Let there be no mistake – Brexit, at its core, was a vote against immigration and immigrants. Many of those voting for Brexit did not see it as a vote against Europeans living in the UK. It was a vote for sovereignty, against excessive EU bureaucracy, and a reclamation of democracy from the elitist political class. However, this drive for sovereign reclamation is intimately tied to the anti-immigration narrative. Despite the shock, none of us should be surprised by Brexit. This isn’t about a singular campaign or one decision. Brexit is the result of a persistent political narrative that has been nurtured and fuelled for a long time.
Like the majority of the estimated 3 million non-British EU citizens currently living in the UK, I woke up yesterday morning feeling suitably rejected. Having witnessed the growing tied of nationalism and immigrant demonization, I should not have been surprised by Thursday’s vote. But Brexit was never something that I really believed would come to fruition: it was a fringe movement of the far right yearning for a nostalgic return to the values of Empire (like racism and scurvy), and misguided left-leaning Eurosceptics who think that breaking from the yoke of neoliberal Eurocracy will pave the way for a socialist UK (despite all evidence to the contrary). Yet, on Friday I woke up to the news that the nonsensical had happened. Despite the evidence of the catastrophic impacts of Brexit, the outing of the blatant lies and fabrications spouted by the Leave campaign, and no clear plan for navigating the post-Brexit waters, the British public, led by the over 65s, pushed their way out the Brexit door.
all the arguments for sovereignty and democracy are intimately tied to the belief that the right political order is one in which British people do not have to compromise with foreigners in determining their destiny”
Let there be no mistake – Brexit, at its core, was a vote against immigration and immigrants. Many of those voting for Brexit did not see it as a vote against Europeans living in the UK. It was a vote for sovereignty, against excessive EU bureaucracy, and a reclamation of democracy from the elitist political class. However, this drive for sovereign reclamation is intimately tied to the anti-immigration narrative. Sovereignty, in the Brexit sense, is British decisions for British people: a politics of withdrawal from foreign influence. In his book, The Creation of the World or Globalization, Jean Luc Nancy contends that the Sovereign is the existent that depends on nothing, entirely delivered over to itself. Sovereignty, as such, is always an attempt to escape from the relation with otherness: a desire to withdraw into the self and close oneself off from the world. This is precisely the ideal of sovereignty promised by the Leave campaign. Rather than negotiating a future from within Europe, the UK could contain its self-sovereignty while, simultaneously, enjoying mutually beneficial agreements with those outside UK borders. In other words, all the arguments for sovereignty and democracy are intimately tied to the belief that the right political order is one in which British people do not have to compromise with foreigners in determining their destiny.
After the vote I was immediately struck by how many Britons just assumed that it wouldn’t affect me because I’m Irish (obviously this has colonial undertones) – as if they could Brexit from some parts of the EU and remain with others
Obviously this is an impossible ideal in practicality, evidenced by the current back-peddling of Brexiteers in terms of the promises to dramatically reduce immigration levels. Nevertheless, the fact that the ideal of a reclamation of British sovereignty, identity and destiny was so appealing to voters can tell us a about the prevailing British attitude toward nationalism and immigration. Those leading the Brexit campaign were largely opportunistic – looking to further their own careers and influence – but this opportunity was presented by the underlying belief that national identity and authority is under threat and needs to be protected. However, this revulsion to immigrants and alterity is not particular clear cut or binary. In a particularly naïve logic, many who voted leave operated under the assumption that Brexit would only impact on the immigrants they wanted it to. Changes to free movement would not affect the good immigrants who were welcome in the UK. This was about restricting the masses of Eastern Europeans and Muslims, not the Spanish, Dutch and other civilised European immigrants. After the vote I was immediately struck by how many Britons just assumed that it wouldn’t affect me because I’m Irish (obviously this has colonial undertones) – as if they could Brexit from some parts of the EU and remain with others. This is a clear result of the Leave narrative. Yet it is still striking that people purportedly sceptical of elitist narratives of politicians and experts would so willingly accept the fanciful Brexit narrative.
The truth is that, despite the shock, none of us should be surprised by Brexit. This isn’t about a singular campaign or one decision. Brexit is the result of a persistent political narrative that has been nurtured and fuelled for a long time. If we wind the clock back to last year we can see elements of the Brexit argument within the election manifesto of the three biggest English parties. Each manifesto talks specifically about a strategy of encouraging the right kind of immigration (highly educated/skilled) while restricting the wrong kind (low education/unskilled). There is not a lot of difference between Farage’s off-cuff claim that he’d be happy with German neighbour but not with Romanian ones, and mainstream policies that actively discriminate against immigrants from less affluent European countries. Ultimately, immigration has been used as a key political weapon in the UK for far too long for it not to have a decisive impact on culture and society. The framework constructed for understanding immigration in the UK has been cultivated by numerous political parties and other actors to bolster broad agendas: from security, to health, to education, to employment. Brexit is simply the culmination of this narrative. The UK’s disenfranchised voted against the figure of the immigrant that has been presented to them as the sole reason for their poverty, lack of opportunities, and lack of governmental support.
Jacques Rancière refers to the prevailing framework through which political debate is interpreted as the partition of the sensible. At stake, Rancière explains, in the battle to define the sensible is an argument about what constitutes political objects and who is considered to be a political subject. The Brexit debate and the narrative constructed by the Leave campaign has revealed a Britain mired in a partition of the nonsensical. A country in which experts of all fields and political persuasions are inherently distrusted and routinely dismissed, and gut feeling is viewed as sacrosanct. But this partition must not be misinterpreted as a sign of the stupidity of the masses, or a glaring mistake in one referendum. It is a partition that has been cultivated by the entire Western political order in its desire to obfuscate the glaring failures contemporary neoliberal society. Those in the lower income bracket who voted for Brexit will undoubtedly be hit hardest. However, by the time the next big decision comes around, a new narrative and new figures of blame/hate will emerge. Increasingly isolated and economically stretched, post-Brexit UK will soon have no one to turn on but themselves as us immigrants slowly slip off into the night. I can only hope that the younger generations who rejected this nonsense can salvage their futures from this mess.
Calling other sounds
You out there on the seas
Today is dull and mild
On a stroppy little island
Of mixed up people
(The Good the Bad and the Queen – Three Changes)
 Nancy, Jean-Luc (2007) The Creation of the World or Globalization, Francois Raffoul and David Pettigrew trans. (Albany: SUNY Press): 103
 Rancière, Jacques (2007) On the Shores of Politics, Liz Heron trans. (London: Verso): 7