Brexit: Are the Pro-Leave Britons Xenophobic or Disillusioned?

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Brexit or the UK-EU divorce is seen by many social scientists as an indication of racism and xenophobia. To support their claim, references are made to survey data published by the Gurdian which reports that “The proportion of Britons who admit to being racially prejudiced has risen since the start of the millennium, raising concerns that growing hostility to immigrants and widespread Islamophobia are setting community relations back 20 years.” Well, almost 14% of UK population is foreign-born, and among all regions of the UK London has the largest number of migrants. Indeed the foreign born population of England and Wales more than doubled, increasing by nearly four million in the twenty years between the 1991 and 2011 censuses. Britons are thus quite used to the diversity of the people living in the cosmopolitan cities. So, why all of a sudden they get infuriated against the EU for its policy on migration and refugees? Is migration the ultimate reason for Britain severing ties with EU? The answer is NO!

So why did they do it? The answer becomes clear when demographics of the voters are explained. Majority of the Leave voters are from rural areas of the country, areas that virtually have not seen the benefits of the economic boost since the late 90s. This statistical data can be simply translated as a symbolic but severe protest by the least well-off class against the political elites. In Nick Robertson’s words, “The message from the shires of England is that they no longer trust their leadership. A divide has opened; centers of cosmopolitan wealth are at odds with their council estate and country-living cousins. It is not about wealth, it is about history — about who the British think they are. Two of the constituent parts voted one way, two the other. London and the majority of people in the big cities were on one side, rural and provincial England on the other. England is now a country starkly divided between doing-well Britain and left-behind Britain, between the Britain that is essentially comfortable with globalization and diversity and the Britain that feels its anxieties and anger about identity loss have not been listened to.”

Class discrimination in a capitalist economy is a given, but poor people tolerate the rich if they share the wealth, and consent to be governed by those in power so long as they take care of poor peoples’ interest. Brexit was, in fact, a rare opportunity for the poor people to tell the rich that their promises have been broken. They wanted to “take back control” over their life. This is why the bankers, business owners, and the political elites, immediately before the vote, speculated that people would stay in. Despite repeated warnings by the economists and experts that Brexit would seriously affect specially the economically less well-off, most of the voters seem to be from this forgotten class. Why then they cast their vote against their own interest? The answer is simple: to take back control, and to punish the elites! The basic fabric of human society is sharing which in modern times has been expanded from the barter system among the clan members to trans-national commerce among strangers. Unfortunately, unlike our ancestors, we hardly want to share or cooperate! This is why, as the economic experiment called the Ultimatum Game explains, the oppressed people tend to harm themselves to bring back the norms of sharing and reciprocity.

If Brexit is about class, it is also as much about generation. Nick Robertson explains that “this is perhaps the most intense and alarming divide. Feel the anger of the young, overwhelmingly for In, as they are defeated by Out-voting pensioners. Oldstars who voted Out because they felt politics had let them down now have their mirror in young people who cast for In and feel their future has been stolen from them. It is not a great shock to find so many voters disinclined to listen to the advice of bankers and economists. The Inners were over-convinced that fear about the economic consequences of Brexit was their trump card. All their warnings of imminent apocalypse could not speak persuasively to the many millions of Britons who felt that it wasn’t a risk for them because they had nothing to lose.”

Anti-elitist sentiments have been brooding in the pubs of rural England. The left-behind class that comprises of old pensioners living in the countryside sees the elites as abnormally rich and the political leaders as their puppets. This latent anger has been ignited by the Leave campaigners who successfully used immigration and Islamophobia synonymously. EU’s policy on immigrants from the troubled Middle-East, the carnage in Paris and Orlando, have added fuel to that fire. “It was the spark that some in “leave” campaign needed. They played up fears of ISIS attacks, of over-burdened schools and hospitals, of moms, dads, brothers, sisters, children, and grandchildren forced to miss out on their rightful and paid-for state support, edged out by newly arrived migrants hungry for handouts and everything for free.”

Xenophobia and racism were certainly two factors behind the leave campaign. Many voters had a sentiment that for immigrants they fail to get better jobs or social benefits that they deserve. The same applies to the supporters of Donald Trump as they know the risk. Both the Leave campaigners and the presumptive GOP candidate use racist and xenophobic fear mongering, but these are not the ultimate tropes that motivated the Leave supporters, nor are these that actually influence the Trump supporters. Like the Remain campaigners, Hillary also points at the economic stabilty and social security of the people. These are promises that all political leaders vouchsafe before the election but forget once in office. June 23 might repeat on November 11 if Hillary fails to really listen to the voice of the people at the margin.


About the author

Sayeed Noman

Sayeed Noman is a Fulbright scholar and an adjunct professor at Temple University. His PhD dissertation focuses on Afrocentricity, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. His interest ranges from political to economic and cultural issues.


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