Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford have a major new study, Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics. They argue with comprehensive use of survey data that British politics has been restructured since the 2016 referendum, which transformed divides in the electorate between ‘identity conservatives’, ‘identity liberals’ and ‘ethnic minorities’ into potent fractures between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ which have fundamentally reshaped political competition in England and Wales and also in a different way in Scotland.
Analysing recent electoral change in terms of this three-way split makes good sense of recent developments. However from a sociological point of view it has significant conceptual and analytical limitations, as I explain more fully in my review for openDemocracy. The three ‘identity’ groups are treated as demographic facts, and while the authors caveat that ‘demography is not destiny’, they make demographic change the key variable in analysing a backlash by less-educated whites to what they call the ‘conviction liberalism’ of white graduates and the ‘necessity liberalism’ of minorities. This type of argument has been associated with a sympathetic attitude towards white backlash in books like Eatwell and Goodwin’s National Populism and Kaufmann’s Whiteshift, but while Brexitland avoids this kind of political compromise, it still presents the occurrence of immigration as the main driver anti-immigration sentiment, which political actors merely ‘activate’. Sobolewska and Ford write of ‘the activation of ethnocentric hostilities to outgroups which had been there all along’.
This begs questions about how hostile attitudes have been produced and reproduced, historically and in recent times. Sobolewska and Ford refer to Margaret Stacey’s sociological classic Tradition and Change, a study of Banbury in the 1930s, when locals responded negatively to the arrival of (domestic) incomers who were viewed as ‘immigrants’. However scaling up to the national level, ‘immigration has to be translated into a political issue’, as Cas Mudde has argued. Brexitland neglects the roles of mass media and social media, which as research shows have played key roles in (re)producing racism in the UK. Today’s demographic ‘fact’ of a white identity ‘group’ is the sedimented result of long-term media coverage, editorialising and political activism, as well as informal social relations. Thus political actors, who include newspaper editors as well as politicians, help create the hostility which in moments like 2016 they then ‘activate’.
For these authors, ‘racism’ can only have a discursive political significance, never a conceptual role in social-scientific analysis; indeed they don’t engage with the theoretical literature on racism. This absence is about more than terminology. The puzzle underlying this book is why, in a society in which racism has been widely delegitimised, racism has not only continued to be reproduced, but has even become more influential. The answer that a large group of voters demand it, while substantial and growing minorities oppose it, is not sufficient. A major reason is surely that right-wing politicians and media have developed new forms of what we can call political racism. Sobolewska and Ford ascribe racism to Enoch Powell, but fail to recognise it in interventions by Farage and Johnson, just because, in our period of heightened anti-racist norms, it is better wrapped up in denial. Major elements which are missing from this account are how the transition from overt to obfuscatory racism took place, and how numerical racism has embedded generalised hostility towards migrants while minimising overt hostility towards particular groups.
Martin Shaw is linked to Sussex and Roehampton universities and IBEI (Barcelona). His blog is martinshaw.org and he tweets @martinshawx.