FOCUS: Class, Race, Brexit

FOCUS: Class, Race, Brexit

Michaela Benson

It has been over three years since Britain’s referendum on their membership of the European Union. In the world of social media algorithms, of blow-by-blow journalistic takes on Brexit as it unfolds, critical social science thinking seems to have been side-lined. As I argue here, such thinking urgently needs to find a place in the mainstream. Importantly, it offers an important challenge to the divisive logics at the heart of pervasive and by now taken-for-granted narrative that the outcome of the EU Referendum was delivered by an indigenous White, working class, narrated as ‘left behind’. Repositioning this critical work at the centre of thinking about Brexit is both politically urgent and has significance for how we do research concerned with the impacts of Britain’s exit from the European Union.

So, what’s wrong with the narrative of the ‘left behind’?

This narrative in which class-based inequalities are racialised as White presents dispossession and alienation as an excuse for racism and xenophobia. In this way, the narrative legitimises racism. Indeed, this is a narrative that has been aggressively promoted by some prominent political scientists, which has become popular with media pundits (in Britain and Europe), and come to be common sense among the general public. Never mind the statistics which show that 59% of those voting to leave the EU were in income brackets or professions that would label them as middle-class; the analyses that show the role of the ‘squeezed middle’ in delivering the outcome of the referendum or that working-class People of Colour who have been disproportionately affected by austerity were more likely to vote Remain in the referendum. As Gargi Bhattacharyya highlights, hijacking the language of class side-lines discussions of racism. The popular explanation for Brexit misunderstands austerity and become complicit in reproducing racialised antagonisms. A different and more appropriate starting point is to examine the disproportionate and asymmetrical impacts of austerity; it is only in doing this that we can understand the complexities of the relationship between rapidly rising levels of inequality in Britain and Brexit.

Race, class, austerity and Brexit
It is undeniable that rising social and economic inequality in the wake of austerity are significant to the story of Brexit. Indeed in his 2018 report, the UN Special Rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, finding that a fifth of the British population were living in poverty described 21st Century Britain as ‘a social calamity and an economic disaster’. Vickie Cooper and David Whyte through their incisive description of the links between austerity policies and Brexit, lay bare how the politics of austerity amplified xenophobic politics. Importantly, locating this in the rhetoric and politics of the Political Elite they highlight how these xenophobic politics are mobilised to justify austerity measures. In other words, scapegoating migrants and benefit claimants is part of a Political project presenting the punitive and devastating effects of austerity as inevitable and unavoidable.

Other important work has turned towards highlighting what emerging scholarly and media accounts of austerity hide from view, the racial and gendered exclusions inherent to this record. There are important lessons here that scholars trying to bear witness to the impacts of Brexit could learn from. Simply, the effects of austerity measures have been asymmetrical—framed by complex dynamics of gender, race, class and disability. And yet, this does not come across in the essentialising narrative that presents the ‘left behind’ as a White, working class. Of particular note is Akwugo Emejulu and Leah Bassel’s account of the anti-austerity activism of Women of Colour in Britain. Within this, they clearly document how the predominant representation of the impacts of economic crises and austerity measures violently erases those disproportionately impacted by these cuts—middle- and working-class Women of Colour—from accounts of austerity, privileging instead explanations which focus on the ‘squeezed middle’ and the White working class. Where this leaves us is with an understanding of austerity that recognised the complex ways in which intensive rises in dispossession, class inequality and conflict prior to the EU referendum have been asymmetrically experienced; for the purposes of this piece I foreground how these are racialised and classed, but it is clear that there is also important work to be done to demonstrate, for example, how Brexit is gendered and how intersects with disability.

There is one further and final point that I want to focus on here: this is the question of how racism is understood and explained away in these popular accounts. There is a tendency to present such racism as the property of exceptional racist individuals rather than as structural or systemic. In this way, there is a lack of recognition of the ways in which racism is reproduced through governance structures and policy regimes that distinguish between those deserving and undeserving of support from the state. And in overlooking the racism of the middle classes and Political Elites, commentators and the academics peddling these views look the other way, locating elsewhere (and often excusing) the racism and xenophobia that the Referendum has brought to the surface. Importantly, such interpretations ignore the substantial body of work that theorises how class and race are produced through capitalism, their complex intertwining telling of the significance of empire and colonialism within this.

Taking such theorisations as a starting point for making sense of Brexit produces an alternative and more complex narrative that explains the factual inconsistencies within the prominent explanation of Brexit as having being delivered by an indigenous White working class; how it sits within longer histories of Empire and colonialism; the significance of political discourse from across the political spectrum blaming incomers to Britain for inequalities; and how it relates to nationalism and bordering in contemporary Britain.  Unless we underpin our understandings of Brexit, its impacts and effects with a recognition of the multi-ethnic constitution of the British population and the working class, we run the risk of reproducing the manufactured racialised antagonism that has been central to both Brexit and austerity politics.

In what follows, I document the emerging body of critical sociological research on Brexit that takes a starting point that foregrounds an understanding of how race and class are fundamentally intertwined. It is not definitive, and undoubtedly there is work still to come that will follow in this vein.

Challenging taken-for-granted assumptions
I want to start with this TEDx video where Gurminder K Bhambra talks about why Everything you know about Brexit is wrong. This offers a good introduction that offers some initial insights into how the statistical breakdown of voting in the Referendum might be mobilised to counter the pervasive myths about the Brexit referendum, to tell a more complicated story about how this result was achieved that challenges Britain’s claim of nationhood by stressing its continuation as an imperial state.

Writing in the aftermath of the referendum, Bhambra carefully draws out the toxic discourse around citizenship and belonging within the Brexit debates. As she stresses, the racialisation of the working class as White reinscribes increasingly exclusionary ideas about who has the right to belong in Britain; at the same time is masks how empire remains a central pillar of citizenship and such questions of belonging. Indeed, the renewed attention to Britain’s imperialism and its role in Brexit has been a significant trope in this body of work. As Akwugo Emejulu emphasised within days of the EU referendum, the focus on the heightened racism should not ‘obscure the conditions for its possibility’, the white supremacy integral both to claims which present the white working class as victims and the shock and outrage about racist and xenophobic attacks following the referendum. Nadine El-Enany’s presents Brexit as the fruit of empire and ultimately, as an act that makes visible white supremacy at work before and after the vote. The relationship between inequality, Brexit and empire is also at the heart of Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson’s re-evaluation of statistics explaining the outcome of the EU Referendum.

Continuing on the theme of citizenship and belonging, Nira Yuval-Davis, Georgie Wemyss and Kathryn Cassidy focus on how Brexit sits within more wide-ranging processes of bordering in Britain that define who can enter and reside; who has access to rights and belonging; and who is found lacking of the right to belonging. Indeed, as Sivamohan Valluvan and Virinder Kalra in their recent account Racial nationalisms: Brexit, borders and Little Englander contradictions argue, understanding the shape of contemporary nationalisms, and in particular the vote to leave the EU, must also account for the role of borders and borderings in shoring up an exclusionary understanding of the British polity.

If there is any doubt that racism was integral to Brexit, this body of critical social science thinking puts it firmly to rest, locating such racism in longer histories of racialisation and nationalism with their attendant politics of exclusion. As Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter argue in their article Whiteness, populism and the racialisation of the working class in the United Kingdom and the United States, analyses that sees Brexit as a ‘white, working class revolt’ contribute to the mainstreaming of racist agendas, constructing the working class as white, as the true patriots to these political ends. Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever in their article Racism, Crisis, Brexit offer an analysis that permits insights into how Brexit both comprises sentiments of ‘imperial longing’ and the retreat to Britain as an island nation, producing a renewed politicization of Englishness.

Significantly, Virdee and McGeever’s account traces how these understandings present migration as a threat to the working class (imagined by politicians as White) have been at the heart of political discourse from across the political spectrum in longer durée even if they have newly been made visible through Brexit. Further, as Virdee’s wider work emphasises, justice for class inequalities may only be delivered if racial justice is located at its core. You can listen to him talk about this with the Surviving Society team—Chantelle Lewis, Saskia Papadakis and Tissot Regis—and read his powerful account for the Runnymede Trust about why understandings of class needs to take race seriously.

Robbie Shilliam takes a similar starting point, highlighting how this image of the white working class is central to elite political discourse, locating this is historical perspective. He focuses on what this means for our understandings of Brexit in the final chapters of his book Race and the Undeserving Poor: From abolition to Brexit (unfortunately, as this is a book there is no free-to-access version but The Disorder of Things blog hosts a great summary of the main themes), powerfully demonstrating:

… that “the white working class” is not—and has never been—a category indigenous to Britain, least of all England. We must acknowledge that the working class was constitutionalized [sic] through empire and its aftermaths; and in this respect, class is race. (p. 178)

Where Virdee and McGeever present Brexit and the financial crisis as a significant point for conjunctural analysis, Shilliam turns his account towards an understanding of Brexit viewed through Grenfell to highlight the persistent racialization of social security and welfare.

What this emerging body of scholarship demonstrates so adeptly is that Brexit is not exceptional and needs to be understood in longer histories of racialisation and the tendency of political discourse—left and right—to promote racial antagonism. These accounts are important because they locate Brexit, the debates and discourse that framed the referendum, and its immediate aftermath within longstanding debates over class and race resurfacing at this point in time. In this way, Brexit is positioned as the product of longer histories of racialisation at the heart of capitalism, the constitution of Britain and Britishness. My brief descriptions here do not do justice to the sophisticated arguments that they offer, but in foregrounding the longer history of imperialism in the making of contemporary Britain, these works abundantly make clear that class and race cannot be disentangled in making sense of contemporary political crises in Britain.

Brexit and the politics of belonging
These theoretical and conceptual framings that highlight how class and race are produced through capitalism, their complex intertwining tied to empire and colonialism, and how they feed understandings of who is deserving of the rights of citizenship must also be addressed in the ways research about Brexit is conceived and designed. As Bhambra stresses in her article Brexit, Trump and ‘Methodological Whiteness’ continuing to foreground narratives about the ‘left behind’ distorts analyses of Brexit reproduces understandings of Britain that erase the longstanding presence of a multi-ethnic polity. It is politically important that the critical social science research needed at this time is one that contests this white supremacist logic, that challenges the politics of racial exclusion inherent to the question of who counts as British.

Emergent empirical research about Brexit has often taken as a central trope an understanding of it articulates with the politics of belonging, whether this is concerned with British citizens or those whose rights are being renegotiated through the Withdrawal Agreement—EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living in the EU27. An important point of reference here is the extensive body of work led by Nira Yuval-Davis, Georgie Wemyss and Kathryn Cassidy that examines contemporary bordering—processes of classification taking place in everyday life where people are judged as deserving (or not) of inclusion in the political project of Britain and Britishness. Within this, Brexit is understood as having the potential to shift boundaries and intervene in decision-making about who is deserving of the right to belong, some disproportionately scrutinised and questioned for these rights. While Umet Erel and Louise Ryan highlight that Brexit shifts borders and boundaries of belonging in Britain for European citizens and third country nationals, Kathryn Cassidy writing with Perla Innocenti and Hans-Joachim Burkner emphasises that Brexit articulates with existing while also instigating new politics of belonging in Britain that challenge British and EU citizens to question their everyday sense of belonging. As Wemyss, Cassidy and Yuval-Davis make clear in this account of everyday bordering, EU citizens sleeping rough or unemployed have been the target of Home Office Immigration enforcement. Importantly, this body of work also shares in common a concern to recognise that social positioning across several vectors of power—race, gender, class, age, disability—is significant to making sense of how bordering is experienced and with what impacts.

Early research published on the basis of empirical research has focussed on how Brexit rescales belonging for EU citizens living in the UK; it highlights how those populations and individuals who had previously experienced racism and xenophobia found this amplified following Brexit. Alina Rzepnikowska offers a particularly nuanced account that documents the experiences of Polish citizens living in the UK before and after Brexit, while Naomi Tyrell, Daniela Sime, Claire Kelly, and Christina McMellon focus on how Brexit is experienced by the children of Central and Eastern European citizens living in the UK. Research into the Brexit experiences EU citizens from the older member states has also started to be documented; this work uniformly demonstrates how the outcome of the referendum destabilised the sense of belonging in Britain that they had taken-for-granted. The case studies at the heart of Nando Sigona, Laurence Lessard-Phillips and Marie Godin’s continuing research for the EU families and Eurochildren project, captured most recently in their online exhibition Portraits of EU families in the shadow of Brexit offer understandings of the diversity of these family formations and social positions and highlight the complex ways in which Brexit is experienced and navigated.

In the research conducted by me and the rest of the project team examining what Brexit means to and for British citizens living in the EU27, our starting point was to deconstruct commonplace understandings of this British population. One significant dimension of this was to explore how British People of Colour living in the EU27 had responded to Brexit. While Katie Higgins had demonstrated how Brexit marked a moment when British citizens living in the EU27 woke up to xenophobia and racism in Britain, Chantelle Lewis and I foregrounded an alternative narrative that presented Brexit within the context of lifelong experiences of racism and xenophobia—in Britain and Europe—for the People of Colour taking part in our research. Forthcoming work still in preparation highlights how the scrutiny over whether British citizens living in Europe meet the conditional terms of Freedom of Movement reveal the classed politics inherent to the bordering of European Citizens.

The final spoke of critical social science research about Brexit that I want to focus on here is research into racism in Brexit Britain. Tina Patel and Laura Connelly, in their careful analysis of racism in the accounts of the Leave voters they interviewed for their research highlight the new modes of racism contained within these, the migrant made as ‘other’ through narrative constructions that are not overtly racist but use more subtle logics of exclusion that give primacy to the claims of those indigenous to Britain.

And beyond this, ongoing research offers the prospect of disturbing taken-for-granted assumptions that position race against class. For example, The Northern Exposure project, run by Roxana Barbalescu and Adrian Favell directly challenges the assumption of Northern towns and cities as the site of a ‘white working class’, highlighting their ethnic diversity, the presence of longstanding and more recent migrant settlement. In this way, they place questions of class, race and inequality at the heart of their research. Katharine Tyler and Cate Degnen’s Brexit and Belonging project focuses on everyday experiences of residents from differing ethnic, migration, age, national, religious and class backgrounds living in the North East, South West and East Midlands, offering to explore up close at the micro-level that has been so often missing, how Brexit intervenes in senses of local, national and European belonging.

Where next for the sociology of Brexit?
It is still early days for in-depth empirical research that documents the impacts of Brexit. Undoubtedly, this field will expand over coming years. My closing point is simple. As we see the establishment of a critical social science canon focussed on Brexit, it matters that we ask questions about how to design research that challenges exclusionary and divisive understandings of belonging in Britain today. This means questioning how our empirical research is framed, the concepts that we use and who these exclude and silence. Failing to address this can only lead to the reproduction of the racial antagonisms inherent in popular narrations of Brexit.


Michaela Benson is Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths. She is the research lead for the UK in a Changing Europe funded project BrExpats: Freedom of Movement. Citizenship and Brexit in the lives of Britons resident in Europe. She is known for her ethnographic research with British citizens living in rural France, and her conceptual and theoretical interventions into thinking about the role of lifestyle in migration. She has published in peer-reviewed journals across sociology, migration studies and geography; her most recent book, written with her long-term co-author Karen O’Reilly offers an in-depth analysis of the interplay of colonial traces and neoliberal presents, and the governance and regulation of lifestyle migration. She is currently Managing Editor of The Sociological Review. She tweets @michaelacbenson.

IMAGE CREDIT: Flikr User: Colin