Don't let them whitewash Brexit

The Brexit vote is far better understood within the context of Britain's ugly history of anti-immigration politics
The Brexit vote is far better understood within the context of Britain's ugly history of anti-immigration politics

By Paul Stocker

Since the EU referendum, Brexiters have desperately sought to maintain that the vote to leave had nothing to do with bigotry.

Douglas Carswell argued that Brexit was "not an angry nativist xenophobic vote" but "won precisely because it was an argument about Britain being open, internationalist, generous, and globalist". Michael Gove, aboard a special Sun on Sunday boat destined to deliver a mock, 6-foot Article 50 in person to Brussels (no, me neither), boldly proclaimed: "Soon the whole country will be setting sail with our eyes fixed on a broad new horizon as Britain goes global".

So there you have it. Brexit was not about Polish plumbers, Muslim refugees or even 'taking back control', but a cosmopolitan vision which sought to integrate Britain further into the wider world.


This rose-tinted vision of Brexit, where Britain's vote had more to do with internationalism than nativism, has its advocates and a decades-long intellectual history on the Tory right. But this was not the vision offered to voters during the referendum campaign. The free movement of people in the EU and immigration more broadly was the single biggest issue on the table. Eighty-eight per cent of those desiring fewer immigrants into the country plumped for Leave. One week prior to the vote, Ipsos MORI found that 54% of likely Leave voters considered immigration to be the most important issue guiding their vote. In another poll, over 80% of Brexit voters believed multiculturalism, immigration and social liberalism are a force for ill. In the final weeks of the official Vote Leave campaign, there was precious little said about 'global Britain' and much more about immigration and 'taking back control'.

The Brexit vote is far better understood within the context of Britain's ugly history of anti-immigration politics, as opposed to the mass embrace of globalisation or a nostalgic, conservative embrace of Empire. My book, English Uprising: Brexit and the Mainstreaming of the Far Right (Melville House UK), looks at the vote within this frame. The most salient point to take comes from understanding Britain's relationship with immigrants: the country has rarely welcomed outsiders.

When the Irish arrived en masse, they were met with widespread hostility from those who viewed them as competition for jobs and housing. Before he became prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli described the Irish as a "wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race [who] have no sympathy with the English character". The next wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century – principally Jewish – was met with similar anger. Britain's first far-right political mobilisation, the rabble-rousing British Brothers League (BBL), was formed as a direct response to Jewish immigration and had the support of numerous Tory MPs. The early 20th century saw the beginnings of more confrontational, street-based anti-immigration politics. One speaker at a BBL rally bellowed in front of a baying crowd that Britain was becoming "the dumping ground for the scum of Europe". Enough to make one wince, but not a million miles from the sentiment expressed during the referendum campaign.

Despite immigration to Britain occurring for centuries, the country's foreign-born and non-white population was miniscule until 1948. This did not stop organisations such as the BBL as well as fascist movements in the interwar period railing against the pernicious influence of Jews and foreigners in society, as well as the notion of Britain becoming swamped with immigrants.

There's a crucial lesson here. Throughout history, scapegoats have been pointed at regardless of their numbers in proportion to natives. This suggests that Leavers are wrong when they say the Brexit vote was a reasonable response to 'open borders' or 'mass immigration', or that a post-Brexit reduction in migration is likely to sate the sceptics.

Britain truly become a multiracial society following Commonwealth immigration in the wake of the Second World War. There was a consistent backlash and immigration became an important national issue. Opinion polls regularly showed overwhelming scepticism of immigration – both in areas with large levels of immigration as well as those with little. Yet, a sort of political consensus, based on the combination of immigration control and race relations legislation, existed between the Labour and Conservative party, which at the time relegated radical critics such as Enoch Powell to the fringes. Nevertheless, governments obsessed themselves with stemming immigration. No less than three acts of immigration control appeared in under a decade between 1962 and 1971.

None had the desired effect of vastly curbing the numbers coming in or quelling public dissatisfaction. Politicians very rarely explained the benefits of immigration or why it was happening, but they did confirm the suspicions of sceptics by consistently seeking to reduce it. When Ted Heath introduced the Immigration Act of 1971 – one of the strictest acts of immigration control in British history – it did not reduce inward migration dramatically (which continued at around 200,000 per year). Shortly after the Act, the extremist National Front underwent a rare period of success for the far right in Britain.

Appeasing the nationalist right rarely works – something which David Cameron failed to understand with his own attempts to curb immigration through clamping down on 'health tourism' or the offer of a EU referendum.

The extreme right British National Party (BNP) began to pick up dozens of seats at local elections between 2002 and 2009 and started to look as it might secure a significant breakthrough on an anti-immigration ticket. Tabloids railed against the party's rise and its Nazi origins, without ever pondering the fact that their daily dose of anti-immigrant scare stories had contributed significantly to its growth. The party collapsed after the 2010 general election, but it wasn't their critique of multiculturalism or immigration that failed. Their brand, much like the National Front, was tainted by fascism. They were always doomed to flop. But as James Forsyth predicted in The Telegraph at the time: "Someone else, more plausible and with less baggage, will come along and seriously advance the BNP's vile agenda." Enter Ukip.

Ukip picked up from where the BNP left off in criticising elites, immigration and multiculturalism. No one could deny they were filling a demand which had been around for decades. The party and their charismatic leader Nigel Farage brought anti-immigration politics from the margins to the mainstream. Rather than confront a growing attack on the British liberal tradition, the Conservative-led government decided to co-opt their ideas and rhetoric. Everything from Cameron's 'multiculturalism has failed' speech to Theresa May's Go Home vans appeared to confirm what first the BNP, and then Ukip, had been telling people.

When the EU referendum arrived, the Leave side's strategy was straight out of the far-right playbook and drew inspiration from Ukip. Think of Michael Gove's bizarre criticism of elites or "experts", Boris Johnson's description of US President Barack Obama as "half-Kenyan" or Leave.EU's Breaking Point poster. All spoke to the fears of large swathes of the country who believed multiculturalism was being imposed upon them by a detached elite and who had been growing increasingly sceptical of immigration as the referendum approached. The Leave victory was no far-right coup d’état, but demonstrated the extent to which their ideas had penetrated mainstream political culture. 

The Brexit vision which prevailed in June last year was not open, tolerant or global but deeply nativist. We must not let the winners re-write the history of Brexit.

Dr Paul Stocker is a historian of the far right in Britain and a Research Associate at Teesside University's Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist Studies.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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