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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 32 New Delhi July 30, 2016

An Issue Far Beyond Brexit

Monday 1 August 2016

by Sanjal Shastri

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or Leave the European Union?” While the answer to this question is a mere yes or no, the issues this question throws up are not as straightforward. The referendum challenges the very idea of British national identity. What are the larger social issues the Brexit vote has exposed? How would these issues play out in the months/ years to come? These are the questions this commentary would try to address.

The ‘Remain’ campaign constantly stressed on economic interdependency and the economic costs of a possible exit from the EU. Economically their argument has sound logical reasoning. Europe is the UK’s single largest international market. Being a member of the EU gave access to a single market through which the UK was able to reap dividends. London is viewed as the financial gateway to Europe. This explains the presence of several international banks in London. Once the referendum results were pointing towards a win for the ‘Leave’ camp, the Pound Sterling took a severe beating, falling to levels it had not reached in the last thirty years. Looking at this, the economic argument put forth by the ‘Remain’ campaign made perfect sense. Had the referendum been fought purely over the economic issues, the ‘Remain’ campaign would have managed a comfortable victory. The victory of the ‘Leave’ campaign tells us that this referendum was not fought merely over the economic arguments of being a part of the EU or not. The verdict highlights important social and political factors that played a crucial role.

Rhetorics like “Taking my country back” and “June 23, 2016 as independence day” have been the dominating narrative of the ‘Leave’ campaign. They have successfully tapped into the anti-immigration sentiment amongst a large section of the population. On the face of it the anti-immigration sentiment seems to have been built upon the idea that immigrants take over jobs and unfairly enjoy social benefits. A closer analysis of this idea, however, would reveal that immigrants in fact do not put a strain onto the social benefits and on the contrary they pay taxes and bring in expertise that help the economy.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric has been fuelled by what one section of the population views the British national identity to be. Openness and cultural plurality have been a crucial part of the British national identity. Under this national vision, the UK witnessed influx of immigrants from various parts of the world (primarily the Commonwealth countries) from the 1950s. With the creation of the EU, the UK started viewing itself as a part of the ‘European Project’. As a member of the EU, people from across Europe were able to come and work in the UK. In 2016, the idea of the UK as a multi-cultural nation, a nation that is a part of the ‘European Project’, is being questioned.

There has been a 57 per cent increase in racially motivated hate crime since the referendum results have been announced. From painting a graffiti outside the Polish Cultural Centre to placing placards outside the houses of European immigrants, there are signs that a section of the population views the British national identity through a different lens. The issue also goes far beyond immigration from the EU. The past few days have also shown a rise in racially motivated attacks (verbal and physical) on Muslims and South Asians. Muslims, South Asians and migrants from outside the EU should not have been a factor in the referendum. Yet Muslims and South Asian nationals have been targeted. These attacks have been accompanied by slogans such as ‘Britain for the Whites’. Ideas such as these have shaped the anti-immigration rhetoric.

The referendum has exposed the divide between two sides that view the British identity very differently. One side sees the UK as a multi-cultural society, a part of the ‘European Project’. The other side believes that the idea of being British is restricted to a particular section of individuals. The latter group is hostile to immigrants and backed Brexit. The close finish in the referendum suggests a very strong regional, racial and generational divide between the two camps. While England and Wales backed Brexit, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. The city of London voted to remain. There was much stronger support for Brexit amongst the older section of the society while the younger generation voted to remain. Along with the battle between leave versus remain, the referendum also exposed more important battles between young and old and Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The referendum will not settle the battle between the various groups regarding the nature of the British national identity. Over the coming months and years along with the negotiations regarding Article 50, one must also keep an eye on the battle within the UK. The 57 per cent increase in racially motivated attacks could be the beginning of a much larger battle over what it does really mean to be British. The projected post-Brexit scenario is that of doom, but there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel. Several people across the UK have expressed their solidarity with migrants who have been subjected to racial abuse. The swift response of David Cameron and several Conservative party leaders does show that there is some hope.

The ‘remain’ campaign’s economic arguments against Brexit made perfect sense. The referendum, however, was not fought over the economic mentis or demerits of leaving the EU. It was a much larger battle within the UK over what does the British identity really entail. Is the UK a multi-cultural country, a part of the larger European integration programme or is the term British restricted to a particular set of individuals? The battle-lines reflect more serious regional and generational divide. The battle between the contrasting views of the British identity is likely to carry on for the coming months and years. Despite the rise in racially motivated attacks over the last few days, the strong public and political reaction against the violence is a positive sign. In the coming months while everyone will have an eye on Britain’s exit negations in the EU, the development of this domestic debate would also be crucial.

Sanjal Shastri is an Academic Associate at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He can be reached on sshastri93@gmail.com. The views expressed are solely that of the author and do not reflect views of the institution he is currently with.