class … crises of party, of strategy, and of state.” The Left was, he recognized, in a poor position to respond to the crisis of British capitalism, given its internal divisions and an associated weakness of working class organizational capacity. In this context, he nonetheless argued that the task of the anaemic existing Left was to build an alternative to both the “social neoliberalism” of the European Union and the Remainers, and the “right-wing populism” of mainstream Brexit leadership. To argue for Remain under any conditions was, for Davidson, to adapt to a liberal “lesser evil” position, and to lend support to the unreformable European Union. Davidson was skeptical of the view that support for Brexit was fundamentally “driven by racism and anti-migrant feeling,” stressing rather that “there were a series of complex and often opposed motivations for voting Leave.” However, in our opinion, his argument rested too much on an acceptance of many of the premises of the class analysis of Brexit that we critique in this article. While we share entirely his four-pronged critique of the EU—as neoliberal, based on an internal hierarchy of nation states, functional to US geopolitical interests, and structurally racist—this in no way obligated support for Lexit. Indeed, many leading financial commentators now argue that the EU has actually been strengthened by the movement toward a British exit under the auspices of the far right (and no other exit conditions were plausible in 2016 and its immediate aftermath), and the far right and racism have been further emboldened in Britain and throughout Europe. Gideon Rachman, “How Brexit May Strengthen the West,” The Financial Times, August 3, 2020. Politically, Brexit was to be celebrated for the blows it would rain down on the British state, the European Union, and the neoliberal status quo worldwide.

Susan Watkins, for example, writing in New Left Review soon after the 2016 referendum, suggested: “it is plain that Blairized Britain has taken a hit, as has the Hayekianized EU. Critics of the neoliberal order have no reason to regret these knocks to it, against which the entire global establishment—Obama to Abe, Merkel to Modi, Juncker to Xi—has inveighed.”11Susan Watkins, “Casting Off?” New Left Review II, no. 100 (2016), 31. Likewise, The Guardian’s Ian Jack was to see the referendum as a rising of the poor against the elite.12Ian Jack, “In This Brexit Vote, the Poor Turned on an Elite Who Ignored Them,” The Guardian, June 25, 2016. And John Harris, also in The Guardian, stated that Brexit pivoted around class inequality and expressed the dissent of the dispossessed—if you had money you voted in, and if you didn’t you voted out.13John Harris, “‘If You’ve Got Money, You Vote in…If You Haven’t Got Money, You Vote Out,’” The Guardian, June 24, 2016.

Numerous groups on the far left echoed these sentiments. “The Leave vote,” a Counterfire editorial asserted, “is above all else a rejection of the entire political establishment by millions of working class people who have been left to suffer austerity for decades with few defenders among the mainstream parties.”14Editorial Collective, “End Austerity: General Election Now! Lexit Statement on Leave Vote,” Counterfire, June 24, 2016. John Molyneux goes further in the Irish edition of Socialist Worker, arguing that the Brexit vote wasn’t just a working class revolt but “a blow to neo-liberalism and capitalism internationally—it profoundly destabilizes our rulers on a global scale and they know it.”15John Molyneux, “A Working Class Revolt? The Meaning of The Leave Vote,” Socialist Worker, June 27, 2016. “I suspect,” Lisa McKenzie writes in Red Pepper, “that most working-class leavers…are giving a two-fingered salute to the middle class and the establishment while looking back to a past they feel was better and out into a future they know is bleak.”16Lisa McKenzie, “Brexit: A Two-Fingered Salute from the Working Class,” Red Pepper, August 22, 2016. “A vote to Leave today will not bring about socialism,” The Morning Star’s editorial read on the morning of the referendum, “but it would be a step towards restoring democratic control of our economy, and remove an obstacle to progress.”17“Why the Morning Star Supports a Leave Vote,” Morning Star, June 22, 2016. This perspective of a “left-behind” insurgency was also echoed in much of the early academic writing on Brexit.18Matthew J. Goodwin and Oliver Heath, “The 2016 Referendum, Brexit and the Left Behind: An Aggregate-Level Analysis of the Result,” The Political Quarterly 87, no. 3 (2016): 323–32; Sara B. Hobolt, “The Brexit Vote: A Divided Nation, a Divided Continent,” Journal of European Public Policy 23, no. 9 (2016): 1259–77; Lisa Mckenzie, “‘It’s Not Ideal’ Reconsidering ‘Anger’ and ‘Apathy’ in the Brexit Vote among an Invisible Working Class,” Competition & Change 21, no. 3 (2017): 199–210. Prominent Marxist academic Costas Lapavitsas would write shortly before the 2019 general election:

There is no doubt that the working class and the plebeian strata have generally tended to support Brexit. The vote to Leave became a vote against the dominant wing of the British historical bloc, which had clearly expressed its preference for Remain. It was a proxy against austerity, poor jobs, and the decline in welfare provision, particularly since the great crisis of 2007–09. Moreover, far from representing a surrender to racism, rabid nationalism, and right-wing authoritarianism, the referendum facilitated the radicalization of British politics in an unexpected way. The Conservative Party barely won the general election of 2017, and the real victor was a revived Labour Party, with a manifesto based on a social democratic programme opposing austerity and even calling for nationalization of the railways and other resources.19Costas Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against the EU (Cambridge: Polity, 2019), 138–39.

As Lapavitsas hints at here, debates around Brexit as “working class revolt” formed an important undercurrent to strategic disputes in the Labour Party and the Corbyn movement in the years following 2016. Despite the fact that a large majority of Labour supporters were opposed to Brexit—including the overwhelming majority of young activists who entered the party following Corbyn’s ascension to leadership—significant parts of the far left continued to advocate support for Brexit.20It should be emphasized that the Lexit position remains a minoritarian current on the British left. Nonetheless, some significant currents in and out of the Labour Party took up the Lexit position to varying degrees, including the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party, Counterfire, the pro-Corbyn Tribune, as well as a few high profile trade union leaders and academics. And with the defeat of Corbyn in the 2019 general election—an election that was largely fought around the issue of Brexit21In the campaign, Corbyn pledged to negotiate a “soft” Brexit from the EU should Labour win and promised to put any eventual agreement to a popular vote—the much contested second referendum—and to remain neutral as to how citizens should vote in that referendum. Such calculated ambiguity—attempting to conciliate through avoidance the divisions within the Labour Party constituency on the question of Brexit—proved unsatisfying to both Leavers and Remainers. “Labour was damned it if did and damned if it didn’t,” Kim Moody rightly points out, “but ultimately double damned by doing neither.” Kim Moody, “The UK Election: A Car Crash on the Left Side of the Road,” New Politics, December 28, 2019.—the Lexit position transformed into a broader explanation for Labour’s electoral collapse. According to this narrative, the party had refused to listen to working class anger at the core of proLeave constituencies—particularly those located in the north of England—and were forced to pay the price at the ballot box.

Grace Blakeley, a progressive economist and frequent media commentator, neatly summarized this perspective in an article written for Jacobin shortly after Johnson’s 2019 electoral triumph. Posing the problem in what was to become a common mapping of geography onto class, Blakeley wrote: “London is an international megacity, a playground for wealthy elites from all over the world, while some regions of the UK have similar levels of output to parts of Eastern Europe.” For Blakeley, as for many others:

The vote to leave the European Union was won on the back of votes from people in these places, who sought to deliver a kicking to the establishment that didn’t seem to listen to them no matter how they voted in general elections. Everything that has happened since then has simply confirmed these people’s suspicions that their preferences simply do not matter to most of our political leaders…In 2017, Labour came close to winning [the general election] by acknowledging this anger and transforming it into a moment to upend the status quo through a deep transformation of the economy. But since then, this transformative message has been drowned out by a failure of leadership epitomized by the vacillating over Brexit…A sensible socialist policy agenda must be combined with effective leadership that can rebuild trust in leave-voting areas—in other words, Labour needs to elect a working-class leader from outside London.22Grace Blakeley, “The Fight for Socialism in Britain Will Continue,” Jacobin (UK), December 14, 2019.

Ronan Burtenshaw, editor of Tribune, adds a new inflection to this geography-
as-class narrative in a critique published the morning after Labour’s defeat in 2019: “As party memberships exploded in London and the South East, they were often stagnant in the very ‘heartlands’ we lost tonight. That was disguised by the result in 2017. It cannot be disguised anymore. Labour lost not because it was too much of a working-class party, but because it was too little of one, in too few areas.”2323. Ronan Burtenshaw, “It Was Never Going to Be Easy,” Tribune, December 13, 2019. Labour’s refusal to uphold “the democratic mandate on Brexit,” according to Burtenshaw, was part and parcel of a longer term abandonment of the working class north for the big city middle class of the southeast. Labour had failed to recognize the sentiment of plebeian revolt that innervated the Brexit vote—substituting an embrace of youth and “progressive politics” for the genuine class interests of its traditional base in the North.24Burtenshaw, “It Was Never.”

Likewise, for Tom Hazeldine, London is reducible to a cosmopolitan idyll of the rich, “swollen in size, wealth and self-esteem.”25Tom Hazeldine, “Revolt of the Rustbelt,” New Left Review II, no. 105 (2017): 51. While this divide “isn’t England’s only fault line, it’s no accident that the deindustrialized periphery ranged itself against the London Establishment in the referendum, sealing Remain’s fate.”26Ibid., 54. Throughout all these accounts, the Brexit vote becomes an uncomplicated story of a North–South division, where class position and experience of social exclusion map straightforwardly onto geographical location.

Undead Myths

These kinds of arguments have a simplistic allure for many on the British left, capturing the reality of a deindustrialized, neglected North and the decades-long decline of tight-knit communities centered around workers’ social clubs and a strong consciousness of trade union militancy. Bluntly put, however, this story of “Brexit as working class revolt” is largely a fantasy—one that relies upon a misreading of socioeconomic data, a crude mapping of class onto geography, and a denial of how race, class, and citizenship status intersect in a leading capitalist power with a long history of colonial and imperial rule. But like all good myths, this is a tale that continues to be recounted as self-evident truth. As Alberto Toscano rightly notes, “however many times it may be statistically refuted, and notwithstanding its basis in a lamination of race and class that itself goes back to the days of ‘social imperialism’…the notion of Brexit as some kind of working-class revolt is one of those Zombie ideas that refuses to stay dead.”27Alberto Toscano, “Living in the Time(s) of Brexit,” Political Economy Research Centre, September 26, 2019.

Defeats suffered in the 1980s and 1990s by socialist, antiracist, and feminist political movements were prerequisites for the success of the right-wing Brexit campaign.

To begin with, let us look at the putative connection between support for Brexit and class position. Here, numerous studies have confirmed that association between class and one’s stance on Brexit is much less straightforward than the Lexit perspective assumes.28In British sociology, the most widely used proxy for class is the British National Readership Survey’s designation of social grade based on occupation: A = higher managerial, administrative, and professional; B = intermediate managerial, administrative, and professional; C1 = supervisory, clerical and junior managerial, administrative, and professional; C2 = skilled manual workers; D = semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers; and E = state pensioners, casual, and lowest grade workers, unemployed with state benefits only. For Marxists this kind of categorization is clearly very problematic, based as it is on Weberian categories of status, income, working conditions, or specific job functions. Nonetheless, much of the analysis of the Brexit vote necessarily relies on this categorization of social grade due to the wide availability and robustness of the data. “Social Grade,” National Readership Survey, http://www.nrs.co.uk/nrs-print/lifestyle-and-classification-data/social-grade/ Indeed, according to one recent comprehensive analysis, the strong majority (59 percent) of Leave voters in the 2016 referendum were what mainstream sociologists typically refer to as “middle class” (for example, higher managerial, professionals, supervisory workers).29Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson, Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire (London: Biteback Publishing, 2019), 28. Less than a quarter of Leave voters were semi-skilled workers, unemployed, or those on state benefits.30Ibid., 28. A majority of those in full- or part-time jobs also supported Remain—as did 60 percent of trade unionists. As Gareth Dale notes, the idea that support for Brexit embodied a working class revolt was simply “delusional.”31Gareth Dale, “Intersectionalities of Brexit: Interview with Gareth Dale,” CriticAtac, July 3, 2016.

So, what other social markers might have a stronger correlation with support for Brexit? The first crucial factor is the question of race: Whites voted in support of Brexit (53 to 47 percent) while the vast majority of Asian (67 percent), Black (73 percent), and Muslim (70 percent) populations strongly opposed it.32Lord Ashcroft, “A Reminder of How Britain Voted in the EU Referendum—and Why,” Lord Ashcroft Polls, March 15, 2019. Indeed, those areas that voted Leave in 2016 had remarkable levels of racial homo-
geneity: Of the one hundred and two districts in England and Wales where the Leave vote exceeded 60 percent, white Britoners comprised more than 80 percent of the population in all but four districts.3333. Derek Sayer, “White Riot: Brexit, Trump, and Post-Factual Politics,” Journal of Historical Sociology 30, no. 1 (2017): 98. This tight relationship between race and Brexit stance is extremely important in understanding the ideological nature of the Brexit campaign and is something we return to in depth below.

Another very clear marker of the social base for Brexit is age. Numerous polls and statistical analyses have confirmed that the overwhelming majority of younger people oppose Brexit, with one widely cited study of voting patterns in 2016 indicating that 73 percent of eighteen- to 24-year-olds, and 62 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds voted Remain. By contrast, 60 percent of those aged sixty-five or over voted in support of Brexit, as did more than half of all pensioners. It is a strange kind of working class revolt that was so definitively rejected by the vast majority of young people.

Relatedly, another factor correlated with support for Brexit is property ownership. One early poll showed that a majority of those who fully owned their own houses voted in support of Brexit by ten percentage points, while private renters and people with mortgages voted Remain.34Ashcroft, “A Reminder.” An Ipsos MORI poll reported an even greater gap, with 58 percent of homeowners voting for Leave.35“How Britain Voted in the 2016 EU Referendum,” Ipsos MORI, September 5, 2016. Academic work has corroborated these findings, with one study showing homeownership reaching 64 percent in Leave-voting areas compared to 57 percent in Remain areas.36Marianne Sensier and Fiona Devine, “Social Mobility and Brexit: A Closer Look at England’s ‘Left Behind’ Communities,” The School of Economics Discussion Paper Series (Economics, The University of Manchester, 2017), 12. This is part of a much more complex story of housing financialization in Britain, and recent academic work has begun to explore how the movement of property prices across different parts of England affects the political subjectivities of homeowners; members of older generations who own property in small town England have not seen their house prices appreciate as much as in places such as London, and this appears to be strongly correlated with support for Brexit (and the Conservative Party).37Ben Ansell and David Adler, “Brexit and the Politics of Housing in Britain,” The Political Quarterly 90, no. S2 (2019): 105–16.

What about the geography-as-class argument, which points to the support for Brexit in marginalized working class areas in the North and the Midlands of England? The first thing to note is that this argument depends upon ignoring a simple fact: Key working class geographies outside of England—Scotland and the North of Ireland—decisively rejected Brexit (62 percent Remain to 38 percent Leave in Scotland, and 55.8 percent Remain to 44.2 percent Leave in the North of Ireland). Of all the UK’s regions and nations, Wales most closely approximated the aggregate overall results, registering a 52 to 48 percent Leave majority.38Sayer, “White Riot.” 96. The results in Scotland and the North of Ireland confirm that it is factually misleading to claim a correlation between marginalization and support for Brexit: Both regions are significantly poorer than the UK average (measured by per capita Gross Disposable Household Income).39Gross Disposable Household Income (GDHI) in Scotland, where the Remain vote was highest, was £17,095 per head in 2014, compared to a UK average of £17,965. In the North of Ireland, where support for Remain was higher than anywhere save Scotland and London, the GDHI was only £14,645, making it the most impoverished region in the UK. Glasgow, with the lowest GDHI in Scotland, and Aberdeen, with the highest, both voted Remain at 66.6 and 61.1 percent respectively; Sayer, “White Riot,” 96. The heavily working class city of Glasgow, which contains the ten most deprived areas in the whole of the UK and where more than one-third of children live in poverty,40Stewart Paterson, “10 Most Deprived Areas in Britain Are in Glasgow, Claims Study,” Glasgow Times, July 10, 2018. voted 67 percent in favor of Remain in 2016. Likewise, West Belfast, an area ranked second in the UK for child poverty, voted against Brexit 74 to 26 percent. Lexit supporters are quick to explain away figures like this as an expression of Scottish or Irish nationalism, but, as Derek Sayer points out, this simply begs the question of what “nationalist dynamics” might have underpinned the English vote (53.4 percent for Leave and 46.6 percent for Remain).41Sayer, “White Riot,” 96. We shall return to this crucial issue below, but at this stage the key point is that Brexit remains a quintessentially English affair.

A more accurate representation of the geography of Brexit needs to reject this England-centrism, as well as a persistent anti-urban bias that typically characterizes the Lexit argument.42Even apart from London, the Brexit campaign was solidly defeated in the overwhelming majority of cities, including most of those located in otherwise Leave heartlands. Decisive Remain votes were obtained in Edinburgh (74.4 percent), Glasgow (66.6 percent), Bristol (61.7 percent), Manchester (60.4 percent), Cardiff (60 percent), and Liverpool (58.2 percent). Narrower finishes were recorded in other cities, with Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Leeds voting Remain at 50.7 and 50.3 percent respectively, and, in the other direction, Birmingham, Nottingham, and Sheffield voting Leave at 50.4, 50.8, and 51 percent respectively. Of the UK’s large cities, only Stoke, Hull, and Wolverhampton were included among the 102 electoral districts in which Leave captured more than 60 percent of the vote. Sayer, “White Riot,” 97. At an aggregate level, London, Scotland, the North of Ireland, and almost all large urban centers voted to Remain, whereas much of small town, rural, and suburban “England without London”4343. Susan Watkins, “Britain’s Decade of Crisis,” New Left Review II, no. 121 (2020): 10. voted to Leave. Moreover, throughout all these regions, there was no statistically significant correlation between geographic impoverishment and support for Leave in 2016, with the correlation of constituency deprivation indices and voting Leave barely positive, at 0.037.44Dorling and Tomlinson, Rule Britannia, 33. The claim that the most marginalized and excluded areas of the country voted in support of Brexit has a much weaker basis in reality than is often assumed. Available data does not rule out entirely any association between voting Leave and economic deprivation, but where such a connection does exist it tends to be heavily mediated by additional variables.45Sayer, “White Riot,” 97.

Cognizant of these socioeconomic realities, most careful observers have decisively rejected any explanation for Brexit resting on the premise of “working class revolt.” “Despite all the assertions that it was Labour-voting, poor, northern people who voted to leave the EU,” Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson contend, “it was actually poorer Tory voters in poorer Tory areas who most voted out. And many of these were older Tory identifiers. It was not the votes of those at the bottom, the most deprived areas in this so divided and so unequal country that were responsible for the outcome of the 2016 referendum. Instead, it was the votes of people in areas of England that had most often voted Tory in the past but had not seen much reward for their loyalty.”46Dorling and Tomlinson, Rule Britannia, 303. Antiracist campaigner Maya Goodfellow notes, “Brexit was disproportionately delivered by the home-owning, pension-
possessing, wealthy, white middle-class people in southern England—who voted for, or at least hadn’t been deterred from voting with, the aggressively anti-
immigrant Brexit campaign.”47Maya Goodfellow, Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats (London: Verso, 2019), 173. We fully agree here with Charlie Hore: “It’s an odd ‘working class revolt’ that doesn’t include Scotland, West Belfast, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, London, most union members, most Black and minority ethnic voters, and three-quarters of young voters.”48Charlie Hore, “Building the Left in the Face of Brexit,” rs21, January 11, 2019.

London: “The Most Proletarian City in the Country”

As noted, a frequent feature of the Lexit position has been a crude attempt to map class position onto UK geography, where the North and Midlands become uniformly “working class” or “left behind,” and London, in particular, becomes monochromatically composed of the rich and powerful. This argument rests upon a vulgar economism that downplays the actual working class character of urban areas across the UK. Multiracial larger cities with young working class populations are reduced to playgrounds of a rootless cosmopolitan elite (London) or student populated “university towns” (Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool).

‘Brexit as working class revolt’ is largely a fantasy—one that relies upon a misreading of socioeconomic data, a crude mapping of class onto geography, and a denial of how race, class, and citizenship status intersect.

Key to this disappearing of class from urban areas is a discursive sleight-of-hand that redefines urban workers—particularly the very large majority of urban working class youth that voted against Brexit—as “middle class.” According to this reading, the fatal flaw of Corbynism—and the explanation for Labour’s loss in 2019—was its supposed tail-ending of privileged young urban professionals and its rejection of Labour’s real working class roots in those areas outside of major urban centers.

This argument can be seen across the Lexit left. Chris Bickerton, for example, a founding member of “The Full Brexit” argues, “Ideologically, Corbynism was a break from New Labour centrism but sociologically, it was more Blairite than Tony Blair…the Corbyn revolution in the Labour Party has narrowed its social base even further, making it the party of young, middle-class southern, popular in London and some prosperous university towns.”49Chris Bickerton, “Labour’s Lost Working-Class Voters Have Gone for Good,” The Guardian, December 19, 2019. Tribune editor Ronan Burtenshaw’s postmortem of the 2019 election was to similarly juxtapose urban youth and the “real” working class, with the following jaw-dropping assertion of the Left’s main problem: “Its contact with mass politics was minimal…When things got tough, it too often pivoted to the comforting embrace of a younger generation who had been washed in on a wave of dismal job prospects, student debt, and sky-high rents. Unfortunately, this generational, progressive politics was not a substitution for class.”

Beyond the cynical dismissal of youth, the claim that youth unemployment, the burden of student debt, and prohibitive living expenses in cities such as London are not class issues simply beggars belief. Like all global centers of capital accumulation, London is certainly home to a narrow class of the ultra-rich, but it is also one of the most divided and unequal cities in the world, with millions of poor, working class residents. This is a city of international migrants, including large populations from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. Alongside international migration, London is also a major absorber of working class migration from other parts of the UK—“escapees from the stricken landscapes of Barrow-in-Furness, Bridgend, Bradford and Bilston,” in Owen Hatherley’s evocative terms.50Owen Hatherley, “The Government of London,” New Left Review II, no. 122 (2020): 82.

London’s multiracial working classes have been among the hardest hit by decades of Tory austerity. One of the key ways in which austerity has manifested itself has been through skyrocketing housing prices that have driven the poorest into cramped, dangerous, and substandard rental accommodation.51Mary Robertson, “The Great British Housing Crisis,” Capital & Class 41, no. 2 (June 1, 2017): 206. Between 2010 and 2017, the average house price in London increased by a staggering 75 percent—this compares to only 17 percent in the northwest of the UK and virtually no change in the northeast.52“UK House Price Index: March 2017” Office for National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/bulletins/housepriceindex/mar2017 Unlike other areas of the UK, homeownership is simply out of reach for a majority of Londoners. In London, only 48 percent of households owned their house in 2017, this compared to 64 percent of households in the northwest and 61 percent in the northeast of the UK.53“Home Ownership,” Gov.UK, February 4, 2020, https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/housing/owning-and-renting/home-ownership/latest The figures are even starker when differentiated by racial background — 62 percent of white British Londoners own their own house, compared to only 35 percent of nonwhite households in the UK capital.

In this sense, London is the concentrated expression of the massive polarization of wealth and power that has emerged in the UK over recent decades. Since the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s, changes to housing and land policies—under both Tory and Labour governments—have seen the widespread priv-
atization of council flats, the erosion of tenant rights, and the virtual halt to any provision of adequate social housing. On one side of this “landlord’s paradise” stand the “housebuilders, landowners, mortgage lenders and speculative investors”54Robertson, “Great British Housing Crisis,” 212. who have profited enormously from global investment in London property markets and the seemingly unstoppable rise in land and house prices. On the other side are the majority of London’s population, “a massive concentration of propertyless, who have almost no legal rights” and who are compelled to live as tenants “on assured-shorthold leases that last a year at best, six months at worst…subject to regular rent rises, well above inflation, and potentially ‘no fault’ evictions.”55Hatherley, “Government of London,” 106.

As Owen Hatherley observes in a brilliant analysis, according to the most basic Marxist understanding of working class—those forced to sell their labor power and who do not own property—“London is the most proletarian city in the country.”56Ibid., 112. And if we consider conditions of work (for example, proliferation of precarious jobs and zero-hours contracts), a lack of unionized and public sector jobs, levels of disposable income, rates of poverty, inequality, and a multitude of other social indicators, then the “heartlands” of the UK’s working class are to be found in multiracial London and other urban agglomerations, just as much as they are located in the north of England.

Indeed, the proportion of people living in low income households has been greater in London than the rest of England for every single year of the last two decades.57“London’s Poverty Profile: 2020” (London: Trust for London, April 2020), 20. The most recent government statistics indicate that 28 percent of Londoners are living in poverty, which compares to 24 and 23 percent in the northeast and northwest respectively.58Using the government’s “relative low income” measure, which is defined as living in a household with income below 60 percent of the median income. Ibid., 19. A shocking four out of every ten children in London live in households in poverty, again higher than any other region in the UK.59Ibid., 21. Phil Hearse is exactly right to note, “If 50 percent of children in your local authority living in poverty doesn’t count as being ‘left-behind,’ then what does?”60Phil Hearse, “Must Labour Move Right to Secure Its Working-Class Base?,” Mutiny, January 4, 2020.

Race and Class

In short, simplistic readings of geography-as-class can only be sustained through completely ignoring the plight of millions of workers and urban poor in London and other major cities across the UK. A more accurate sketch of the reality of uneven capitalist development in the UK would focus on how the decades-long industrial decline in the North, and the Midlands has been linked to the migration of working class youth from these areas—mainly to London, but also other urban centers. It is certainly true that many towns in the North and the Midlands have been severely neglected under the Tories (and the Blairite Labour governments that ran the country between 1997 and 2010). But the subjective manifestation of this has been the “resentful nationalism” of a much older, white, and, crucially, propertied “pensioner class living in horrendously neglected towns, but personally insulated from the worst of austerity by the triple-lock on pensions and by widespread home ownership, often of ex-council housing.”61Hatherley, “Government of London,” 112. The “triple lock” pension was introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010. It guaranteed to increase the state pension every year by whichever was higher: consumer price inflation, average earnings, or 2.5 percent.

But the geographical misrendering of class in the Lexit argument reveals a much more serious problem with much of the British left—an economistic understanding of class analysis that ignores the centrality of race and migration to any concrete processes of class formation. In the Lexiters’ search for the working class roots of Brexit, the question of race (and racism) becomes a secondary consideration, rather than an internal relation of how classes actually emerge and are renewed, reworked, and recomposed. This would be a serious error for the Left anywhere in the world, but for a country like Britain, where the ideological scaffolding of class domination rests so centrally upon imperial nostalgia and the subtle internalization of white supremacy (“at least British colonialism brought the railroad”), it is an unforgivable mistake.

The problem of race can be seen in many different ways. First, the very fact that the Brexit referendum is held up—including, as we have seen, by prominent Lexiters—as the “will of the people,” which not only belies a strange fetishism for a very undemocratic form of popular participation, but completely ignores the fact that the millions of UK residents most directly affected by this vote were formally excluded from the process itself. The most recent figures suggest that just under 10 percent of UK residents (6.2 million people) are nonBritish, both from EU and nonEU countries, and this migrant population—mostly young, urban, and working class—is overwhelmingly disenfranchised. Any assessment of the class basis of the Brexit vote must address this fact; otherwise, we make the classic error—unfortunately too common on the Left—of conflating our conception of class with those who hold citizenship.

Likewise, the erroneous projection of London as a zone of privileged elites arrayed against the marginalized North also serves to disappear race and migration from the reality of class.62For further discussion of the relationship between race, migration, and class, see Adam Hanieh, “The Contradictions of Global Migration,” Socialist Register 55 (2018): 50–78. As we have noted, by any standard Marxist conception, London must be seen as a central proletarian core of the UK, and this working class is substantially migrant and nonwhite. Today, more than one in three Londoners (36 percent) were born outside the UK, and 41 percent of the capital’s residents are Black or people of color. This compares to only 11 percent of the population for both measures across the rest of England.63“London’s Poverty Profile,” 16. Interestingly, the northeast, a region where 58 percent of the population supported Brexit in 2016, has the lowest number of migrants in the UK (5.8 percent). As with other countries, poverty in the UK is highly racialized—42 percent of Black households, 53 percent of Bangladeshi households and 46 percent of Pakistani households live in poverty, compared to 19 percent of white households.64Figures for cleaners, sales assistants, and transport drivers calculated from Madeleine Sumption and Marina Fernandez Reino, “Exploiting the Opportunity? Low-Skilled Work Migration after Brexit” (Oxford: Oxford University, Migration Observatory, August 30, 2018), 25. Figures for construction workers calculated from, “Migrant Labour Force within the UK’s Construction Industry: August 2018,” Office for National Statistics, August 23, 2018. Figures for nursing staff calculated from, Carl Baker, “NHS Staff from Overseas: Statistics,” Briefing Paper (London: House of Commons Library, May 29, 2020). Because migrants and other racialized people in the UK are overwhelmingly concentrated in London, poverty rates for these groups are nearly double that of London’s white population.65“London’s Poverty Profile,” 21.

A frequent feature of the Lexit position has been a crude attempt to map class position onto UK geography, where the North and Midlands become uniformly ‘working class’ or ‘left behind.’

Migration, in particular, underpins class composition across many of the most poorly paid, highly exploited, and precarious sectors of the labor force in London. Strikingly, migrants make up 81 percent of London’s cleaners, 50 percent of sales assistants, 61 percent of transport drivers, 50 percent of construction workers, and 34 percent of nurses.66Sumption and Fernandez Reino, “Exploiting the Opportunity?” 25. The lives of these migrant workers are shaped by the enduring experience of “organized state abandonment”—poor, neglected, and overcrowded communities awkwardly juxtaposed with rapidly gentrifying areas.67Brenna Bhandar, “Organised State Abandonment: The Meaning of Grenfell,” The Sociological Review, December 3, 2018. This reality was shockingly demonstrated by the Grenfell Tower fire, which raged through a densely populated London housing block on the night of June 14, 2017. Many of the seventy-two people who perished in the fire were refugees or newly arrived migrants, although residents claim that the real death toll could be more than double the official number due to the large number of undocumented people living in the Tower.68Ida Danewid, “The Fire This Time: Grenfell, Racial Capitalism and the Urbanisation of Empire,” European Journal of International Relations 26, no. 1 (2019). This fire, as Sivamohan Valluvan astutely notes, “was a particularly resonant microcosm of a broader working-class community—neglected and overexploited—that is deeply marked by a vertiginous array of not only ethnic backgrounds but also citizenship statuses.” If that murderous fire contained a political lesson, it was “tacitly reminding the social democratic left that it must always recognize poverty’s multi-ethnic, ‘migrant city’ realities…a reminder that a politics of class worth its name must always remain attentive to the migrant subject as key to its programme, as opposed to setting up a shameless and ultimately counter-productive working class versus immigration false dichotomy.”69Sivamohan Valluvan, The Clamour of Nationalism: Race and Nation in Twenty-First-Century Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019), 207.

Here we can see the real political danger of the geography-as-class myth: To downplay or ignore the actual composition of the British working class—highly urbanized, multiracial, migrant, and young—is to effectively identify whiteness with being working class. To be clear, the problem here is not “color blindness”; it is, rather, a highly racialized view of class that accords with the dominant framing of workers as being white, British, male citizens. A supposedly marginalized “white working class” emerges here as the site of supposedly “real” class anger—and as the privileged political actor, the genuine voice of anti-establishment protest.

It is a short (and logical) step from this perspective to the legitimization of widely held racist and antimigrant attitudes. One way this has been expressed in the debates around Brexit is the resurgence of a kind of left nationalism, where border securitization and tighter immigration controls are seen as valid demands of a “left-behind” racialized white majority. As Valluvan and Kalra observe, “It is apparent that many on the [British] left…have become reattached to the border as a political horizon, whereby, through conviction and/or opportunism, they see in politics of immigration and community a possibility for populist appeal.”70Sivamohan Valluvan and Virinder S. Kalra, “Racial Nationalisms: Brexit, Borders and Little Englander Contradictions,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 42, no. 14 (October 26, 2019): 2400. In this manner, the evolution of debates on the British left have echoed those across Europe, where an anti-immigrant politics has become an acceptable part of many of the new left formations that have emerged in recent years.

This poison of left nationalism has been a prominent feature of debates in the Labour Party and trade unions in the UK—even under Corbyn. One prominent illustration is the widely reported speech made by Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite union and Corbyn’s most important trade union ally, in the lead-up to the 2019 elections. As a supporter of Brexit, McCluskey called on Labour to take a hard line on freedom of movement from Europe and to commit to much tighter immigration controls. This was necessary because those living in the “forgotten towns and cities” were concerned about “migrant labor coming to the UK from Europe. If you don’t understand those concerns, you fail to grasp the divisions that exist…If we don’t deal with the issues and concerns, we will create a vacuum that will be filled by a far right seeking to become the voice of the white working class.”71Larry Elliott, Severin Carrell and Heather Stewart, “McCluskey Sparks Labour Backlash over Tough Line on Free Movement,” The Guardian, November 13, 2019.

Maya Goodfellow, in her important book, Hostile Environment, documents another revealing instance, this time from the proBrexit Labour Party MP Caroline Flint.72lint was MP for Leave-voting constituency Don Valley but lost her seat to the Conservative Party in 2019 election. As well as a supporter of Brexit, Flint was also a member of Labour Friends of Israel. Appearing on BBC Newsnight, Flint was asked by the presenter, “Is it fair to say that New Labour ignoring concerns about immigration in the 2000s was not only a mistake ‘economically but culturally too?’” “I think it’s not just about economics,” Flint replied. “It’s about the social atmosphere as well. In Doncaster, for example, Don Valley, in my own constituency, back in ’97, it was 99.5 percent white. In the last few years, ‘nonBritish’ has gone up to 5 percent. That may not seem much to places like Leicester, but that’s a big change in small-town village communities.”73Goodfellow, Hostile Environment, 164–65.

Of course, the problem with these kinds of perspectives is that they align perfectly with the very real xenophobic and racist views encountered throughout all layers of British society—views that were assiduously nurtured by the Leave campaign. By effectively legitimating these views, proBrexit voices such as those of McCluskey and Flint make it much more difficult to challenge the most repugnant and reactionary movements in British politics today. And as Valluvan notes:

The susceptibility of the left to this politically expedient, anti-migrant race-baiting remains an eminently misplaced and self-destructive undertaking. The mimicry of nationalist tropes is not only an anti-working-class politics…it is also a politics that will always run free of the left’s attempt to harness it, a politics that will always be better owned by the Far Right and its more mainstream imitators.74Valluvan, Clamour of Nationalism, 183.

English Nationalism and Nostalgias of Empire

In this respect, the Brexit conjuncture needs to be seen as the concentrated recovery and adaptation of a deep-seated, cross-class, racist nationalism. But there is a particularity to this nationalism that has typically gone unremarked in much of the commentary on Brexit: the pivotal role that Englishness played in the British popular support for Brexit. This fact has been mostly ignored by Lexiters who casually dismiss the working class opposition to Brexit in Scotland and the North of Ireland on the grounds of nationalism—nationalisms, we should note, that are directed against the British state—yet appear unable to recognize the nationalism of the dominant nation (England). This is not simply an accidental blind spot of a largely English left. To concede that popular support for Brexit is underpinned by a pervasive and heavily racialized form of nationalism would fatally weaken the Lexiter case for small town white England as the privileged voice of the marginalized.

Numerous polls confirm the link between “Englishness” and support for Brexit. In England, 39 percent of Leave voters described themselves as “English not British” or “more English than British,” compared to only 18 percent of Remain voters.75Sayer, “White Riot,” 100. A YouGov survey carried out at the behest of the BBC in 2018, established that 77 percent of Conservative voters were proud to be English, compared to only 45 percent of Labour supporters, and 42 percent of Liberal Democrats. Unsurprisingly, pride in Englishness was much stronger among the elderly (72 percent) than the young (45 percent). Of Leave voters in the Brexit referendum, 75 percent registered a high level of pride in being English, compared to less than half of Remain supporters.76Dorling and Tomlinson, Rule Britannia, 51. Among eighteen- to 24-year-olds in England, fewer than half are proud of being English. Geographically, more than 90 percent of survey respondents in Lincolnshire and the Midlands were proud of their Englishness, compared to fewer than half in the big urban centers of Liverpool and Manchester.77Ibid., 117.

But what are the main features of this sense of ‘Englishness’ that pervades support for Brexit?

But what are the main features of this sense of “Englishness” that pervades support for Brexit? To begin with, this identity cannot be reduced to a quaint longing for the quietude of the English countryside or the neatly ordered simplicities of times past. Rather, English nationalism is “profoundly anachronistic,” as Toscano correctly observes. It is a nationalism in search of imperial recuperation—forged across those long centuries when Britain sat atop an empire controlling one quarter of the planet. “At the same time as it calmly countenances the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement or the secession of the Scots,” Toscano writes, English nationalism “still lives in a kind of imperial time, improbably referring to the reorientation of the economy from the EU to the ‘Commonwealth.’”78Toscano, “Living in the Time(s).” Indeed, as the Leave campaign’s slogan, “Take Back Control,” suggests, Brexit was not simply about breaking away from the European Union. More fundamentally, it was about a return to a condition that had been supposedly abrogated by the supra-national union—an opportunity to restore Britain’s rightful place in the world.

For those living outside of Britain, it can be difficult to appreciate the extent to which this nostalgia for “imperial time” persists amongst the British population. It can be seen in cultural practices, national holidays, school curriculums, statues (some now deposed), and of course, the royal family. Indeed, according to a January 2016 YouGov survey, 43 percent of British people continued to insist that the British Empire was a good thing, compared to 19 percent a bad thing and 25 percent neither. A remarkable 44 percent understood Britain’s history of colonialism as a past to be proud of, with only 19 percent feeling it should be regretted.79Dorling and Tomlinson, Rule Britannia, 36. An earlier YouGov poll in 2015 indicated that 49 percent felt that former colonies were now “better off for it,” with only 15 percent believing them to be “worse off for it.” Instructively, 34 percent of respondents would “still like Britain to have an Empire.”80Valluvan, Clamour of Nationalism, 111.

This longing for a return to past imperial glory is one reason why “pantomime replays of World War Two”81Toscano, “Living in the Time(s).” so saturate the British public sphere: the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, British spy rings, and—
as emblematic representation of political strength—Winston Churchill. “Why are those martial images,” Paul Gilroy asks, “still circulating, and more importantly, still defining the nation’s finest hour?”82Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 87–88. Part of the answer lies in the fact that the second world war was the last war when the Empire was still intact, when “the nation’s wholesome militarism…combined pleasurably with the unchallenging moral architecture of a Manichaean world”—a duel of unmistakable good against immutable evil.

As Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever carefully document, the campaign for Brexit played heavily to this theme of imperial nostalgia, deliberately stoking a “striking confluence between English national feeling and the longing for Empire.” But while fundamentally rooted in the remembrance of empire, there is a further aspect to imperial nostalgia that is key to understanding the particularities of English nationalism: the lived experience of British decline over recent decades. The ravages of Thatcherism, New Labour, and recent Tory-imposed austerity have fed into a sense of a prolonged and seemingly irreversible decay for large swaths of middle England. Closely resonating with the nostalgia for empire, the actuality of “structural decline” is a second key element to the “contemporary manifestations of Englishness.”83Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever, “Racism, Crisis, Brexit,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 41, no. 10 (2018): 1803–04.

Crucially, however, the sense of decline that pervades English nationalism today is deeply and irreversibly racialized. Precisely because of its incontrovertible association with imperial nostalgia—a representation of colonialism as a force for good—it is impossible to disentangle English nationalism and the recuperation of empire from “the recovery or preservation of endangered whiteness.”84Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia, 88. Part of this national imaginary is also related to a fictitious cultural homogeneity that marked England prior to World War II, subsequently undermined by the collapse of empire and the waves of postwar migration from the Caribbean and South Asia that were so central to the making of the modern British working classes. Seeped so thoroughly in both remembrance of and longing for centuries of colonial subjugation, English nationalism—in whatever variant it might appear—“cannot be purged of its racialized contents any more easily than a body can be purged of the skeleton that supports it.”85Ibid., 111.

This is why the diffusion of the proBrexit stance among the British—or more accurately, English—population came to depend so fundamentally on stoking extant anxieties around questions of race and migration.86It is for this reason that the resurgence of the racist, xenophobic, far right in the UK has also been primarily an English phenomenon—reflected in the association of the St George Cross (the flag of England) with various far right groups and the fact that 90 percent of votes in the 2015 election for the racist, proBrexit party, the United Kingdom Independence Party were cast in England. Virdee and McGeever, “Racism, Crisis, Brexit,” 1811. Whether framed around nonwhite populations, migrant workers, refugees, or asylum seekers, the proBrexit campaign consciously sought to nurture these anxieties from 2016 and onwards.87Although beyond the scope of our analysis here, the petit-bourgeois element of the Leave campaign and the associated ideological appeal of imperial nostalgia and loss calls for more systematic comparison with the class composition and ideological makeup of other far right and right populist movements across Europe, the Tea Party in the United States, and the particular receptiveness to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” found within the white, elderly American petit-bourgeoisie. Popular support for Brexit is inextricable from this racialized project of Englishness—a “politics of resentment” that continues to be expressed “through a racializing, insular nationalism [that] found its voice in the course of Brexit.”88Virdee and McGeever, “Racism, Crisis, Brexit,” 1803–04.

Conclusion

On June 16, 2016, Thomas Mair, a far right British nationalist emboldened by the Leave campaign, stabbed Labour MP Jo Cox fifteen times, as well as shooting her in the head, chest, and hand.89James Meek, Dreams of Leaving and Remaining (London: Verso, 2019), 10. Occurring at the climax of the Brexit campaign, Cox’s assassination was driven by Mair’s belief that, as a Remainer, Cox was a traitor to the white race, which itself was under existential threat from mass immigration.90Ian Cobain, Nazia Parveen and Matthew Taylor, “The Slow-Burning Hatred That Led Thomas Mair to Murder Jo Cox,” The Guardian, November 23, 2016. “Cox was killed in a region where seven far-right parties have been actively terrorizing Muslim communities for at least a decade,” Liz Fekete points out. “Though, of course, analysis of the impact of the far right on the lives of ordinary Muslims was largely left out of the reckoning during the period of public grief after Cox’s murder.”91Liz Fekete, Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right (London: Verso, 2018), 119.

Cox’s assassination was a horrific but predictable consequence of the nativist “resentful nationalism” that now marks UK politics. Over the last six years, proBrexit sentiment has fuelled an extraordinary surge in racist violence and hate crimes against people of color, migrants, refugees, and antiracist activists.92Dorling and Tomlinson, Rule Britannia, 225. This violence has frequently referenced the slogans of the Leave campaign, notably the notion of “taking back control”93Jon Burnett, “Racial Violence and the Brexit State,” Race & Class 58, no. 4 (April 1, 2017): 87.—with perpetrators leaving scrawled statements such as “Go Home,” “we voted you out,” and “shouldn’t you be packing your bags?” at the scene of their attacks.94Virdee and McGeever, “Racism, Crisis, Brexit,” 1808. Brexit has also been the main catalyst behind the growth of myriad racist, neofascist, and far right groups that have regularly demonstrated their capacity to mobilize thousands of people on the streets of London.

To combat these kinds of movements we need to firmly reject any valorisation of a supposedly “left-behind” white working class. The stark reality is that those parts of the working class thought to be racially incompatible with British nationalism (and whiteness) at different stages in the country’s history, the “Irish, Catholic, Jewish, Asian, African and Caribbean,” are exactly those that have “helped universalize the militant, yet often particularistic, fights of the working class precisely because they were better able to see through the fog of blood, soil and belonging.”95Satnam Virdee, “Racialized Capitalism: An Account of Its Contested Origins and Consolidation,” The Sociological Review 67, no. 1 (January 1, 2019): 23. As Virdee so cogently argues, it was this “capacity for second sight (Du Bois)” that “made racialized outsiders the linchpin, the catalytic agent that helped align struggles against racism with those against class exploitation leading to a partial process of multi-ethnic class formation.”96Ibid., 23.

The Brexit conjuncture illustrates why these insights are so pivotal to socialist politics today. Variants of left nationalism and unspoken assumptions of who constitutes the “real” working class undermine any ability to build genuine multiracial emancipatory movements. Class is always racialized, and our conception of the working class must therefore foreground the concrete histories of race, migration, and imperialism. There is no working class that is not simultaneously black and brown, migrant or noncitizen. Brexit forcefully illustrated why this crucial insight must be at the center of any Left renewal today.

Addendum

This article was written in early 2020, not long after the formal departure of the UK from the EU on January 31, 2020. Throughout most of 2020, the UK–EU relationship remained essentially unchanged, while negotiations continued around a new trade deal that was eventually signed on December 24, 2020. The full ramifications of this deal remain to be seen, although the UK media has reported extensively on the widespread crisis facing smaller British firms that had been dependent upon trade with Europe. This final consummation of Brexit occurs in the midst of a disastrous state response to the Covid–19 pandemic, which has seen well over 100,000 deaths, more than 800,000 jobs lost, and a health system on the verge of collapse. In this context, Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party have seized upon Brexit as representing a long-elusive reclamation of national sovereignty and the rebirth of Britain as an “independent nation.” Likewise, the British Labour Party (under the leadership of Keir Starmer) has embraced this same nationalist turn, with a leaked strategy document from February 2021 revealing the party’s discussions around projecting a new image of patriotism, “British values,” and the prominent display of army veterans and the Union Jack. In both cases, the toxic stew of British nationalism innervated by the Brexit campaign has become ever more central to the language, symbols, and practice of mainstream British politics today.

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