Lonely Island in Big World: Brexit as Imperial Fantasy

The citizens of Eastern European countries felt at home in Great Britain. It seemed a fulfilment of dreams, the place where normality reigned. The referendum showed how false our illusions had been.

When on the post-referendum morning I came to work, students— both British and international—came to me with apologies and expressions of solidarity, my colleagues from Europe were unnaturally quiet, some had tears in their eyes (it sounds melodramatic, but it was so). When a student from a country where political violence is widespread expressed her sympathy, I felt that all that was a bit inappropriate. We, Europeans in Great Britain, are not put in concentration camps or deported (although the number of EU citizens in British deportation centers has radically increased under the rule of the Conservative Party).

Besides general hostility displayed by some part of the British, besides occasional acts of violence (fortunately very rare), besides the decision of the British government to treat EU citizens as the most powerful bargaining chip in negotiations with the Union, objectively speaking our situation—the situation of EU citizens—has not markedly changed.

One thing did change – we are now regarded as aliens, we were removed from a diverse crowd and put in the spotlight. For people who previously felt to be an integral part of the British society this was shocking. But in the case of Poles or generally people from the former socialist countries such shock is a sign of poor memory. It is enough to talk for a while with those who travelled to Great Britain—often to work there illegally—in the times when Poland was not part of the EU to become aware that the border officials in this country can be very unpleasant. It is enough to talk to any non-white resident of Great Britain to understand that the racist and xenophobic instincts have never fully disappeared from this country.

Citizens of Eastern European countries felt at home in Great Britain, for many this country seemed a fulfilment of dreams: compared to the corruption and the standard of living we knew from our own countries, Great Britain seemed the place where normality reigned.

Citizens of Eastern European countries (before the EU accession) felt at home in Great Britain (until the moment they started to speak – a foreign accent can very rarely be concealed), for many this country seemed a fulfilment of dreams: compared to the corruption and the standard of living we knew from our own countries, Great Britain seemed the place where normality— so much desired by us—reigned. The referendum on Britain’s leaving the European Union showed how false our illusions had been.

Immigration as the Most Important Problem for the British Society

The campaign run by the extreme right (in Sheffield where I live a UKIP car drove the streets and called through a megaphone to “throw off the yoke of German occupation”) had been for years prepared by right-wing tabloids but also by mainstream politicians, who said repeatedly that immigration was a problem. It is worth remembering that non-British EU citizens constitute about 5% of the population, which does not differ much from the number of European foreigners living in Spain, Ireland, Iceland, or Norway. But in these countries it would be difficult to find mainstream political groupings that would be as openly xenophobic as the British Tories or (to an unfortunately large extent) the Labour Party.

The climax of the pre-referendum verbal aggression was the killing of Jo Cox, a Labour MP, by a right-wing fanatic. Still, if someone predicted (as some of my friends did) that this murder would lead to a sobering up of the British media and politicians, it was a great miscalculation. After a moment of hesitation everything went back to “normal” – right-wing tabloids kept attacking immigrants and the European Union.

It is not quite clear to what extent it was the question of the attitude towards the immigrants which determined the referendum result, but there is no doubt that almost the entire British political class decided that Brexit meant above all “we don’t want strangers here.” Not only the populist right-wing UKIP, not only an overwhelming majority of the Conservative Party, but also a significant part of the Labour Party decided that the issue of immigration constituted the most important problem for the British society.

Campaigning against Brexit were all British Nobel Prize winners, heads of all British universities, scores of experts and academics. As we know, these appeals did not help and almost 52% of the voters supported Britain’s leaving of the EU. It may seem astonishing that although before the referendum a majority of MPs regarded Brexit as a bad solution for the country, when (after a long campaign in court) the government was forced to ask Parliament for its opinion on this matter, an overwhelming majority supported Brexit. Almost all Conservative MPs and a large majority of Labour MPs decided that the people had spoken and its voice must be respected – but the people means only 52% of the voters, the voice of the remaining 48% was (almost) entirely ignored.

It is also significant that an overwhelming majority of MPs voted against the guarantee to preserve the right of residence and work for EU citizens currently living in Great Britain, which only confirms my claim about an almost universal acceptance of the xenophobic narrative by a majority of the English political class. Voting for the guarantee were the Liberal Democrats, one Green MP, some Labour MPs, a handful of conservatives as well as Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

In the discussion about the politics of the United Kingdom you have to differentiate between England and Great Britain. Both the local government of Wales (despite the fact that the Welsh voted for leaving the EU) and Scotland (where a majority wanted to stay in the union) strongly supported guaranteeing EU citizens now living in these countries their current status. Interestingly, in Scotland SNP nationalists reign supreme, and in Wales one of the most ardent defenders of the rights of the Europeans is the leader of Welsh nationalists from the Plaid Cymru party.

As we can see, there are various kinds of nationalisms – also of inclusive nature, where nationalism is of course connected with the community of culture and tradition, but is above all based on the community of life, on the community of inhabiting a particular territory. English nationalism is a “nationalism of blood,” it is a community of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants with generations of ancestors living in the same place. This is why on the website of the Scottish Nationalists you can read a letter from a Polish woman who feels “at home” in Scotland, while a similar letter on the website of UKIP or even the Conservative Party is difficult to imagine.

An Unrealistic Narrative About a Global Great Britain

Another element of English nationalism is a nostalgia for the Empire. For the stories of Theresa May about a “global Great Britain” are in fact a dream about a return to the times of Queen Victoria. This narrative has little to do with reality. When the president of the University of Sheffield returned from a visit with the government delegation to India, he wrote with horror that the policy of the British government towards foreign students was very badly received in India. So why is the British government hoping that India will be eager to sign trade agreements advantageous for the British? Especially since both India and Great Britain mostly export their services, so these two countries are “natural” competitors on the global markets.

I teach international students who have to pay more than £18,000 of school fees to study in Great Britain, so we can safely assume that they originate from the social and economic elites of their countries. My students are children of business people, politicians, cultural operators, and academics – in a word, elites. When they come to their families and tell them about the hostile treatment, day-to-day xenophobia, and anti-immigrant narrative of the media and politicians, will their families look favorably on Great Britain?

Especially that we are speaking mostly about countries which used to be British colonies – does Great Britain appealing to the imperial past and “liberating itself from European bondage” really hope that this “we have our dignity” narrative will not be countered by a similar “we have our dignity” answer in India, China, or Kenya?

It may seem astonishing that although before the referendum a majority of MPs regarded Brexit as a bad solution for the country, when the government was forced to ask Parliament for its opinion on this matter, an overwhelming majority supported Brexit.

The future of the UK seems to be a foregone conclusion – today all the main political forces in the country unanimously say that there is no return and that “Brexit means Brexit.” The British seem to completely overlook the difficulties and dangers awaiting them, and they seem even less aware that the anti-British sentiment in the European Union starts to be an instrument of a new liberal pro-European populism (perhaps the best example of that are Emanuel Macron’s increased chances for the French presidency). So Great Britain faces a period of uncertainty, which will definitely not strengthen the British economy.

Another element of English nationalism is a nostalgia for the Empire. For the stories of Theresa May about a “global Great Britain” are in fact a dream about a return to the times of Queen Victoria. This narrative has little to do with reality.

We still do not really know what Great Britain will look like after leaving the European Union. The “leave” camp had no strategy, no idea for how Brexit should look like. Nigel Farage admitted that openly. Announcing the referendum, David Cameron also did not consider leaving the EU – he was concerned only with internal conflicts in the party and neutralizing the UKIP.

When the British voted for leaving the union, both the supporters of remaining in the EU and the more reasonable leaders of leave.eu panicked. Cameron resigned from the office of prime minister, passing on the official announcement about leaving the EU to his successor.

The Threat to the UK Is Not the EU, but Global Markets

Before the referendum I was convinced that the British would vote for Brexit, but would in fact remain in the EU. That they would leave it symbolically, as the cost of a real rupture would turn out to be too large. Today it is still a possible but increasingly less likely scenario. Leaving the EU is unimaginably costly for the UK – years of negotiations both with the EU and other countries of the world are on the one hand an incredible administrative cost, and on the other hand years of uncertainty, meaning that people will be putting off signing agreements and making investments. Added to this uncertainty is the rebelling Scotland and Northern Ireland, furious London and young people (who overwhelmingly voted for remaining in the EU).

The threat to the UK is not the EU but global markets, as they will pounce on the weak British economy: it should be remembered that 10% of the British economy are banks and financial services (the City) – which will now play with Great Britain like cats with a dying sparrow. And yet it seems to me that there really is no return. EU politicians have sensed that Another element of English nationalism is a nostalgia for the Empire. For the stories of Theresa May about a “global Great Britain” are in fact a dream about a return to the times of Queen Victoria. This narrative has little to do with reality. they can profit a lot from the anti-British sentiment, that the difficult situation of Great Britain outside the EU (alongside with the new US president) is the best scare, strengthening pro-EU moods of the European citizens.

The threat to the UK is not the EU but global markets, as they will pounce on the weak British economy.

In Great Britain you can hardly see anyone who would like to pronounce himself or herself against Brexit. The former Prime Minister Tony Blair did that recently, saying that the whole referendum was based on lies, but coming from someone who sent British soldiers to the war in Iraq on the basis of a lie about weapons of mass destruction it does not sound convincing. So Great Britain will leave the European Union.

What does it mean for its citizens living here? It seems to me that they should not hope for matters to “somehow arrange themselves.” Deportation of over 3 million people is of course very unlikely, but making their lives difficult seems almost certain. Starting from the loss of political rights (as EU citizens we had the right to vote in local elections), through possible restraints in taking advantage of the British welfare state (or what remains of it). I assume that the right of residence will be tied to employment – so it will be a situation similar to that in which employees from non-European countries find themselves.

People who have a job will be (it is already happening now) blackmailed by their employers with the specter of losing it, which is not dangerous for specialists and professionals, but for middle and lower level workers could be extremely unpleasant. The xenophobic narrative will not end, for during the crisis it is the only mechanism which can offer the Conservative Party a chance for winning the election again (given the current weakness of the Labour Party it should not be particularly difficult). A growing number of the EU citizens living in Britain is becoming aware of that, more and more nervously considering a return to Europe. We believe that we have a place to come back to, that the EU is and will be our home.

Krzysztof Nawratek

Krzysztof Nawratek is a theoretician of the city, lecturer on architecture, director of M.A. studies at the Plymouth University, UK. He published three books: “Ideologie w przestrzeni” ([Ideologies in space], Kraków 2005), „Miasto jako idea polityczna” (Kraków 2008, English edition, City as a Political Idea, Plymouth 2011) and “Dziury w Całym. Wstęp do miejskich rewolucji” (Warszawa 2011, English edition, Holes in the Whole: Introduction to Urban Revolutions, Washington 2012). He writes a blog: http://krzysztofnawratek.blox.pl .

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