Political racism and the making of ‘Brexitland’ – review article

My latest on openDemocracy: review article on Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford, Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Political racism is key to Johnson’s rise, but ‘racism’ is absent from Brexitland‘s conceptual framework

British politics has been profoundly restructured since the 2016 referendum, Sobolewska and Ford argue in their new study. Latent divides in the electorate between ‘identity conservatives’, ‘identity liberals’ and ‘ethnic minorities’ were quickly transformed into potent fractures between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ which have fundamentally reshaped political competition, most obviously in England and Wales but also in a different way in Scotland. The book comprehensively marshalls both contemporary and historical survey data to fill out and explain this picture of change, and has been justifiably hailed by luminaries of UK political journalism as well as political science. You really do need to read Brexitland to grasp the changes in British politics in the twenty-first century, although I shall argue that it has significant conceptual and analytical limitations.

At the heart of the changes which Sobolewska and Ford address is the paradox that in the more diverse and liberal society which Britain has become over the last half-century, what they call ‘ethnocentrism’ has become more rather than less politically salient. They argue that conservatives have ‘activated’ the ethnic identity of a shrinking ‘school leaver’ white majority, while opposing liberals have mobilised and expanded the anti-racism of growing graduate and minority populations. The Conservative Party had already mobilised ethnocentric white voters following Enoch Powell’s and Margaret Thatcher’s interventions in the late 1960s and 1970s, but David Cameron’s attempt to ‘detoxify’ the party in the 2000s, amidst growing new concerns about immigration, opened the way for UKIP to powerfully link the issue with the UK’s EU membership after 2010. Cameron conceded the principle of an in-out referendum, won an unexpected majority, and the rest is history. After 2016, defeated liberals increasingly mobilised their side, helping to solidify a fracture which has changed party politics. 

Sobolewska and Ford explain recent developments as an interim conclusion to this process. By tacking sharply in Farage’s direction, in the 2019 election Boris Johnson was able to unite identity conservatives behind the Brexitised Conservative Party, while liberals were split between several parties and penalised by the first-past-the-post electoral system. They rightly conclude that in the last decade, as in the earlier period, ‘the embrace of ethnocentric immigration politics by the mainstream Conservatives … has done most to reshape British politics.’ (p. 329) However the new Tory hegemony is potentially unstable, not only because of the potential fall-outs from Brexit and Scottish independence (and, unpredicted when Brexitland was written, Covid-19), but also, fundamentally, because its ‘identity conservative’ demographic base is in relative decline.

Demography

Analysing recent electoral change in terms of the three-way split which Sobolewska and Ford propose enables them to make good sense of recent developments. However the formations are treated as demographic facts, and while the authors caveat that ‘demography is not destiny’, they make demographic change the key variable in analysing a backlash by less-educated whites to what they call the ‘conviction liberalism’ of white graduates and the ‘necessity liberalism’ of ethnic minorities. 

This type of argument is not new in British political science, where it has sometimes been associated with a sympathetic attitude towards white backlash. In their potboiler National Populism, Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin (Ford’s co-author on the 2014 study of UKIP, Revolt on the Right, with whom he now clearly has disagreements) argue hyperbolically that ‘immigration and hyper ethnic change are cultivating strong fears about the possible destruction [their emphasis] of the national group’s historic identity and national way of life.’ Similarly, Eric Kaufmann places diversity’s supposedly inexorable threat to white majorities at the heart of his Whiteshift, even taking seriously the ideas of ‘the great replacement’ and ‘white genocide’. 

In this political-science landscape, Brexitland stands out for its much more measured analysis and judgements, which bring together the findings of a large group of researchers, and its avoidance of the direct political compromises with ‘ethnocentrism’ which Goodwin and Kaufmann have made. However presenting population groups, and their direct responses to immigration, as the drivers of change which political actors merely ‘activate’ – Sobolewska and Ford write of ‘the activation of ethnocentric hostilities to outgroups which had been there all along’ (p.151) – begs questions about how hostile attitudes have been produced and reproduced. 

There are two major issues. First, while one of Brexitland’s strengths is that it connects recent developments to a longer history, complications arise when it uses ethnic and educational markers to read back today’s ‘identity conservative’ group into early postwar Britain, as a demographic which is relatively unchanged apart from the challenges it now faces. Clearly it is true that three quarters of a century ago society was almost monolithically white, the majority had no further or higher education, and overt racism was widespread, but it is only with hindsight that it looks like a low-education ethnocentric group with distinctive political interests could already have existed. At the time, sociologists and political scientists saw class fractures as fundamental and racialised ethnic nationalism as class-specific, as the puzzle of working-class Conservativism in Robert Mackenzie and Alan Silver’s 1968 book Angels in Marble suggests. Indeed as Satnam Virdee argues in Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider, racialised British nationalism was originally produced in the nineteenth-century class politics that marked the expansion of democracy and the incorporation of successive waves of immigrants into the nation, while repeatedly excluding others; it focused on the position of new working-class minorities, as it has recently on East European workers. In presenting ‘identity conservativism’ in a class-undifferentiated fashion, Brexitland also minimises significant differences between its working- and middle-class forms, evident for example in the relationships between British National Party and UKIP support earlier this century as well as in the distribution of the Brexit vote.

Second, while Sobolewska and Ford emphasise, rightly, that recent ethnocentrism draws on the legacy of earlier right-wing leaders, they present Powell and Thatcher too as responding to an already-ethnicised white majority, whose ethnic consciousness was directly activated by the experience of immigration. However, then as now, it was not just the visibility of immigrants but their ideological representation which conditioned their reception. Sobolewska and Ford refer several times to Margaret Stacey’s sociological classic Tradition and Change, a study of Banbury in the 1930s, when locals responded negatively to the arrival of (domestic) incomers who were viewed as ‘immigrants’; but we cannot simply scale up this local response to reactions at the national level. Most whites in most areas of the UK did not meet black people in the 1960s, and many whites do not meet many blacks or East Europeans even today. Local migration patterns are not the prime activators of contemporary hostile attitudes, as we can see from its fairly uniform incidence across areas with low as well as high international migration, including those where domestic migration à la Banbury is 20x international. (The national average in the mid-2010s was 9x, but nowhere was hostility to domestic incomers produced by this migration.) 

Therefore as Cas Mudde has argued, ‘immigration has to be translated into a political issue’. Yet Sobolewska and Ford are extraordinarily neglectful of the role of the most obvious translators – apart from politicians themselves – the mass media, and indeed of social media. Only in relation to EU migration in the 2000s do they mention that ‘anxieties about the arrival of a large new out-group were stoked and reinforced by persistent negative media attention.’ (p.154). As far as I can tell this is the only substantive statement about media in the entire book. Yet even before Smethwick in 1964 or Powell in 1968, the opinion poll evidence in Brexitland shows nationwide hostility towards immigration, which must have been produced for the most part by press and broadcasting coverage, including of the far right-linked protests in Notting Hill in 1958. Swathes of media research show the role of the press, especially, in (re)producing racism in the UK over the subsequent decades, including before and during the 2016 vote. Today’s demographic ‘fact’ of a white ethnic-identity ‘group’, indicated by the polling which this book discusses, is the sedimented result of long-term media coverage, editorialising and political activism, as well as informal social relations. Thus political actors, among whom we must class newspaper editors as well as politicians, have helped create the hostility which in moments like the EU referendum they then ‘activate’. For the early 2010s, Geoffrey Evans and Jonathan Mellon show that while public concern tracks the rising rate of immigration, it is also strongly correlated with media coverage, using the Daily Mail as a measure. 

Racism

How should we conceptualise these processes of translation and activation? It is striking that ‘anti-racism’ plays a significant role in Sobolewska and Ford’s analytical armoury, as a norm promoted by identity liberals, but ‘racism’ is absent, being euphemised as ‘ethnocentrism’. It is as though ‘racism’ can only have a discursive political significance, never a conceptual role in social-scientific analysis. For example, the argument that racism was a strategic choice by Vote Leave, advanced by the present writer in The Guardian, is referenced as an instance of anti-racist liberal ‘framing’, not as a potentially legitimate way of analysing the campaign. Indeed Sobolewska and Ford go even further than Goodwin and Kaufmann in avoiding ‘racism’: while National Populism denies that immigration-politics practitioners are generally racist, it does acknowledge that they sometimes ‘veer into’ racism; while Kaufmann claims that white conservatives advance only ‘racial self-interest’, he recognises racism on the margins. These writers acknowledge that racism is in the conceptual mix, even as they try to ‘cordon it off’, as their co-thinker David Goodheart puts it, from ‘legitimate’, mainstream concerns about immigration. In Brexitland, however, ‘racism’, while certainly not legitimised, really has no clear conceptual role.

This absence is about more than terminology. The puzzle underlying this book is why, in a society in which racism has been widely delegitimised and anti-racist norms are influential, racism has not only continued to be reproduced, but even become more influential. The answer that a large group of voters demand it, while substantial and growing minorities oppose it, is not sufficient. A major reason is surely that right-wing politicians and media have developed new forms of what we can call political racism. Sobolewska and Ford file comments like Nigel Farage’s about living next door to Romanians (in reality, a politer version of the Smethwick slogan about having a ‘n—-r for a neighbour’) and Johnson’s about burkas as ‘letterboxes’ as attempts to ‘defend expressions of in-group attachment or hostility towards certain out-groups as expressions of “legitimate concerns” and to exclude them from the unacceptable label of racism.’ (pp. 77-78) Certainly, for operators like Farage and Johnson, a key move is to claim ‘only’ to be representing public opinion. Can we really accept, however, that they are merely offering an interpretation, which converts these political entrepreneurs into commentators – if you like, higher-profile versions of Goodwin and Kaufmann? 

It is therefore strange that Sobolewska and Ford ascribe racism to Powell – who also claimed to be ventriloquising white working-class opinion – but fail to recognise its active triggering by his current equivalents, just because, in our period of heightened anti-racist norms, this is better wrapped up in denial. Major elements which are missing from this account are how the transition from overt to obfuscatory racism took place, and how anti-immigration politics has embedded generalised hostility while often avoiding its open expression towards particular migrant groups. There is no engagement with the theoretical literature on racism, including arguments like Alana Lentin’s that a ‘frozen’ idea of historical racism has allowed racism to be produced in new ways, which are surely relevant here. 

Reflecting in 2017, Farage claimed that, had his immigration campaign ‘been wilfully and overtly a racist message, I might have deserved some of [the criticism]. But it wasn’t. It never was. It never, ever was. It was a logical argument about numbers, society.’ This nicely sums up how the mainstream British right has dealt with the challenge. Powell also claimed to be making a ‘rational’ case about ‘numbers’ but he explicitly coupled this with emotive arguments about a poor white woman surrounded by ‘piccanninies’ who had excrement pushed through her letter-box. After his marginalisation, right-wing Conservatives, UKIP and groups like Migration Watch partly separated the rational and emotive cases, majoring on numbers of immigrants, especially when hammering down the net migration target to which they got Cameron committed. 

Yet this abstract hostility to immigration, which we can call numerical racism, was always accompanied by (1) enough dog whistles to remind voters of its meaning; (2) targeted media campaigns, for example against Muslims and East Europeans, which politicians latched onto; and (3) more or less undercover racist propaganda by the parties themselves. In the 2016 referendum, while Johnson waffled about sovereignty and ‘managing’ immigration, Dominic Cummings was targeting a group of voters with a billion Facebook ads about the ‘76 million Turks’ who would allegedly be able to come to the UK if it remained in the EU, and many similar themes. Clearly this political racism had major social consequences, not only for the victims of the popular abuse and violence it stimulated, but also for the millions whose rights were diminished.

The more difficult conceptual problem is the categorisation of the demographic groups themselves. There is obviously very good reason not to categorise Leavers as racists tout court, since voters support Brexit for a connected set of reasons including sovereignty and democracy as well as immigration control, and of course unevenly-held authoritarian and reactionary attitudes on a range of issues apart from race and immigration contribute to the political cleavage around which this identity has formed. Yet we know that the core attitudes which lie behind the Brexit identity cluster together: as Ford, Goodwin and David Cutts put it a decade ago, explaining UKIP’s advance, ‘hostility to one out-group tends to correlate with hostility to others; those who dislike immigrants tend to dislike racial minorities and to dislike the “foreigners” from the EU encroaching on British politics.’ Cummings honed his alarmist appeal on immigration because he himself believed that a sizeable part of his electorate was open to racist messaging, and in the light of the outcome it is difficult to believe that he was wrong. Nationalist, racial and ethnic attitudes appear more salient than, for example, attitudes to gender, on which more white school-leaver voters have liberal leanings. In this light, terms like ‘identity conservatives’ (or ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ conservatives), which are widely used by political scientists, have a euphemistic ring, and something like ‘authoritarian racial-nationalists’ would be analytically tighter. 

Echoing the earlier point about class, there is also some reason to question Brexitland’s categorisation of anti-Brexiters as ‘identity liberals’, because Virdee has shown that a distinct working-class anti-racism developed from the 1970s, impacting the labour movement; it is not only graduates who provided the stimulus to resist ethnic nationalism. It is also important to acknowledge that ‘ethnic minorities’, while generally reacting against Conservative and Brexiter racism, are divided, and that both anti-Muslim and anti-European hostility have considerable purchase among minority voters. (However these are qualifications which Sobolewska and Ford go some way to recognising.)

The future

Sobolewska and Ford write tentatively in the conclusion to this book of the potential for ‘identity politics’ to wane after Brexit. The Tories’ electoral dominance, they suggest, ‘would be rapidly destabilised if identity conservative voters’ attention returned to economic issues following the resolution of Brexit and the introduction of new controls on immigration. (p. 336) It has indeed been destabilised, by the Covid crisis, but this does not appear likely to end the Conservatives’ racial-nationalist approach. On the contrary, the failure of the Johnson regime’s pandemic response and the additional threat which the end of the Brexit transition poses to the UK economy and society have already led it to double down on racism, hyping the threat posed by small numbers of helpless asylum seekers reaching England in small boats, and nationalism, with the aggressive display of its willingness to defy the EU by breaking international law. As the government faces an unprecedented set of economic as well as health challenges, it appears that nationalism and racism are the most reliable of their diminishing political resources, likely to be appealed to as widely and frequently as possible.    

The authors themselves give the looming crisis over Scotland (if the SNP win an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2021) as another reason to be sceptical about any possibility of a post-Brexit return to normality. A welcome feature of this book is a treatment of Scotland within the same framework as England and Wales, comparing for example Scottish Angloscepticism with English Euroscepticism, and showing how through more liberal politics the SNP built a wider coalition around its ethnocentric base than Brexiters did. Just as they use the identity-politics dynamics to explain changes in British politics through the rise of UKIP, divisions in the Conservative Party and effects of the Brexit vote, so they also show how the Brexit fracture overlain on Scottish independence divisions has transformed Scottish politics. A weakness, however, is the neglect of how this was connected to Brexit even before the 2016 referendum, when Cameron’s Tories, aided by the right-wing press, successfully used English nationalism in 2015 to mobilise voters against the ‘threat’ of Ed Miliband’s Labour being held hostage by Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP. In the emergent new crisis, the Tories and their media allies could well deepen their tentative racialisation of the Scots, just as some of them quickly mobilised ancient anti-Irish racism during the Brexit crisis of 2018-19. As Sobolewska and Ford conclude, English nationalism may be a ‘wild card’ in the coming Scottish crisis. In fact, it is not obvious at the moment how ‘Brexitland’ can be stabilised; it is as likely to end with a bang as with a whimper. What is clear is that, for the mainstreamed populist right, racism is the gift that keeps giving, as new racialisations are superimposed on old, and we need to understand the centrality of its threat.  

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