‘Whiteness’ and imperial nostalgia in brexit Britain

by | May 21, 2019 | Migration, Racism/Xenphobia | 0 comments

by Tallulah Brennan

The battle to tackle Britain’s deep-rooted racism has thus far been long and unsuccessful. As of yet, no change in government, no border policies and most significantly, no EU referendums have done much to alleviate this struggle. In light of the Brexit vote, Britain has found itself questioning its place in the global order. From immigration policy to political institutions, there is a growing feeling that Britain has been rigged in historic imperial order. In this blog post, I will suggest that it is the inability of Britain to reconcile with its imperial past that has led to the sustaining of the structural racism it experiences today.

Let us turn first to racial ideology. ‘Whiteness’, as it stands, is the neutral standpoint from which we advance our theory of race as ‘difference’ or ‘Otherness’ (Haider, 2018).  The people that we describe as white – including historically oppressed peoples such as the Irish, Polish and many more – have complex and varied genetic lineages. Boundaries of whiteness are variable because the starting point of whiteness as a political formation is societal structural patterns, within which individual identity is constructed (Haider, 2018). This an extremely helpful lens through which to examine the xenophobia and racism currently experienced by Europeans in Britain. This is not to undermine the experiences of non-white migrants and British citizens since the referendum, rather to shed light on the complexity of racial ideology in modern Britain.

Policy-making has long been rooted in varying boundaries of ‘whiteness’. The creation of policies that benefited A8 migrants had the effect of making them white; policies which were beneficial to A2 migrants had the effect of making them less white.” (Botterill and Burrell, 2019). Eastern European migrants are in an ‘in-between’ position which is grounded in a colonial hierarchy. Being white, they may appear to be immune to racialised consequences, however, Brexit has reemphasised the idea that whiteness does indeed have variable boundaries. This is largely to do with imperial structures that have outlasted a post-colonial world. Colonialism works on the basis of the dichotomy of civilised and uncivilised. Whilst this is generally taken to mean Western vs non-Western, Botterill and Burrel note the postcolonial “positioning of north/west Europe and its ‘backward’, exotic eastern other”. Botterill and Burrell note that it “is impossible to consider the exposure of EU migrants to racism without simultaneously acknowledging the ongoing racism and discrimination experienced by the BAME population within this climate.” In the Immigration Acts of 1961 and 1962 (Fox et al, 2012), there was an attempt to shut the door on “coloured” migrants from the Commonwealth. In 2018, a government-driven mad by its desire to create a “hostile environment” deported what may be over 160 Windrush citizens. Within, British immigration policy, then, whiteness is applied to a degree, in accordance with the perpetuation of colonial attitudes.

If the institutional racism discussed here has been ahistorical presence in British society, then what role has Brexit played? Brexit – both the campaigns and the post-referendum discourse – has induced a particularly explicit imperial nostalgia amongst politicians, the media and the general public. Whilst colonial attitudes have long prevailed in Britain, they have not been so openly used as a vote-winning tactic until the referendum. Slogans such as ‘Put the Great back in Britain’, used both by UKIP and David Cameron, have re-emerged within the political consensus. In addition, even the left has accepted this consensus. The decision of the Labour Party to include an end to free movement in their 2017 manifesto and the decision to abstain and then U-turn on the government’s immigration bill shows the extent to which racist nationalism is embedded. Brexit has served as a reminder of Britain’s attitude towards anything foreign. White migrants have been made even more visible by the anti-immigrant sentiment that disregards them merely for being, fundamentally, not-British. The immigration debate in Britain is farcical. It is dominated by a neo-liberal consensus that has led to those advocating for immigration to discuss migrants’ value in economic terms and advancement for Britain, as opposed to championing their rights as human beings. Racism never disappears, it merely evolves. The same can be said for imperialism.

Britain’s current Brexit crisis has been created by pride in our colonial past. It is likely that in the years to come, it’s imperial past will remain unchallenged, and thus, Britain will continue to struggle with becoming a post-racial society. Whilst imperialist nostalgia is allowed to thrive, the racism that is rife in British society will only continue, and in doing so create a politics shaped by deeply racialised patterns of inequality.


References and further reading:

Adler, D. (2019). Why Labour is dangerously foolish to turn against freedom of movement. [online] Newstatesman.com. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/brexit/2019/02/why-labour-dangerously-foolishturn-against-freedom-movement.

Ahmed, P. (2019). David Cameron campaigns to put the Great back in Britain. [online] Telegraph.co.uk. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/davidcameron/8771077/David-Cameron-campaigns-to-put-the-Great-back-in-Britain.html [Accessed 11 Mar. 2019].

Botterill, K. and Burrell, K. (2019). (In)visibility, privilege and the performance of whiteness in Brexit Britain: Polish migrants in Britain’s shifting migration regime. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 37, pp.23-28.

Casalicchio, E. (2019). Paul Nuttall: Ukip will put the ‘Great’ back into Britain under my leadership. [online] PoliticsHome.com. Available at: https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/political-parties/uk-independenceparty/news/81243/paul-nuttall-ukip-will-put-great-back

Fox, J., Moroşanu, L. and Szilassy, E. (2012). The Racialization of the New European Migration to the UK. Sociology, 46(4), pp.680-695.

Haider, A. (2018). Mistaken Identity, Race and Class in the Age of Trump. Verso, Chapter 3: Racial Ideology, p.44-48


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