Rethinking Brexit in the light of Covid-19

Rethinking Brexit in the light of Covid-19

Gurminder K Bhambra

Many discussions of Brexit, in the light of Covid-19, have called for a pause in proceedings because of concerns about its impact upon an economy seriously weakened by the pandemic. Some of the issues highlighted include the need to ensure market stability and mitigating the likely consequences of slower economic growth and the failure of just-in-time supply chains.

Alongside such economic concerns, the cultural issues raised by Brexit are also in need of reconsideration. These are associated with ‘taking back control’ and with those ‘left behind’ by globalization. They were expressed in questions such as: who constitutes the nation? And, who is legitimately entitled to share in its resources? Ultimately, they were of more significance to the outcome of the Brexit referendum and to the government’s current insistence to holding to its deadlines. Yet, their reconfiguration in the context of Covid-19 points to a deeper need to rethink Brexit.

What Covid-19 has shown us is that we are a multicultural nation that could not function without its ethnic minority citizens and migrant populations, both settled and temporary. Indeed, it is precisely these populations that are disproportionately carrying the burden of maintaining the nation’s health and lives under lockdown.

Whether one looks at the NHS or at the key workers (previously regarded as low-skilled) – staffing supermarkets and corner shops, delivering food and other necessities, operating public transport, cleaning workplaces, collecting rubbish, and now being chartered in to pick fruit and vegetables – these workers are disproportionately migrants, both from the EU and further afield, and ethnic minority British citizens.

One of the reasons we are (suddenly) aware of them is that they are dying in disproportionate numbers and their deaths cannot be hidden. Their faces are on the front pages of newspapers and across social media feeds – their contributions to society, their integration within it, is amplified by their deaths in service to us all.

In contrast, the Brexit years, as we might call them, were defined by a narrowing of vision of who constitutes the body politic and who ought to be considered the legitimate object of public policy. In other words, who belonged (who really belonged) and who did not; whose grievances merited attention, and whose did not. For too long, many commentators suggested, policies have been pursued without taking into account the concerns of those represented as ‘left behind’.

In David Goodhart’s terms, the Brexit outcome could be explained by the failure of the cosmopolitan liberal elite, the ‘anywheres’, to take seriously the grievances of those rooted in a specific place or community, the ‘somewheres’ (or later, the ‘left behind’). The specificity of ethnic minority communities was seen to be rooted beyond the nation and, as such, the only place available to them within the nation was as ‘outsiders’.

Their presence was then put forward as the reason for the relative decline in the conditions of the ‘left behind’. Just to be clear though, it wasn’t that the ‘left behind’ were worse off than ethnic minority citizens, but that their advantage over those citizens had somewhat decreased and they were suffering ‘relative deprivation’ (although even this is contested). In this way, middle class commentators’ concerns about the conditions of the (white) working class were racialized and used to stoke up resentments against others while doing nothing to address the material conditions of the working class as a whole.

Further, within the stratifications of the working class, those who do the more precarious jobs, the frontline jobs, the keyworker jobs – those jobs which put you more at risk of catching Covid-19 and dying from it – are disproportionately the multicultural and migrant working class. On what basis do we continue to assert taking back control through the exclusion of these populations when their centrality to our society has been so clearly illuminated?

Perhaps we might come to understand that alongside those represented as left-behind, there were also many who had been left out of our understandings of who ‘we’ are. The strong correlation between poorer socio-economic circumstances and the likelihood of dying from Covid-19 points to truths that may well be uncomfortable for some within the Brexit debates to take on board.

First, that the British working class is multicultural all the way through. Second, that the working class in Britain is not only British.

Goodhart and his coterie, over the last few years, have sought systematically to undermine policies designed to address broader socio-economic inequalities in favour of race-based interventions that maintain those inequalities. Their argument that acting in racial self-interest is not racism leads us towards what Danielle Allen calls, ‘a society of hierarchy and domination produced by opportunity hoarding along lines of difference’.

The arguments for a multicultural society, in contrast, are organised around desires for inclusion and equality – for a society that works for us all. It is one that acknowledges that it is precisely the multicultural histories of Empire that provide the legitimacy, should it be needed, for multicultural Britain. Those who refuse multiculturalism, refuse this history and wish to exclude and dominate in the name of an imagined white nation and imaginaries of national sovereignty. This framing is devoid of any understanding of the histories that have produced us and the connections that have long sustained us.

The amnesia about Britain’s imperial history and the ensuing obligations runs deep. It is underpinned by a failure to understand that Britain was an empire, rather than simply having an empire. Central to this amnesia is what I have called ‘methodological whiteness’ – that is, a way of reflecting on the world that fails to acknowledge the role played by colonialism and race in the very structuring of that world – and it is this that has made the claims to a Brexit imaginary plausible.

The short history of this imagined white nation begins in the early twentieth century which sees warfare and welfare came together in the idea of the nation as an aggregate of citizens. This is reinforced through the distribution (and redistribution) of resources – welfare – within national boundaries. The shared experience of the world wars by imperial subjects, in terms both of military service and the provision of financial and other resources, has rarely been considered. Much less has it been recognized as the basis for the subsequent claims of darker citizens.

From the ‘colonial drain’ of taxation and resources that funded every institution of the British national state, we now operate in relation to a ‘neo-colonial drain’ of doctors, nurses, and medical staff to enable the NHS to function. Our economy also fundamentally relies on low-paid workers in frontline jobs and, contrary to the logics of Brexit, this includes the chartering in of Romanian workers to pick fruit and vegetables. Our sovereignty has never been nationally constituted.

Brexit was about imagining ourselves separately from, and in opposition to, those who actually enable our lives and livelihoods. What would it mean to see ourselves as a whole country and to address the socio-economic inequalities that Covid-19 lays bare and that Brexit would exacerbate?

The vote for Brexit was carried by the propertied, pensioned, well-off white middle-class in the south of England. The white northern working class was as much misrepresented by the middle class commentariat as the multicultural working class was of little significance to it. Away from the framings through which sections of the media and academic commentators would have us view our society, Covid-19 provides us with an opportunity to see ourselves in all our complexity. Let us reclaim the multicultural grounds for a future that works for us all.


Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.