The Challenges Raised by Brexit
Tony Trueman, British Sociological Association, UK
The Manchester conference in 2019 was the third ESA conference in the United Kingdom (after events in 1997 in Essex and 2007 in Glasgow), and, notably, took place in the midst of Brexit – the UK’s departure from the EU, although not of all its citizens: The plight of the UK’s overseas citizens has been ignored in the furore over Brexit, and the referendum vote was more to do with the unfinished business of the British Empire than with the European Union. Those were the arguments put forward at the Manchester Semi-Plenary “Nationalism, Europe, and Brexit”, co-organised by the then ESA President Sue Scott, and the BSA President Susan Halford.
Missed the special event? In what follows, we take a look at topical sociology in action...
Britain’s overseas citizens – emigrants settled outside the UK and citizens of its former colonies and overseas territories – have been conspicuously absent in debates about Brexit, Dr Michaela Benson said.
“In turning to British citizens overseas I want to talk about how these are forgotten and neglected in contemporary understandings as to who counts as British,” Dr Benson told the event. “In remembering how they are forgotten we can reveal further the contemporary boundaries of belonging. We need to think about Britishness from beyond the island nation, which has seen so much public and political discourse – this is not just a challenge for the public, but it is also a challenge for us as critical social scientists.”
Dr Benson, of Goldsmiths, said that when we talked about British citizens living overseas “they are very much mischaracterised”:
“Who do you think of when I say the phrase ‘Brits abroad’? For most people they would tell me about pensioners or ‘little England by the sea’, or gin and tonics, verandas – if you thought of those you wouldn’t be alone in those preconceptions. This is reproduced in the way that members of Parliament discuss the future rights of British citizens living overseas in a time of Brexit and in the way the media depicts these overseas Britons. We know that an estimated five million British people live outside the UK. Let’s remember that British overseas citizens are as diverse as the British population as a whole and include those born in Britain’s overseas and independent territories, albeit that they have different claims to and rights ascribed to their citizenship.
The contemporary emigration rate from Britain is one of the highest in the world per capita and yet our national conversation about migration, as we saw reflected in the Brexit vote, never really reflects on this.
And this is where changing understanding can help us disrupt the shape of a British nationalism that is closely allied to the island nation and that has been reproduced time and again on research on Brexit. The story of Britain as a migration nation is one that should also focus on Britain as an emigrant nation, past and present.
Since 2017 I have been conducting research about Brexit and what this means for British citizens living in the EU 27.  One of the things that we have done is to engage in a critical analysis of key trends in the way that the national media, politicians and policy-makers describe these overseas citizens. Our analysis makes really clear that they are sidelined within public political debate in the UK about Brexit, and when they do appear misconceptions circulate.
Cynically, I would like to say that this is wilful. This sits within the context where British citizens overseas are excluded from the British polity, and it’s only since 1985 that British citizens who live outside of Great Britain have had voting rights. Since Brexit we have seen a relative lack of support offered by the British government to their citizens living in the EU and this is a really stark contrast to how other EU governments think about their citizens living in the UK. Looking at the case of British citizens abroad and how they are discussed in the UK Parliament adds further support to understandings that stress the political construction of contemporary British identity and citizenship as allied to an island nation. British citizens living in the EU are presented as traitors leaving Britain undeserving of support from the British government, and as self interested when supporting Britain remaining in the EU.”
She said that not all British citizens were created equal. “There are so many categories of British citizens in circulation at the moment. For people who have British citizenship for being born in overseas territories, for example, they are not entitled to EU freedom of movement rights, and there are various degrees to which they are permitted the right to reside in Britain, which really starts to demonstrate how fractured that category in law is.”
Also speaking at the event was Professor Gurminder Bhambra, University of Sussex, who said that it was the colonial histories of Europe that had produced its multicultural present.
“A multiculturalism that over the past few years any number of European leaders have declared to have failed – but what does it mean to say that multiculturalism has failed when it is colonialism that has created multicultural empires and hence multicultural European societies?” she said.
“Much of the debate about Brexit turns precisely on the question of reclaiming our national sovereignty. I have argued many times that the British state has never been a national state, only ever an imperial one. Britain wasn’t formed until 1707, when the kingdoms of England and Scotland entered into union. Both England and Scotland already had colonies, including that of Ireland and those of the so-called New World. They went on to establish an empire that covered a quarter of the world’s area and over one fifth of its population including, by the 1920s, over one half of the world’s Muslims.
British people never had to deal with what it meant going from a global empire to becoming a small state dealing as an equal with other small states. It has never had to properly account for its colonial past or navigate that legacy in the present. If we think about the response of the British elite to Europe, it has been one of resentment at having to treat others as equals, and I would suggest that part of Brexit is about that. It is this fundamental inequality which is at the heart of the British state and institutions and at the heart of its self-understanding of supposedly good government that I suggest is the legacy of empire. It’s a legacy which other European colonial powers fail to acknowledge. The migration of European populations to the New World, to Australia, to South Africa and elsewhere helped create European wealth.
Brexit had little to do with the European Union, it has much more to do with the unfinished legacies of the British Empire. It was not a vote of disenchanted white working class concerned about issues of austerity and welfare and the remoteness of Westminster. It was much more a vote of a white middle class looking to reclaim symbolic greatness in a world that has moved on from empire.
In the sense of Europe as a whole participating in colonialism, I think there is sufficient evidence of Europe being a colonial continent. And not only being a colonial continent, but the establishment of the EU itself being an explicitly colonial project. I would talk about the anti-democratic aspect of the establishment of the European Union, to the extent that one of the key founders of the EU talked about bringing Africa as a dowry to Europe. After the devastation of the second world war, the only way that Europe would be able to rebuild itself was effectively to take the land, labour and resources of Africa. It wasn’t simply the coming together of colonial countries in Europe that constitutes the colonialism of the European Union, but the very establishment of the European Union itself was done as an explicitly colonial anti-democratic project and something that we need to address.”
Professor Max Haller, of the University of Graz, said that European integration had achieved some important aims, but not all those that had been ascribed to it, and that the integration achieved so far had not been pursued democratically.
Instead of a ‘United States of Europe’ as a final aim of the EU, there existed an alternative, viable vision of European integration which could be attractive for Britain also, irrespective of whether it would remain a member or not, he said.
This vision was that of a socio-economic community of law. As part of this, the EU should slim down many of its present institutions and strengthen its elements of citizen’s initiatives.
He said that a unified, centrally run Europe would not necessarily bring stability. “China shows that unity does not bring peace necessarily,” he said. “I would not say the EU is anti-democratic, but it is not very democratic and the solution must be, in my view that the EU must restrict itself in its aims, it cannot become a fully federal state.”
Dr Vanessa Thompson, of Goethe-University Frankfurt, Germany, said that there had been calls for a return to class politics in response to the crises in Europe.
“The narrative falls like this: the left needs to refocus on the neglected class – the worries of the working class – and not pay too much attention to [race and ethnic] identity.”
But, in fact, a large proportion of the white middle class voted for Brexit in the UK and for Trump in the US, so the idea of this being caused solely by economic hardship was wrong, she said.
In her concluding remarks, Professor Sue Scott said: “It’s difficult to be hopeful in the context of the thing we are talking about but we must continue whatever happens – the most important thing is that, whatever barriers and boundaries have grown between us, we continue to understand, explain and challenge the kinds of issues and problems that have been raised by our excellent speakers today.”
 Dr Benson’s project brexitbritsabroad.org features an archive of Brexit testimonies of British people living in the EU.
This article is a reprint from Network, the magazine of the British Sociological Association, issue 133, Autumn 2019, pp. 14-15 (‘We must challenge the problems raised by Brexit’).
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