Brexit as a Backlash against ‘Loss of Privilege’ and Multiculturalism

Brexit as a Backlash against ‘Loss of Privilege’ and Multiculturalism

Ipek Demir

Concerns about migration have been at the forefront of debates on Brexit but are also evident in the language and discourses of many in the European extreme right (e.g. Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands) and Trump. Whilst the age of Trumpism and Brexit has made the ‘yes, but there are too many migrants’ an accepted and respectable topic of after dinner conversation, and has played a major role in those elections, what we are faced with today is in fact a backlash against a perceived loss of privilege and against multiculturalism. In fact anti-immigration sentiments are closely bound up with, if not at times used as proxy for talking about, multiculturalism and the associated ‘loss of privilege’. Why? Let me explain.

Multiculturalism, I argue is about two central issues which are related:

(1) Rejection of the assimilationist policies of the old order:  multiculturalism and its associated policies aimed to question the upper hand that the hegemonic national subjects held, addressing inherited power relations in Europe and de-stabilizing the dominance of the dominant identity;

(2) A demand for the participation of minoritized groups on an equal footing as civic and political citizens: multiculturalism seeks to move minoritized groups from being seen as subjects of assimilation and domination to actors who can make transformative claims not just about themselves but also on the whole of the national and civic identity.

In other words, multiculturalism is not about celebrating diversity (or difference) for its own sake. It should be understood as beyond the instrumentalism which is sometimes associated with the ‘diversity managers’ of today. It is about dethroning the idea of national homogeneity and attempting to equalize power relations and claim-making capacities between different groups. This is why in North America multiculturalism has also been a vehicle for defending the rights and claims of, for example, LGBT communities, the disabled and of women – as minoritized groups. Difference and diversity matter where they are linked to power.

Let’s not beat about the bush. Such multiculturalist demands require ‘a loss of privilege’. It is because of this that multiculturalism is under attack, not because people have anything against steel bands or samosas. In fact, anti-multiculturalism has been simmering and festering in the last few decades (1). Gains made in terms of increased inclusion of previously othered peoples have come under attack by people who perhaps never liked such inclusions in the first place. What is interesting is that this backlash against multiculturalism did not only come from the usual suspects.  Social scientists, for example, Beck (2011: 54), Delanty (2011: 650), and Glick-Schiller et al (2011: 401) have also attacked multiculturalism, or used multiculturalism as a foil when defending cosmopolitanism (See Demir 2016 for a criticism of this).

Debates on Brexit and immigration have tapped into this existing resentment about multiculturalism and the loss of privilege. This is borne out with numbers we have on Brexit (numbers below are from Ashcroft 2016 unless stated otherwise): 81% of people who thought that multiculturalism is a force for ill voted for Brexit. 80 % of those who saw immigration; 78% of those who saw social liberalism; 74% of those who saw feminism, and 60% of those who saw the green movement as a social ill voted for Brexit. However, it is interesting to note that multiculturalism tops the list, surpassing immigration – although only slightly. Incidentally, only 51% of those who saw capitalism as a social ill voted for Brexit, food for thought for left Brexiters (Lexiters).


The ‘I want my country back’ sentiment, which the Brexit camp led, is inextricably linked to this loss of privilege and resistance to the multiculturalist ethos. The deep yearning for a ‘Great Britain’, is in fact not a yearning for a place, but for the past, for the great old days when white Christian Britain sat at the top of the table (2). ‘I want my country back’ incites a desire to take the country back not just from Europe and EU ‘immigrants’, but from ‘other citizens’ who questioned the upper hand the dominant subjects held and didn’t know when to shut up. It’s about harking back to 1950s Britain – when people knew their place, especially the immigrants, or non-whites or those from the colonies. The post-Brexit desire to revive the Commonwealth should also be seen in that light, not in terms of rekindling old friendships.

There is no denying that the opening of markets, the outsourcing of jobs, the alienation of blue collar workers, and now also white collar jobs coming under threat (Reich 2006) have added to anxieties in the West. However, many mainstream analysts and commentators are blind to the racial and cultural axis of the Brexit vote and campaign and instead focus on the poor and the left-behind (and their so called dislike of immigration and the establishment) in order to explain the triumph of Brexit (and of Trump) (3). This is a disservice to those who are poor as it responsibilizes them (yet again!) for the unsavoury turn in politics. It also erases race and ethnicity from a proper analysis.

A significant majority of ethnic minorities in the US and in the UK, in spite of their overall worse labour market conditions, being poor and hit by austerity, did not come out to vote for Brexit or for Trump. In the UK, 67% of Asians, 73% of Black voters and 7 in 10 Muslims voted to remain. Whites in the UK, on the other hand, voted for Brexit by 53% to 47%; and 58% of those describing themselves as Christian voted to leave. A divide was also present at the US election. 8% of African Americans, 29% of Hispanics and 29 % of Asians voted for Trump in comparison to 58 % of whites (BBC 2016). Nevermind ‘angry white men’, 53 % of white women (45 % of white women with a university degree) voted for Trump in contrast with 94% of black women voting for Clinton. Shamira Ibrahim called this ‘Once Again, Black Women Did The Work White Women Refused To’.

The rejection of Trump and Brexit by the ethnic minority vote must make us question the often repeated mantra about this being about ‘the left-behind’ or it being an ‘anti-elite’ or ‘anti-establishment’ sentiment, unless these, especially the notion of ‘left-behind’, are understood in racial and cultural terms, that is to do with feelings of resentment over long-term shifts towards, for example, racial diversity, gender equality, LGBT rights, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism.

As has already been widely discussed, the data do not show that support for Brexit or for Trump mainly came from the poor exclusively. White, middle-class, older English voters who own their house and pick up a nice pension swung the vote for Brexit (Danny Dorling 2016). It is true that council and housing association tenants voted for Brexit; but so did those who owned their homes outright (55%).

The stark difference between whites and ethnic minorities in my view was borne by those whites who have been unhappy with the loss of privilege over the decades, but also by those for whom the idea of ‘more sovereignty’ trumped the xenophobic and offensive racial undertones, and at times overtones, of the Brexit (and Trump) campaign. For ethnic minorities, on the other hand, the xenophobic flavour of the pro-Brexit camp was probably more abhorrent than any abstract idea about sovereignty. As they (even those ethnic minorities born in Britain) know full well that “When ‘they’ talk about immigration, we know that ‘this is still about us.’” Khan and Weekes-Bernard (2015:2).

(1) See Modood (2007) and Lentin and Titley (2011) for a discussion of attacks on multiculturalism.
(2) A majority (58%) of those who voted to leave think that life in Britain is worse today than it was 30 years ago.
(3) See Bhambra (2016) for a criticism of this.

Demir, Ipek (2016) ‘Rethinking Cosmopolitanism, Multiculturalism and Diaspora via the Diasporic Cosmopolitanism of Europe’s Kurds’ in John Narayan and Gurminder K. Bhambra (eds.) European Cosmopolitanisms: Colonial Histories and Postcolonial Societies, pp. 121-135.
Lentin, Alana and Titley, Gavan (2011) The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racisim in a Neoliberal Age, London: Zed Books.
Modood, Tariq (2007) Multiculturalism, 2nd edition, Cambridge: Polity Press.


Ipek Demir (PhD, University of Sussex) is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Leicester. She previously taught social sciences at the Universities of Sussex and Cambridge, and the Open University and was an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge. She held an AHRC Fellowship, examining how ethno-political identity is represented and translated by Kurds (of Turkey) in London. Demir is the founder and co-coordinator of BSA’s Diaspora, Migration and Transnationalism (DMT) Study Group and the former Vice-Chair of ESA’s Sociology of Migration Research Network.