Unpacking the Notion of Taking Our Country Back

I do not agree with the statement that ‘Brexit doesn’t have anything to do with race; it’s about taking our country back.’ By arguing that taking our country back merely means that the predominantly white working class gets those rights and interests back that they have lost to those who have insinuated themselves in the country, a political debate that is really about race gets portrayed as a debate about something which is legitimate because it is not about race, rather it is about the economics of immigration. This essay argues that Brexit had a lot to do with race and the claim of ‘taking our country back’ is in reality an action to safeguard the whiteness of the nation.

The political debate around immigration even prior to Brexit has tended to be focussed on the issue of race and culture (Carter, 2011, p. 32). There has been a popular sentiment against immigration, even prior to Brexit which became more entrenched in political discourse around the Brexit referendum in the UK. As noted by Ford and Goodwin (2010):


“the emergence of immigration as a central controversy, and a resulting surge in support for a new political challenger that swiftly be- came the primary vehicle for public opposition to EU membership, mass immigration, ethnic change, and the socially liberal and cosmopolitan values that had come to dominate the political establishment” (p.20).

Two arguments against flexible immigration policies have been prominently used to buttress the claim that immigration control is essential and necessary. The first argument is an economic one, which shows immigrants as burden on the British economy and the welfare state (Ford & Goodwin, 2010, p. 23). This argument portrays immigrants, and asylum seekers from Asian and African countries in an increasingly negative light because they are considered to be burden on the state. As most of the refugees are from Asia and Africa, race becomes conflated with class and status, with the immigrants being less worthy of being allowed into Britain as they would only stress out the economy. The second argument against immigration is the socio-cultural argument, as “ethnic minorities, graduates, and middle-class professionals hold values that are very different from those of the once-dominant but now fast-declining groups— older white voters, the working classes, and school leavers” (Ford & Goodwin, 2010, p. 19). This is relevant to immigrants from non-western nations and it relates to their perceived failure to assimilate and integrate in the British society.

Frankie Boyle says that the Brexit Referendum is the evidence of the inherent racism of the white British who are scared that membership of the European Union would mean that more and more immigrants from Asian and African countries would be allowed to come into Britain and change the demographics of Britain (BBC, 2015 ). This may be related to the discourse on immigration even prior to Brexit, which focussed on the demographic shifts in the British society with more non-white immigration from Asian and African countries, to a great extent, the political discourse against this kind of non-white immigration have resulted in a greater support for Right wing positions on immigration (Ford & Goodwin, 2010, p. 3). Considering the rise of Right wing politics in Britain with a focus on immigrants and race, it is difficult to agree that the Brexit referendum was more about the economic argument against immigration and not race.

The discourse around immigration has been largely negative and pejorative towards immigrants. The language that is sometimes used to describe them in western nations like Britain exposes the resentment with which some political leaders and the general public views immigrants from non-Western nations. Akala’s statement that white immigrants are ‘expats’ and other immigrants are ‘immigrants’ or even ‘cockroaches’ is an insightful statement on how white countries like Britain perceive immigrants from the Asian and African countries (BBC, 2015 ). One may recall similar pejorative words being used for refugees from war torn countries like Syria, where Prime Minister David Cameroon

described Syrian refugees as ‘swarms of migrants’ trying to break in to Britain from Calais; such dehumanising language for those who are fleeing war and terror has been criticised as being pejorative and negative (Taylor, 2015). There are other such pejorative terms that have been used for refugees and immigrants from Asian and African countries like ‘Flood’, ‘Influx’, or ‘Wave’, all of which are meant to show the incoming refugees and immigrants as hordes of people that will overwhelm the British society (The Migration Observatory, 2013, p. 3). In Australia, terms like the ‘boat people’ have been used to describe the immigrants as illegal entrants into the country (Taylor, 2015). Similarly, the Czechoslovakia President Zeman is on record saying that he is “profoundly convinced that we are facing an organized invasion and not a spontaneous movement of refugees” (Tyler 2017, 5). This discussion indicates that there is an established political discourse in Europe and other western countries which seeks to limit immigration from certain areas in the world because of the issue of race. As Akala points out, the western societies uses terms like immigrants for Asians and Africans, while white people in similar circumstances would be termed as expats.

Inevitably, the negative political discussion around immigrants, as is evident from David Cameron’s statement about Syrian refugees, even prior to the Brexit memorandum have had the impact of tying up the issue of immigration with race. Within this discourse, there is also an inclusion of Muslims as the racialised others, with the intersection of race and religion, and using perceptions about Muslims and security for driving further the argument on immigration control aimed at Muslims from Asian and African countries. The discourse around Muslims has also related to the failure of Muslims to integrate into western societies and the linking of Muslim immigrants to fundamentalism and terrorism (Long, 2010, p. 19). Consequently, discourse has also led to the need to control immigration in order to limit undesirable immigrants coming into Britain (Gibney, 2008, p. 146).

It has been argued that the Brexit vote in favour of leaving the European Union was driven by those who have found themselves to be the most impacted by the incoming of immigrants from Asian and African countries, the lower and the working classes. This argument seeks to emphasise that the vote to leave the European Union is not a reflection of racism but of legitimate interests of those who are impacted the most by immigration. However, empirical evidence does not support this argument. Dorling (2016) suggests that the vote to leave in the Brexit referendum was disproportionately delivered by the propertied, pensioned, well-off, white middle class based in southern England, who are not impacted by the immigration in contexts of employment opportunities. Those who would be impacted more by immigrants taking away their employment opportunities, that is, the predominantly northern working class, delivered about just 24% of the leave vote as compared to the 52% residents of southern England, and 59% of the middle classes (Dorling, 2016). This goes against the argument that the vote to leave was driven by class interests and not race (Dorling, 2016).

Considering the background of race and culture discourse in the context of whiteness (Garner S. , 2012, p. 2), it is easy to see how it must have been not a difficult argument to make for the leave side in the Brexit referendum. In British society, race and culture and at times be conflated because whiteness or Englishness may be used in a synonymic sense or as noted by Garner (2012), “assumptions of culture are static and essentialised, and physical appearance is read directly from culture, so that in evoking ‘culture’ one is implicitly designating bodies” (p. 3). In this context, “‘white’ is not a homogeneous group, but it can be distinguished from the other groups on the basis of class, gender, nation, religion and status” (Garner S. , 2012, p. 3). Thus, being white can mean being English in the sense of belonging to a specific culture, which is distinct from the culture of those who are not English and bring an alien culture into the nation. This is reflected in the statement by one of the interviewees in Garner, Coles, Lung and Stott (2009):

“This is our country and we were kind enough to let them in. In their country we couldn’t dress like this, we would have to respect their ways, but they don’t respect us and our ways. The younger people do, but now they want to have Sharia laws . . . they should adopt our ways” (p. 24).

The above statement is clearly reflective of the way culture can be perceived in a binary sense, with a tendency for otherisation of those whose culture does not match with the predominant British culture. It also reflects on the resentment that some British may have towards those who immigrate into Britain but do not integrate with the British ‘culture’. Because race can be conflated with culture, it can be argued that the resentment is not just towards those who are culturally different, but also who are racially different. Immigrants from Asia and Africa would fall into this category. Seen from this perspective, those who are coming from outside threaten the British culture and the British become helpless to stop the ‘swarm’, as David Cameroon put it of immigrants that would overwhelm the British (Taylor, 2015). It is against this context that the Brexit vote coming from a majority of white, middle class voter becomes a racialised conclusion of a long discourse on race and immigration rather than a result of the struggle of the lower and working class British to reclaim their place in the British society. Clearly, the vote to leave the European Union was also motivated by the popular perception that leaving the European Union is the only way for the British society to stop immigrants from coming in to the UK and changing the demographic profile of the country from a predominantly white country to a country that is populated by non white immigrants. Indeed, there are commentators in Europe among the far-right who have viewed Brexit as a validation of the anti-immigration stance of the people of the British society (Chrisafis, 2016). Therefore, there is some support for the argument that Brexit referendum reflects on race even amongst those who subscribe to the far right.

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To conclude, it is reiterated that it would be incorrect to say that Brexit doesn’t have anything to do with race, but it’s about taking our country back. Empirical evidence suggests that the majority of those who voted in favour of leaving the European Union were from middle class, southern England background, who are not impacted by the economic argument on immigration. On the other hand, those who are more impacted by the economic argument on immigration, that is, lower and working class Britishers, have not voted to leave the European Union with as high percentage of votes. This clearly speaks against the application of the economic argument against immigration. Even if the economic argument were accepted, it is again aligned to a view that conflates class with race in terms of a certain kind of immigrant being a burden on the state. This leaves us with the socio-cultural argument against immigration, which is relevant to the race and culture of the immigrants. The evidence considered in this essay points at the relevance of race as an issue in Brexit.


BBC. (2015 , May 18). Akala on Britain's inherent xenophobia - Frankie Boyle's Election Autopsy. Retrieved from www.youtube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YCu5B6AMoQ

Carter, E. (2011). The Extreme Right in Western Europe: Success Or Failure? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chrisafis, A. (2016, June 24). European far right hails Brexit vote. Retrieved June 24, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/24/european-far-right-hails-britains-brexit-vote-marine-le-pen

Dorling, D. (2016). Brexit: The Decision of a Divided Country. Retrieved from http://www.dannydorling.org/wp-content/files/dannydorling_publication_id5564.pdf

Favell, A. (2016). Philosophies of integration: immigration and the idea of citizenship in France and Britain. Springer.

Ford, R., & Goodwin, M. (2010). Angry white men: Individual and contextual predictors of support for the British National Party. Political Studies, 58(1), 1-25.

Garner, S. (2012). A moral economy of whiteness: Behaviours, belonging and Britishness. Ethnicities, 12(4), 445-464.

Garner, S, Cowles, J., Lung, B., & Stott, M. (2009). Sources of resentment and perceptions of ethnic minorities among poor white people in England. . National Community Forum/ Department for Communities and Local Government.

Gibney, M. (2008). Asylum and the Expansion of Deportation in the United Kingdom. Government and Opposition, 43(2), 146-167.

Long, K. (2010). Forced migration research and policy: overview of current trends and future directions. Oxford: University of Oxford.

Taylor, A. (2015, July 30). Why the language we use to talk about refugees matters so much. Retrieved January 3, 2016, from www.washingtonpost.com:


The Migration Observatory. (2013). Migration in the News: Portrayals of Immigrants, Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees in National British Newspapers, 2010-2012. Oxford: University of Oxford

Torrance, D. (2016). EU Referendum 2016: A Guide for Voters. London: Luath Press .

Tyler, I. (2017). The hieroglyphics of the border: racial stigma in neoliberal Europe. Ethnic and Racial Studies , 1-19.

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