The referendum in the UK to leave the European Union has made news around the globe, and appears to have taken a lot of people by surprise. The rhetoric of those who supported a Brexit from the EU is largely framed in terms of national autonomy; they wanted to leave the EU so that they could regain sovereignty and “take their country back”. In their minds, the EU drains resources from the UK, it is unnecessary bureaucracy, it is corrupt. Free from the confines of the EU, the UK can finally make its own decisions about what is best for the UK.
But when you look at who supported Leave, and how the Leave campaign was constructed, it seems less about sovereignty and more about economic disenfranchisement and scapegoating.
First, let’s look at who supported the Brexit. Politico has very straight-forward graphs showing the pro-Leave voters were older, less educated, and rural. These are typical demographics for voters that tend to support anti-immigrant, pro-nationalist policies. They also tend to be voters that have been left behind by global capitalist expansion and are susceptible to claims that immigrants (and broadly any policies that increase diversity) are to blame for their economic situation.
The Politico story also shows the overwhelming support for Brexit among UKIP voters. UKIP is an ultra-nationalist party in the UK that is notoriously anti-immigrant. The UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, has claimed that his party is not anti-immigrant, and that immigrants are not the problem but rather the immigration system is faulty. However, Farage has called for a five-year ban on immigrants entering the UK for permanent settlement, so I don’t know how you can have that has a policy platform and still call yourself NOT anti-immigrant.
The Leave campaign also used xenophobia very effectively, and not surprisingly a lot of that campaign material came from UKIP. Here are just a few samples:
The “they’re stealing our jobs!” meme is always popular.
Turkey is so far away from joining the EU, despite the EU waving that like a carrot in front of Erdoğan every time they want him to do something, I don’t even know what to make of this particular scare tactic.
This is the poster that raised the most ire. It does not even bother with dog whistling; it just goes full-on xenophobic. And Islamophobic as well, with the stream of Arab-looking male faces, which represent in the minds of so many white Westerners the face of terrorism. Look at all those terrorists that are going to enter our country if we do not leave the EU! Nigel standing in front of the poster is a nice touch.
If you have any doubts that Brexit was a victory for xenophobia, you need only observe all the xenophobic behavior that has come out of the proverbial woodwork, like worms squirming out of rot. Heaven Crawley (a migration scholar at Coventry University in the UK) has tweeted about this, and been inundated with xenophobic responses to her calling out xenophobia. Brexit was undergirded by xenophobia, and its victory emboldened those who have long wanted to tell immigrants, Muslims, and anyone that they saw as foreign to get out.
That is not to say that everyone who voted for Brexit is anti-immigrant. But most were vulnerable to subtle and not-so-subtle anti-immigrant arguments. They were vulnerable to scapegoating. Looking at the remain campaign, there was not enough messaging about the real problems that plague those older, less educated, rural voters. Granted, Cameron was not in a good position to do that, as he has been a proponent of neo-liberal capitalist policies that have left those folks behind in the first place. And he and the Conservatives have used anti-immigrant sentiment in their campaigns against Labour. So the Brexit results are a bit of the chickens coming home to roost.
There are lessons in that for the GOP in the US. But that is for another post.