Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Great British Break-Off: what role did national identity and 'Britishness' play in the Brexit decision?

Now that the dust’s kind of settling over Brexit (lets ignore the court decision over Article 50 for a second, and don’t even mention the US election), I thought that it would be worth taking a look at the reasons for one of the closest and most devastating results of my lifetime. As I write this, there are any number of motivations behind the referendum result that are interesting, but the one that fascinates and concerns me most is the rise in and deployment of Nationalist rhetoric throughout the duration of the ‘Leave’ campaign, and the subsequent continuation of these ideas in recent months. 

Credit: Chris (Simpsons Artist).  So wrong but so right.

As I said, the decision to leave the EU has been influenced by a kaleidoscope of reasons, but concerns about immigration, national identity, and the accompanying deep-seated cultural divide have provided the most compelling illustration of the chasm at the heart of British politics. The Conservative Party in particular seemed to suffer the most at the hands of the rhetoric of ‘Divided Britain’ due to the very public conflicts of interests amongst its senior members, and as a consequence were blamed in part for the result on June 23rd.

This theme of division is one that I’ll carry forward in this post because it provides an interesting, if depressing, framing of Brexit, and allows me to explore a little bit of what it means to be ‘British’ in a post-European mind-set. Key to this exploration are notions of memory and national identity, due to the ways in which the media juxtaposed nostalgic ‘Britishness’ with the risk of cosmopolitan, multicultural encroachment on ‘British’ cultural space by continued association with the EU. 

The nature of political rhetoric in the United Kingdom illustrates the instrumental role that this compromised nostalgia plays in the creation of the ‘national story’. Preston suggests that in the context of the fragmentary contemporary world, such as the one that faces us now, the sense of a shared ‘national past’ allows people to create meaning in the face of new cultural uncertainties (Preston, 2004). 

This manifests most obviously in cultural institutions such as the Royal Family and the Armed Forces. Indeed, the very suggestion that not wearing a poppy in Remembrance is in any way ‘unBritish’ demonstrates the power of the national cultural norms that we as a country have adopted over the decades since the Armistice. 

However, I digress. That being said, it is these cultural concessions that serve as a kind of ideological brace against the contradictions of diverse, globalized cultural threats, and that serve as points of reference for outrage when ‘others’ transgress against the perceived concrete ideals of our nation.

Credit to Mark Thomas/Rex/Shutterstock/ The Guardian. Please don’t sue me.

The shadowy figure of immigration was one that proved to be a particularly effective point of reference for equally shadowy political groups such as UKIP (who recently exported Nigel Farage to the USA, thus spreading the tide of the apocalypse with Trump’s victory, but enough about that…). 

Their campaign targeted the perceived ‘Breaking Point’ of public services and suggested that the EU would allow further immigration to an essential point of no return, creating a handy spectral figure for sovereign, self-governing Britain to exorcise. The urge to ‘take back control’, then, played upon national fears about Britain’s lack of self-governance under European rule and invoked ‘old character types’ (Preston, 2004), sparking the conflict between glorious industrial Britain and meddling bureaucratic Europe (Maggie who?).

In decimated agricultural and industrial regions such as the North East, concerns about marginalized British labourers and overwhelming, EU mediated regulations were cited as powerful incentives to vote Leave. This was reflected throughout the region, with eleven areas in the North East designation turning out with substantial majorities in favour of leaving the EU (BBC, 2016). 

The vote allowed sentiments of marginalization and frustration to reverberate throughout the political landscape, and Jean Seaton would argue that it is precisely political situations such as these that allow for exposure of the divide between the needs of the people, and the official institutions that fail to represent them. 

Seaton’s analysis of Brexit points to the ways in which communities no longer feel that their experiences are reflected back to them by the media or by mainstream political interests, and thus are most vulnerable to a sense of loss in terms of community, cultural and national identity (Seaton, 2016).  Therefore, it makes sense that the call to regain control would resonate with these groups, who sought to reinstall a sense of power over their own lives and communities.

It is these notions of self and community that are useful when understanding how collective memory and identity were galvanised throughout much of the referendum campaign. The media is especially important to the creation and endorsement of these models of nationalised identity; culture, after all, is “unthinkable without media” (Erll, 2011), and the particular framing of the British cultural narrative is a potent example of the power of the press in times of uncertainty. 

The historic primacy of the white, British majority position has very reliably served to cultivate a nostalgia for heroic Britain through focus on national symbols such as the Royal Family, the Armed Forces and the symbolic Poppy. This idealisation of the victorious, powerful ‘Anglo-British tale’ (Preston, 2004) brings with it the connotations of the glory of Empire, in which Britain did as it pleased, and places those who are not British in an antagonistic state of ‘otherness’. This binary is further encouraged by the media; the white British majority are placed in opposition with the multi-ethnic narratives of those who have settled in the United Kingdom. 

Black (2016) addresses the way in which news media tends to reinforce British cultural Nationalism, and envisions the experiences of those who are not British as additional to the dominant national history, rather than as complexly interwoven with the legacies of British power. This separatism manifests itself in the most banal ways, such as the perceived righteous outrage at Nadia’s Bake Off victory in 2015 (apparently being from a British Bangladeshi family and baking cakes for the Queen isn’t British enough for the Right Wing), but all the same illustrates that the news media has encouraged a very particular vision of Britishness. 

The discursive framing of the instabilities of multi-ethnic Britain serves as an ideological challenge to multicultural Britain by provoking fears about the “creeping cultural fragmentation” that this would encourage. For Right Wing media outlets such as The Daily Mail, who advocate for more rigorous immigration policies, multi-ethnic integration threatens the ‘British cultural fabric’, and thus must be discouraged in order to protect the identity and resources of the British people.
What does all of this have to do with the EU? 

Since I veered off, it’s best to head back in that general direction. Throughout the referendum, the insistent repetition of ‘borders’, the impact of migrants , and the provocation of fears about Turkey’s accession to the EU were key resources in the Leave campaign’s rhetoric of division and defence. 

Turkey’s geopolitical position in the East of Europe resurrects the spectre of terror that has hung over Western culture for the past fifteen years, with fears about undocumented waves of potential terrorists a particularly meaty topic for many news outlets. These anxieties have been mobilised by outlets such as The Express, who warn of the dangers inherent in “the flood of migration that would make the existing stream look like a trickle”. 

Concerns about the application of the free movement policy to Turkey, should its entrance into the European bloc be successful, are increasingly framed in terms of what Clark calls the ‘Islamic question’ in his editorial, and his focus on Turkey’s ‘slide back into Sharia Law’ prompts questions as to whether the Right Wing considers Turkey to be too ‘Islamic’ to join the Western political conglomerate of the European Union (Clark, 2016). 

This, of course, highlights the difficult historical relationship between the cultural West and its homogenous portrayals of Islam; the tendency to position the latter as the enemy of Western democracy has served to legitimate the othering of Muslim populations in the UK in the name of defending British cultural values.

This conflict of interests, in which multiculturalism is seen to have failed, is expressed in frustrations about the encroachment of political correctness on the expression of British culture; stories abound in the media in which British people are offended by the requirement to remove flags, clothing and other paraphernalia that express or could be seen to indicate Nationalist sentiments. 

It is this effacement of national pride that serves as a cornerstone for the re-ignition of Nationalist populism, and it is possible to draw parallels between the outrages of overzealous political correctness in the United Kingdom, and the surge in Nationalism in countries such as the United States of America and Germany, where the dominant culture is also seen to be threatened by immigration and multiculturalism. 

Therefore, although concerns about the Muslim population are not a direct cause of the British decision to leave the European Union, the resultant reinforcement of’ Britishness’ against cultural threat is metonymic of the very concerns that have been mapped onto the influx of Polish, Croatian and other Eastern European migrants who are also seen to threaten British identity. 

The common figure of the ‘Eastern European’ criminal, it could be argued, has become the folk devil of the Brexit age, due to the media’s evocation of this provocative image, and the subsequent need to defend ourselves from this threat.

Although national identity does not serve as cultural monolith, it is worth considering its power as a discursive resource when notions of individual consciousness are threatened. The closeness of the referendum result and the contradictions within the demographic of each voting collective demonstrate that the decision to leave the EU was neither light-hearted nor simple. 

However it may be argued that in the face of concerns about what it means to be British, alongside increasing anxieties about racism, Nationalism and conflict, the narrative of collective memory and identity provides a potent framing of the referendum result.

BBC News. “EU Referendum: Almost all North East areas vote for Brexit”, BBC News, June 24th, 2016.

Black, Jack, “Celebrating British multiculturalism, lamenting England’s/ Britain’s past”, Nations and Nationalism, no. 22, issue 4 (2016): 786-802.

Clark, Ross, “Migrant Crisis may aid Turkish bid for EU membership, says Ross Clark”, The Express, March 8th, 2016.

Erll, Astrid, Memory in Culture. Translated from the German by Sara Young. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Preston, P.W, Relocating England: Englishness in the New Europe. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004.

Seaton, Jean. “Brexit and the Media”, The Political Quarterly, no.87, issue 3 (2016): 333-337.
Stewart, Heather and Rowena Mason, “Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police”, The Guardian, June 12th 2016.

The Electoral Commission. “EU Referendum results. The Electoral Commission.

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