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Brexit From Below: Nation, Race and Class
The following article first appeared in print in Salvage #10: The Disorder of the Future, our Spring/Summer 2021 issue. It appeared alongside another piece ‘Brexit From Above: British Capital and the Tensions in Global Capital Accumulation’. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDF versions of all issues, and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here. They begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.
In the closing stages of the 2019 election, a symbolic spectre slipped into the political lexicon. The ‘Red Wall’, this impenetrable fortress, had fallen. This pollster creation represented the latest in a long-list of descriptors – the ‘white working-class’ and the ‘metropolitan elite’ among others – by which people had come to understand political phenomena through a culturalist lens. Brexit and the ascension of Boris Johnson to office accentuated the currency of these clichés, but these two political events would not have been possible without decades of policy and spin to this effect too. Whether it was Michael Howard’s bemoaning of Eastern European migration, or New Labour’s assault on asylum seeker and minority communities, politicians have actively sought to shape the conversation in a nationalist and racialising manner, whilst portraying themselves as merely responding to public pressure.
A key uncertainty has been who we talk about when we talk about Brexit, and how we imagine them. Some, like Danny Dorling and Sue Tomlinson, in their book Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, characterise the Brexit vote as driven by post-colonial nostalgia and a failure to reckon with the ghosts of empire. That has a clear class component, it seems, in petit-bourgeois sentimentality. They claim that not only was the Leave vote predominantly restricted to the South of England, but of ‘those who voted Leave, 59 per cent were middle-class (often labelled as A, B, or C1) and only 41 per cent were working-class (labelled C2, D, or E)’. Similarly, they explain, the ‘proportion of Leave voters who were of the lowest two social classes (D and E) was just 24 per cent’. Contrary to those who see in Brexit a rebellion of the impoverished masses, ‘middle-class Leave voters were crucial to the final result’. For those of the opposite inclination – like Blue Labour ideologue Maurice Glasman, who championed the ‘decisive role of the working class in asserting national sovereignty through its democratic vote in order to renew the ancient institutions of Parliament and the common law’ – the post-industrial proletariat has never been more present.
Both sets of analyses seek certainty in convenient explanations. It is clearly the case that the Leave vote, much like the Remain one, was a cross-class coalition. Just as the Remain coalition drew young precarious workers into alignment with those who have benefited from neoliberalism, the Leave alliance included traditional Tory voters from the shires alongside millions of workers and unemployed from South Wales, parts of the Midlands, and the North, most of whom traditionally vote Labour or don’t vote at all. None of this is surprising. In fact, since middle-class electoral support for the Right is a given in the wake of UKIP’s rise and fall, it is especially likely that poorer voters from the ‘Red Wall’ were ‘crucial’ in pushing the Leave campaign over the finish line. But if Dorling and Tomlinson’s absolution of the working class isn’t useful, neither are Glasman’s prolier-than-thou histrionics. The working class was not the deus ex machina behind Brexit. Only insofar as its experiences were mediated through race and nation did a section of the working class gravitate toward it. Consider the conjunction of two slogans, one from Vote Leave offering £350 million a week to the NHS if Britain left the EU, and the other from Leave.EU warning of a ‘Breaking Point’. Together they tell a story, promoted by politicians for some decades, of migrants, refugees and foreigners causing social decay and declining living standards.
The point here is to try to grasp what exactly has happened to two geographically distinct sections of the working class, particularly in England and Wales. On what terms and under what conditions did these two sections of the working class take opposing sides in the 2016 EU referendum? The depth of Labour’s loss in 2019, as Brexit split its coalition, makes finding a satisfactory answer to this question all the more important. This defeat highlights the difficulty for the Left of uniting a viable coalition around class redistribution. Yet, the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement onto the streets of Britain also suggests possibilities for reconstructing a mass working-class anti-racism.
If, as Stuart Hall claimed, ‘race is the modality in which class is lived’, then race ought also to be one of the processes through which class subjects evolve and perish. And if, as Etienne Balibar argues, racism is a ‘supplement internal to nationalism, always in excess of it, but always indispensable to its constitution’, then race and nation are unimaginable today without one another. Traversing these two theoretical pathways, I want to unravel Brexit as a moment of class decomposition. Contrary to perspectives that prioritise post-colonial nostalgia or liberal cosmopolitanism, I suggest that a convincing explanation of the 2016 European Union referendum and its reverberations can be gained by dissecting the predominantly domestic reasons behind two substantive and distinct working-class sections embracing or lending their support to two particular ruling-class visions of British capitalism.
This story can be told in four parts. The first is the construction of the post-war settlement, of which the Labour Party was a crucial actor and interlocutor, in a regime characterised by developmentalism, nationalism and corporatism. The second is this settlement’s Thatcherite demolition, in particular the defeat of the highly unionised, spatially congealed workforces, socialist municipal experiments, and anti-racist movements that had been its biggest challenge. The third is Blair’s Labour and its renewal of Britain’s racial regime. The last is the 2007–8 banking crisis and the austerian response.
Although the product of furious debate over the future of an ailing British capitalism and its relationship to Europe, David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum was a contingent sop to Conservative and UKIP Brexiteers that enabled the unleashing of these historic questions of class composition. That there was once an era in British history where the leaderships of the two main political parties occupied completely opposite positions over the European question isn’t an accident; it’s part of the transformations that created Brexit in the first place.
Ghosts of National Labourism
To grasp the class subjectivities that drove Brexit, one has to first unpack their historic constitution. The distinctiveness of British social democracy, the institutional matrix it birthed, and the exhaustion of these particular national arrangements contributed greatly to the 2016 referendum.
The British working classes have never had an easy relationship to the nation. Chartism, the movement for the popular vote and a foundational moment in the making of the working class, was anchored by a multi-ethnic proletariat of the colonised Irish, those of African descent, and the local exploited working class. By the same token, it was the unskilled and insecure Jewish and Irish workers who were the bedrock of the ‘New Unionism’ that rocked the 1880s and gave birth to general trade unions. In both instances, as Satnam Virdee argues in Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider, the defeat of these struggles rested on defining the remit of who constituted the national community. In the first instance, elites mobilised racism to divide English workers from their racialised counterparts, and in the second, Irish workers were tentatively pulled into the acceptable circumference of nationhood alongside English workers, but against Jewish workers. It was New Unionism’s defeat that would shape the inception of what became the Labour Party.
The nation has always been hardwired into the DNA of Labourism. From inception to the Second World War, the prominence of the nation in its conception of itself developed alongside the spread of its representation and its growing importance within the machinery of the British state. Like most socialist parties of the Second International, Labour aligned with its own national ruling class during the First World War, and its fragile forays into office were guided by the notion, espoused by Deputy Leader J.R. Clynes, that ‘Labour will not be influenced, should it be trusted with the power of government, by any consideration other than that of the national well-being’. As Sivamohan Valluvan writes in The Clamour of Nationalism, the ‘ideas of “nation” and “nationhood” are constructed and reproduced through the political, social and cultural discourses that succeed the formalisation of the territorial state’, thereby creating the conditions for the nation to become the syntax through which political actors struggle for political leadership.
In the case of Labourism and its particular brand of what Satnam Virdee labels ‘socialist nationalism’, this is primarily the product of its place in the British state. Throughout the First World War, the government started seeing Labour and the trade unions as intermediaries between them and a disciplined labour-force necessary for the war effort. As this role for Labour and the trade unions grew in importance, it increased the conciliatory tendencies of both. By nature of their social position, trade union leaders and Labour Party representatives negotiate compromises between capital and labour within the confines of the British nation-state. Their mediatory role as facilitators of class compromise inclined them towards maintaining the stability of the capitalist economy and political order. In this respect, they became as much the articulator of capital’s demands on labour as they were the arbitrator in extracting concessions from employers and the state. The routine resort to the nation on the part of Labourism is the result of their structural location in the British capitalist system. If the nation is the prism through which so much of modernity’s discourse is refracted, ‘socialist nationalism’ is but one realisation of this dynamic.
The world that Britain entered after the Second World War naturalised these processes further. A new national conjuncture was born as a result of the necessary post-war reconstruction, the hastening demise of the British empire, and the 1945 electoral triumph of a Labour Party emboldened by the state-management techniques it had acquired in the wartime coalition. This settlement was characterised by a corporatist arrangement between labour and capital, succeeded by an exceptional boom period in capitalism, with results such as high levels of capital investment, powerful but institutionalised trade unions, large-scale nationalisations, and welfare reforms best symbolised in the NHS.
Yet so much of the memory of 1945 is beholden to an entire cottage industry of social-democratic mythology which rose in its wake. Whether it was the ‘social imperialism’ prosecuted against communists in Malaya and the Kenya Freedom and Land Army, or the preservation of traditional workplace management structures and private capital’s dominance, Clement Atlee’s Labour pursued no variant of socialism. In fact, any resort to the language of class was bound to the nation.
Labour’s 1945 manifesto made references to ‘socialist’ and ‘socialism’ just three times, far outnumbered by its references to ‘British’, ‘Britain’, and ‘nation’. Embracing nationalist protectionism, Labour now presented what David Edgerton describes in Rise and Fall of the British Nation as a ‘nationalist critique of free enterprise British capital’. Its governance became nationalist, developmentalist and productivist. Nationalisations and an emphasis on national self-sufficiency in food, oil and other industries were best typified by the predominance of the ‘Buy British’ campaign. Imports were reduced to 10 per cent, giving priority to national industrial development. This isn’t to suggest that British capitalism was divorced from global markets, nor that Britain wasn’t increasingly dependent on its subordinate relationship to the US, but so drastic was this economic nationalism that in the 1960s British governments would implement import controls against even the Commonwealth.
As it adopted the role of state manager, the Labour Party’s own critique of capitalism was crystallised by its commitment to the nation. If British workers were neither lazy nor unproductive as the New Right had claimed by the 1970s, then it was British business that was backward, incapable of fresh investment and innovation. The problem with British capitalism was that it wasn’t nationalist enough. According to Tom Nairn, Labour is ‘the nationalisation of class. What it represents is not the class, in a sociological sense – the raw or material social reality of class – but the class as seduced by nation’. But to what extent was this conception of the nation bound up with race?
David Edgerton, utilising a conception of racism as xenophobic and anti-migrant contra the nakedly supremacist processes of racial ordering which defined empire, rejects the idea that ‘British racism was a product of empire’ alone, claiming that the British Empire was often seen ‘in distinctly non-racial terms’ as an open and internationalist force. Nadine El-Enany in Bordering Britain asserts the opposite, arguing that ever since the decline of its empire, ‘Britain cannot be understood as a legitimately bounded nation space’. Colonial methods of rule became inverted as Commonwealth migration to the colonial metropole took off, and ‘inside Britain’s borders, the racialised poor are differentially yet systematically vulnerable to being marginalised, controlled, policed, deported, and killed.’ Whereas for Edgerton, British racism is very much homegrown, the product of ‘national anti-imperialism’ as much as ‘imperialism’, for El-Enany, colonial racism is imported back to its place of origin.
The staging ground for the making of modern British racism lay precisely in the transition from empire to nation state, bolstered by the arrival within British national borders of new populations brought there by empire and its afterlives. Labour shortages after the war created the need for increased immigration from the Commonwealth. Many of these migrants took up work on the buses, in the NHS, in manufacturing, or in the textile industries. Yet as Ambalavaner Sivanandan highlights in A Different Hunger, whilst the labour shortage made these new migrants more ‘economically acceptable’, the housing shortage made them ‘socially undesirable’. Where landlords initially utilised the ‘colour bar’ to exclude racialised minorities, such discrimination occurred later under the guise of concerns about overcrowding. Having worsened the quality of life for racialised workers, the establishment stoked fears by lamenting the supposed dangers they posed over crime, job competition and social breakdown. Any notion that these workers might find common cause with white workers, as Sivanandan notes, was shafted as the ‘horizontal conflict of classes’ was mystified by the ‘vertical integration of race’.
If, as Owen Hatherley contends in Ministry of Nostalgia, ‘the exceptional circumstances of total mobilisation and wartime nationalisation’ stuck ‘socialism and English identity’ together, what does this tell us about the place of racialised minorities in the post-war settlement? Prior to the Second World War, whiteness, as a colour-coded categorisation of racial supremacy, played a crucial constitutive role in the growth and hegemony of empire. As English workers were increasingly sucked into the scope of the national community, native class interests were defined as contingent upon imperial hierarchies and so defined against anti-colonial insurgencies. For Alistair Bonnett in How the British Working-Class Became White, the supreme moment of proletarian whiteness was the birth of national welfarism. The expansion of the social wage created the conditions for a renewed popular whiteness recalibrated away from the predominantly bourgeois variant of the Victorian era, and towards one reflecting qualities of ordinariness: ‘it connotes lack of exceptionality, the homely virtues of quietness, tidiness, cleanness and decency’. These racial signifiers, underpinned by a social-democratic project of ‘cross-class racial-national community’ and, born amid imperial decline, were defined against post-colonial migrants. The idea that non-white migrants might use the NHS or receive welfare benefits, is repeatedly posed as an intrusion upon the social gains wrested by working-class whites.
In 1964, this reached boiling point. As the Labour Deputy Mayor of Deptford proclaimed that ‘immigration has dragged us back twenty years’, Conservative Peter Griffiths’ won a surprise election victory in the same year, fought under the racist banner of ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’. This set the background for an assault on migrants. By 1968, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party sought to provide its own solution to what it saw as the problem by introducing the 1968 Race Relations Act. Convinced that the problem of racism was caused by the presence of racialised minorities, then Home Secretary James Callaghan introduced legislation coupling the strengthening of border controls with laws against racial discrimination. As El-Enany writes, this typified a ‘mantra’ that ‘would be repeated by many a Home Secretary to come‘. Callaghan himself justified this approach arguing that a ‘multi-racial society free of strife’ necessitated making concessions to racism. The passing of this bill, and the underlying case made for it, set the stage for Enoch Powell.
Powell typified and aggravated the contested ideological tendencies which permanently impaired the post-war settlement. Somewhat of a rebel among Tory ranks, he was decidedly against the empire, the arrival of its subjects onto Britain’s shores, and what he saw as the repeated efforts to substitute for its demise by embracing the European Common Market. His infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, an immediate response to the 1968 Race Relations Act, evoked the imagery of ‘a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre’, traumatised by the tragedy of the ‘middle-aged, quite extraordinary working man’ fearful that ‘in fifteen or twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’. His intervention, exemplifying the ways in which class issues might be cleverly racialised, raised the possibility that the ghosts of the colonial past might threaten the orderly and ordinary independence of England.
As well as shedding a light on the extent of popular hostility towards migrants, provoking strikes and protests in support, his importing of the language of the newly formed National Front into the political mainstream created the conditions for an insurgent anti-migrant bloc in the Conservative Party. Similarly it gave cogency to the growing sense of the multiple crises afflicting the social-democratic moment. Powell popularised the ideological contours of the emerging ‘moral panic’ over muggings in inner-city areas by stretching boundaries of truth and reproducing references perfected by the US New Right in their bid to contain the sixties’ liberation movements. The importation of these themes – of the ‘silent majority’ and the ‘permissive society’ – utilised the racialised impoverishment and repression of the black working class as a foil for, as Hall and others famously noted, ‘policing the crisis’.
The spread of this reaction into the imperatives of the state was critical as the country gravitated closer towards law-and-order. The second year of Edward Heath’s premiership, 1971, was also the year of the Immigration Act and the Industrial Relations Act. In the case of the former, as Evan Smith explains in British Communism and the Politics of Race, the state scrapped Commonwealth citizens’ special status, limiting access to those who could prove ancestral ties as against those who could not. This largely ended Commonwealth migration, while giving the violent harassment of racialised communities by police the cover of law. In the case of the Industrial relations Act, in a farcically proto-Thatcherite manner, Heath sought to impose legal limitations on the right to strike and organise. As workers’ militancy broke the Heath government, the Ugandan Asian crisis erupted in response to President Idi Amin’s expulsion of 40,000 British Asians. Suddenly scores of stateless Ugandan Asians carrying British passports were arriving in the country only to be met by state and popular racism.
This confluence of factors, to which Powell gave voice, exercised an insurmountable gravitational pull on Labourism. The insistence on knowing the ‘numbers’ of migrants; the intimation that behind every racial subject lies an enemy of the state; and Powell’s contention, as Robbie Shilliam paraphrases it, that ‘state-management’ is a ‘form of foreign despotism and Anglo-Saxon degeneration’, became weaknesses of Labourism as much as they did bellwethers of Thatcherism.
Labour raised timid objections to the 1971 Immigration Act while out of office but declined to repeal it after it returned to office in 1974. As the crisis of capitalism was compounded by the OPEC oil shock beginning in 1973, Labour embarked on a new effort to restore profitability by reducing wages. This it did, first, by means of a ‘social contract’ with the union bureaucracy, keeping wage claims below the rate of inflation. As inflation nonetheless soared, and state finances were pressured, Labour accepted an IMF loan in exchange for embracing monetarism. The party had become so embedded into the logic of defending capitalist social relations, as the productive basis for welfarism, that it was eroding the norms of the stagnant class compromise it had sought to hold together. In the same year Prime Minister James Callaghan took the IMF loan, he emboldened the New Right’s anti-union praxis by intervening in the Grunwick dispute, against the largely female, Asian workforce fighting for union recognition. According to Matthew Myers in Europe’s Forward March of Labour Halted, as the government sought to avoid the fate of Edward Heath, it became ‘increasingly dependent on disciplinary rather than reciprocal mechanisms to guarantee its political hegemony’ and responded to the strike ‘primarily as a problem of law and order.’ The solidarity proffered by Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Miners (NUM) was a tipping point in legitimating the use of a language of counter-insurgency against the migrant picketers.
The defeat of the Grunwick strikers after a gruelling two-year dispute not only emboldened the emerging New Right, marshalling behind Grunwick boss George Ward in a proxy war that would take on a greater directness in the coming decade, it also fomented a process, à la Myers, whereby ‘the immigrant or refugee would replace the immigrant worker as a central issue for both the left and right’, dissolving the racialised worker from their location in the relations of production, as well as ensuring that ‘collective social imaginaries of the immigrant were again defined by distinct cultural siloes rather than universalist, working-class protagonism.’ If the Grunwick strikers had adopted the language and tactics of rank-and-file trade unionism, it was the solidarity from white workers which made the dispute so different to preceding migrant worker struggles. Yet, just as white miners and far-left Trotskyists were broaching a gendered and racialised conception of class inspired by the strike itself, the disarming of the dispute by the Trades Union Congress projected the image that the Grunwick workers weren’t an acceptable component of the working class at precisely the moment that white and black workers had achieved their greatest moment of interracial class solidarity.
Whilst it’s undoubtedly the case that Grunwick would provide a founding myth for much of the autonomous forms of black and Asian worker self-organisation that would emerge in the following decades, throughout the process of the Grunwick dispute, the other side of ‘socialist nationalism’ – noticeable historically for its hostile approaches to worker insurgencies on the part of Jewish workers in particular – revealed itself. By appealing to the ‘national interest’ in the hopes of securing stable conditions for capitalist accumulation, Labour excluded those ‘racialised outsiders’ from the representative process in the aid of a broader confrontation with organised labour. Grunwick represented a watershed moment of possibility and interclass solidarity among workers as much as it did a crossroads for militant sections of capital.
‘Yes to Europe’
In early 1973, Edward Heath took Britain into the European Common Market. Labour was elected the following year, as Heath succumbed to union militancy and declared a snap election with the unavailing slogan ‘Who governs?’ Navigating both statecraft and internal party tensions, the 1974 Labour manifesto was committed to renegotiating the terms of Britain’s relationship to Europe and putting it to the people in the form of a referendum. On the pro-Europe side stood Wilson, alongside Roy Jenkins, Margaret Thatcher, the bulk of the Conservative Party and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), and on the anti-marketeer side, was an awkward alliance of Tony Benn, Michael Foot and most of the trade-union movement, alongside Enoch Powell, Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the Communist Party.
If the position of those hostile to what would become European integration was that it would undermine national and economic sovereignty, the argument from those in favour of Europe was that sovereignty wasn’t enough to guarantee British power on a global stage. In the end, it was the latter case which won out. With the exception of the Shetlands and the Western Isles, every part of Britain returned majorities for staying in Europe. The ‘Yes to Europe’ campaign message, warning the public of the economic and political insecurities of national isolation, resonated in a context of social and economic crisis. The biggest stock market crash since 1929 had taken place the same year, provoking the government into seriously considering rationing. Only a year had passed since the ‘three day week’, when British industry was reduced to half-time by power cuts induced by the mineworkers’ strikes. As Robert Saunders has documented, ‘[i]n this context, abstract questions of sovereignty weighed less heavily than the need to keep the lights on and to ensure a secure supply of basic foodstuffs.’
Neither the independence of England as idolised by Powell, nor the struggle to achieve economic democracy agitated for by Benn, had much resonance in this contest. Instead, the 1975 European referendum paved the way for Britain’s first steps away from the corporatist bargaining and protectionism of the post-war years, making ever-closer lunges towards a pro-business environment. Europeanists made their case by asserting, like Robert Saunders, that ‘sovereignty is like freedom: it is meaningless without power. I am not free to have dinner at the Ritz, if I cannot pay the bill’. Yet the cause was also informed by business’s fear of inflationary pressures and a resurgent left: popular economic sovereignty was abridged as the Treaty of Rome built the free-market into the constitutions of its member states.
Here was an early intimation of Europe’s future. As Rob Knox put it in his Salvage essay ‘Against Law-sterity’, under European law ‘domestic governments’ sought to ‘hem themselves in through governing their economic behaviour through the provision of “rules”, up to and including legal rules’. The anti-democratic characteristics of the European Union, which nationalist politicians portray as coming from supranational bureaucrats, were in fact introduced and driven by national political and business elites. They could now claim a higher legitimacy in international and legal obligations as the reasoning for the retrenchment of their own class dominance.
If the crisis of the post-war settlement created the opportunity for Thatcher to emerge, at least some of the popular sources of its disintegration would have to be quelled for her to be considered successful. Her defeat of worker, anti-racist and municipal radicalisms wouldn’t just have profound effects on how these actors would find themselves eking out a place for themselves in a society remote from the one they fought for, it would also be the precondition for the particular economic geography which characterised Brexit.
The birth of the phenomenon we now call neoliberalism, rather than being relatively smooth, was protracted, disordered and vicious. Intellectually, it may have been the brainchild of Hayek, Friedman, Mises and the neoliberal thought collective, but as a new regime of capital accumulation, it emerged from contingent and contested circumstances.
When Thatcher was elected in 1979, strikes, riots, and internal division plagued her first term. Only in her second could she pull off the demolition of working-class power for which she is now both venerated and despised. She began with ‘a frontal onslaught on the labour movement and the dismantling of formerly embedded social democratic institutions’, described by Neil Davidson as a ‘roll-back’ phase. Concurrently, she embarked upon a ‘more molecular process involving the gradual commodification of huge new areas of social life and the creation of new institutions specifically constructed on neoliberal principles’, characterised by Davidson as the ‘roll-out’ phase. This schematic dissection glosses over a prolonged and varied transition, but to put it crudely, the ‘roll-back’ phase saw the defeat of the miners, steel and print workers, and the ‘roll-out’ phase the auctioning off of nationalised assets and large parts of the council housing stock, and the introduction of internal markets and compulsory competitive tendering in the state.
One aspect of Thatcherism that has received greater attention since Brexit is its spatial effects, or its re-territorialisations of the nation-state. For Neil Brenner, one of the pivotal dynamics of neoliberalism is spatial. If the post-war era involved a sort of ‘spatial Keynesianism’ whereby the nation state sought to mitigate uneven geographical development by the planned construction of new urban and suburban networks across the polity, spatial Thatcherism was quite different. As Thatcher increased her grip over the nation, uneven development became a necessary precondition for profitable capital accumulation. This emerging settlement rose through the confluence of four factors: the decline and restructuring of mass production industries; the rise of flexible production systems; the globalisation and integration of European economic space; and the crisis of the Keynesian welfare national state. As Brenner documents in New States Spaces, regulatory arrangements were sacrificed as impediments to European-wide economic competition, whilst corporate accumulation strategies pivoted towards Europe-wide spatial divisions. This new growth-oriented and competitiveness-driven approach to urban governance resulted in sharpened uneven development as strategic locations and cities became the predominant sites for transnational capital investment.
Accelerated growth in the English South went hand-in-hand with industrial decline in the Midlands, South Wales and the North. As Tom Hazeldine explains in The Northern Question, in a historic dock city like Liverpool, the decimation of industry from the Kirkby Manufacturing and Engineering (KME) site to the Love Lane Tate & Lyle factory was deeply entangled not just with Thatcherism but a broader economic reorganisation begun under Callaghan, with the incentives shifting away from the Commonwealth as one of Britain’s key export markets, towards outsourcing, union-smashing, increased unemployment and the EEC as the vehicle for economic revival. This story was replicated across the industrial regions most subject to Thatcher’s bite as huge contractions in employment and income preceded her clashes with class battalions like the miners. The uneven economic geography which would become part and parcel of twenty-first century Britain, of a capital of global financial and rentier speculation dramatically diverging from other regions and nations, was preceded by another form of unevenness.
The ‘roll-back’ phase of neoliberal counter-revolution prided itself on crushing both industrial struggle and experiments in municipal socialism like Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council (GLC) and the Militant-run Liverpool City Council. This radical municipalism was a bulwark against Thatcherism, opening local government to feminist, LGBT and anti-racist self-organisation, and experimenting with an alternative worker politics. These two cities today remain Labour strongholds, while the Labour vote has been in secular decline in former industrial towns since 2000. The partially realised possibility of a unification between these struggles didn’t just constitute a threat to Thatcher; they also typified the potential of social alliances forged in mutual solidarity. The defeat in these battles portended a split in the imagination of ‘working-class protagonism’, with their routing signifying the nail in the coffin of a shared mutuality between regional class actors, red citadels and oppressed people, reinforcing in the popular imaginary the idea of their permanent incompatibility.
The defeat of municipal socialism provided the Thatcherite regime with the breathing space to destroy any independence at the municipal level. As Tom Crewe notes in The Strange Death of Municipal England, the Conservatives shredded council funding; imposed caps on spending; centralised the collection of business rates and redistributed them according to Whitehall’s diktats; enforced deregulation and outsourcing; and forced the sell-off of council housing stock whilst central government kept the profits.
As the dynamics of spatial Thatcherism took hold, councils in poorer regions were left to rot as local government financing was strangled by cut central government allocations and low tax and business rate bases. This scenario of managed decline found its replication in the urban centres too. London Docklands might have become a financial powerhouse, but it was (and is) surrounded by poverty and exploitation. Despite the immense commonalities in class experience between the large urban centres and the smaller, de-industrialised towns and cities, these obvious parallels and the routine attempts to dissociate them have long lineages. As early as the Victorian era, the city – as the site of the rebellious, multiracial urban working class – was viewed by bourgeois interlocutors as exterior and unworthy to whiteness. Bourgeois whiteness, as it was conceptualised against an emergent working class, romanticised the paleness, purity and plentifulness of rural life. This cultural disentangling of the city from the rest of the country would become a routinely re-purposed theme of Conservatism, insistent on the disconnections between workers in the cities and those in towns. This process of severance between two distinct sections of the working-class, realised under Thatcher, was the product of reform as much as it was of confrontation.
Late-seventies Britain witnessed electrifying displays of anti-racist and interclass solidarity, best typified by Grunwick and Rock Against Racism. By the late eighties, anti-racism had undergone a process of institutionalisation. The convergence of the eighties’ riots, and GLC anti-racism, produced the conditions whereby anti-racism had become cut off from its long fought for, and rocky relationship to, class politics. ‘Racialised outsiders’ informed by a commitment to proletarian internationalism had done their utmost to intertwine anti-racism and class struggle throughout the preceding decades. The eighties, however, produced a different layer of racialised insiders.
Although a social layer of ethnic minorities within the state had existed for some time in the form of the Commonwealth Immigrants Advisory Council (CIAC) and then the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants (NCCI), it achieved renewed importance in the wake of the riots in 1981 and 1985. The government responded to these insurrections through the introduction of inter-ethnic competition for funding, contributing to the broader disorganisation of black militancy. What anti-racist activists saw as efforts to build a strata of collaborative interlocutors committed to undermining rebellion, began to succeed in a context of social movement disintegration. As Sivanandan argued in Communities of Resistance, the ‘self-reliance and community cohesion’ that had been constructed around ‘political blackness’ in the sixties and seventies, was unravelled by the state through the ‘emergence of an Afro-Carribean managerial class in the race relations industry (and sub-managers in the nationalised self-help groups’, seeking to ‘deepen ethnic differences and foster ethnic rivalries’ through the parcelised distribution of community funding and grants.
Despite the strengths of the Greater London Council, it was also the object of anti-racist criticism. On one hand, as Satnam Virdee argues, one of the municipal socialist project’s ‘unintended consequences’ was the growth in local-government employment for minorities ‘actively pressed for through black self-organisation in the local state unions’. However, these successes happened in a moment of transition in anti-racist and socialist horizons.
In the wake of the 1980-81 riots, the Scarman report put much emphasis on the language of ‘equal opportunities’, which, as Paul Gilroy has described in The End of Anti-Racism, in the context of local authorities created the conditions for ‘competition between different political forces over which of them is going to take immediate priority.’ The existence of a bureaucratic layer within the state overseeing this process, identifying equality with ‘efficiency and good management practice’, ensuring ‘policy questions dominate political ones and anti-racism emerges from the production of general blueprints which can be universally applied’, furthered the bifurcation of anti-racist practice.
Even in the combative efforts of Livingstone’s GLC, the ‘council becomes the primary site of anti-racist struggle’ where, according to Gilroy in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, ‘the general task of advancing anti-racism is thereby collapsed into the specific strategic priorities of the GLC, a model which regardless of its in-house ineffectiveness, is not universally applicable to anti-racist politics in non-institutional settings’.
As a product of defeat, anti-racism shifted from seeing the state as an enemy, to seeing it as a vehicle for mitigating racism through a parcellised distribution of ‘equal opportunities’. Race was detached from class, and anti-racism de-radicalised as the state usurped the role of protest, riots and strikes. This would have profound implications for the future of both anti-racism and working-class politics, particularly as they found themselves manifested through Brexit.
In 1988, then President of the European Commission Jacques Delors electrified the annual Trades Union Congress conference. Proclaiming the birth of a ‘social Europe’ and promising social protections and collective bargaining at a European level, Delors sought to win the British trade union movement, traditionally hostile to the Common Market, to support for a European Union.
Several years out in the cold, some of their biggest battalions crushed, their membership and bargaining power in decline, and their influence diminished in a Labour Party thrice electorally defeated, Delors’ promises provided solace. In Thatcher’s Britain, the possibility that European integration might revive industry and protect trade unions against the worst excesses of neoliberalism seemed appealing. Ron Todd, the General Secretary of the TGWU (Transport & General Workers Union, now Unite) claimed, ‘Europe was the only game in town’, and Delors was met with a rendition of ‘Frères Jacques’ by conference delegates. The impact of successive working-class defeats and the reorganisation of the economy on a basis which undermined union power, pushed union leaderships towards a pro-Europe position just as they were acclimatising themselves towards an era of unfavourable industrial partnership. The fact that Britain wouldn’t enter into the EU’s social chapter until the election of Tony Blair only bolstered Labour’s newfound European inclinations, since the EU was identified with a type of social progress resisted by British Conservative governments.
However, the social chapter indexed socialist retreat, not advance. For Delors, former French Finance Minister under Francois Mitterand’s Socialist Party and advocate of abandoning social reform in favour of monetarism, the social chapter wasn’t a personal preference but a matter of strategic consolidation. As Guglielmo Carchedi argues in For Another Europe, ‘this new turn in EU social policy occurred under the aegis of capital, that is, under capital’s strength and labour’s weaknesses.’ The fact that matters such as ‘pay, freedom of association, the right to strike and the right to impose lockouts’‘ remained unattended, subject to the preferences of individual states, left the power relations that capital treasures most open to its own influence in national class struggles. In truth, rather than alleviating working-class ills, the ambitions of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty were far more geared towards the creation of an independent European Central Bank with anti-inflationary policy, monetary restraint and price stability, as its key tasks. The need of existing states to contain smaller ones and a recently reunified Germany only further increased the urgency attached to this evolution of the European project.
On the other side, the question of ever-closer integration divided the Conservative Party over capital’s best interests. Thatcher was in a minority in the cabinet on this question, particularly throughout the latter half of her premiership. The pivotal issue was the UK’s entrance into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). For Thatcher, entering the ERM meant, as Alexander Gallas puts it in The Thatcherite Offensive, not only sacrificing sovereignty but also confessing to the notion that ‘the [national] government had failed to improve competitiveness, and that it would be unrealistic to assume that either capital or labour would bow to pressures imposed on them from the European level.’ This concern, combined with what she saw as Delors’ ‘declaration of war’ at the TUC conference, only increased her suspicions that her internal opponents were advocating a move away from the class war and ‘popular capitalism’ that had characterised her rule. Backed by the leadership of the City and the captains of industry, for her party rivals such as Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson and her successor John Major, entrance into the ERM provided a plausible external mechanism for discipling workers whilst laying the groundwork for an industrial revival. Increasingly isolated, bruised by the Poll Tax riots, and forced to concede over the ERM, Thatcher was eventually toppled.
After her succession by John Major, the European question would resurface. Britain’s brief entrance into the ERM ended disastrously. The booming reunified German economy made it difficult for the pound to keep up with the value of the Deutschmark. The resulting Black Wednesday crash of the pound destroyed the Conservatives’ economic credentials. Confluent debate about whether the UK should sign the Maastricht Treaty and join the European Union tore the Conservative Party apart. These years saw the first suburban reflexes of anti-Brussels sentiment, as a series of parties of the Eurosceptic right challenged the Conservatives in their heartlands. Despised across large parts of the country, internally fractured over the European question and lacking in trust over its ability to manage the economy, the Conservative Party would face over a decade out of power.
New Labour’s Racial Regime
In a speech to the 2018 Labour Party conference, and as a disingenuous intervention into the party’s antisemitism crisis, the Islington South & Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry stated that her party must ‘lead the fight against the forces of fascism, of racism, and prejudice, and antisemitism’ as it has ‘always done both at home and abroad’. Labour was now apparently the party of Cable Street and the International Brigades.
As I have tried to make clear, Labour’s relationship to racism and nationalism has not been one of opposition, but of appeasement and embrace. New Labour, contrary to the image it painted of itself as progressive, cool and chic, was fundamentally reactionary. Its insistence on generating or validating moral panics over the supposedly bogus asylum seeker, and its construction of a renewed racial architecture to this punitive effect, would cement the conduits of 2016. Its continual resort to migrant-bashing out of fear that the British National Party might steal the mythical ‘white working-class’ provided a lengthy preamble to Britain’s referendum debate.
Blairism wasn’t simply another unsuccessful effort at managing capitalism in order to ameliorate its worst effects on workers. It was an embrace of Thatcherism repackaged tenuously in a language of progressive politics. In Europe, Blair and Brown embraced Delors’ reconstituted and vacuous ‘Social Charter’ whilst enthusing over the Lisbon Agenda and the concomitant EU Constitutional Treaty, which entrenched neoliberal governance and bolstered the Single Market; both fought for Eastern European Accession into the EU and the subsequent migration from the region into Britain; and they played a critical role in the effort to develop a European Security and Defence Policy.
Domestically, uneven economic development was aggregated on a regional basis in London’s favour, and Private Finance Initiatives were introduced into public education and the NHS. Riding the late-nineties credit boom wave, New Labour both spent on and splintered Britain’s social infrastructure whilst its approach to local councils was, as Tom Crewe argues, to ‘leave almost all the new restrictions in place, to encourage more outsourcing and to place ever tighter controls on funding.’ The devastation left in the wake of industry’s demise was only exacerbated under New Labour, reproducing democratic disenfranchisement through the growth of a particular variant of right-wing neoliberal Labourism in local state institutions, developing new forms of insularity for central government.
That all of this occurred in the context of going to the hilt of an illegal war, being heavily imbricated in the expenses and Leveson scandals and enthusiastically continuing the authoritarian, centralising impulses of Thatcherism, with its routine scapegoating of asylum seekers, British Muslims, travellers and the working-class ‘chav’, only further isolated Labour from its social base.
It is to these concerns that we now turn. As Nadine El-Enany has demonstrated, since the Race Relations Bills and Immigration Acts of the sixties, the repeated tactic of Home Secretaries has been to introduce race relations legislation in exchange for the tightening of border controls. The underlying justification for this has routinely been that Britain’s ‘racial problem’ is the product of the presence of racialised minorities rather than racism itself. James Callaghan as Home Secretary ignited this tradition, but Thatcher mastered it in office when she declared: ‘if you want good race relations, you have got to allay peoples’ fears on numbers.’ This line of argument was reinforced by Michael Howard towards the end of this era of Conservative reign when he argued that ‘good race relations’ depended on ‘fair, but firm immigration controls.’ Howard, in a precursor to New Labour thinking, declared Britain ‘far too attractive a destination for bogus asylum seekers and other illegal immigrants. The reason is simple: it is far easier to obtain access to jobs and benefits here than almost anywhere else.’ He said this whilst presiding over a cashless housing and subsistence voucher regime designed for migrants to use only in designated supermarkets, banned from buying cigarettes and alcohol.
While New Labour opposed Howard from the opposition benches, the same logic permeated the Home Office under New Labour’s Jack Straw and David Blunkett. As far as Tony Blair and his coterie were concerned, there was a section of the electorate, insecure in their fortunes and anxious about migrants and asylum seekers as destabilising threats, that Labour needed to appease. When, in 1997, there began a gradual influx of Roma migrants into the country via Dover, New Labour’s progressive rhetoric was tested. Making huge sacrifices to come to Britain, these migrants were met with scorn by politicians and pundits. A flurry of newspaper stories about ‘bogus asylum seekers’ became headlines decrying the ‘INVASION OF THE GIRO CZECHS’. The local Labour MP Gwyn Prosser claimed that the ‘the behaviour of some claiming asylum has been abominable’, repeating the mantra that they were ‘actually bogus asylum seekers’. The Conservative-run Kent County Council called the new Labour government a ‘soft touch’, its Sun-journalist-turned-press officer claiming immigration would suck up the remaining state provision available to working-class people. To this moral panic, as Richard Power Sayeed writes in 1997, the ‘Home Office buckled, announcing that individuals appealing against rejection of their asylum applications would now have only five days – cut drastically from twenty-eight – before immigration officials “bounced” them out of the country.’ The swiftness of Jack Straw’s response was roundly celebrated by the political right.
Under the rubric of the Home Secretary’s claim that the electorate ‘wanted to know that our borders were controlled, that the system was in safe hands’, a new racial regime was constructed, with the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act granting the Home Secretary new powers. As El-Enany highlights, under this legislation, ‘a new social category of asylum seeker’ was born, separating them from ‘recognised refugees’ both in ‘policy and popular discourse’. As well as imposing a voucher scheme on all claimants, a new system of forced dispersal was implemented, intended to limit the visibility of racialised people through a process of removal and distribution. Asylum seekers were coerced into the poorest parts of the country or they would face removal. Additionally, laying the groundwork for the ‘Hostile Environment’ for migrants formally launched by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2012, New Labour led the creation of PFI-funded and privately managed immigration detention centres such as Yarls Wood and later Brook House. In 2000, it was setting targets to deport up to 30,000 people within the year and by the end of its first term it had boasted of reducing asylum to the country by 50,000.
New Labour cultivated the dynamics which would produce the Brexit referendum. It scolded Britain’s South Asian communities for their alleged failure to integrate and adequately acclimatise to ‘British values’ in the wake of the 2001 Northern riots. These riots were a response to racist violence led by fascist parties like the National Front and the BNP. The racism was fuelled by zero-sum struggles over council funding, and the long tradition of local council segregation of housing and education, as well as local patterns of racist policing and media hysteria about young Asian men. All of which was only compounded by New Labour’s efforts to steal the BNP’s thunder. As Richard Seymour has noted, the rate of ‘racial incidents … more than quadrupled in England and Wales from 13,151 in 1996–7 to 52,694 in 2003–4’.
One of the key factors in this process of normalisation was what Jaice Sara Titus has described in New Labour, Old Racism as New Labour’s ‘pivot towards a virulent Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11’. Again, it was Jack Straw who was at the centre of domesticating the war on terror, constructing new state apparatuses to imprison, harass, and surveil Muslims, as well as excluding them from public life. The PREVENT programme, pitched as keeping people away from the clutches of extremism and terrorism, turned public servants and state workers into spies, requiring them to report and refer any students and users for signs of radicalisation. The long-term consequences of this strategy has been the criminalisation of Muslim civilians and their varied political inclinations. Straw, the architect of much of this racial infrastructure, insisted, in a repeated attack against Muslim women, that community relations are ‘made more difficult if people are wearing a veil’.
Even in Blair’s last election before the devastation of the Iraq War consumed his tenure, he reacted to the racism of the political right by doing precisely as he had before: reproducing it. Met with Michael Howard’s dog whistle line: ‘it’s not racist to impose limits on immigration’, Blair triangulated Howard’s rhetoric by championing the efficacy of New Labour’s offensive against asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. Although the Conservatives lost the 2005 general election, Blair would be gone within two years, and the coupling of racism and immigration that had been so central to the politics of the racist right would become further ingrained into the policy agendas of the political mainstream.
When looked at in this respect, the multiple vectors of racialisation organised and articulated by New Labour aggravated the disentangling of anti-racism and working-class politics achieved under Thatcherism. ‘British values’ became a proxy for reconstituting racialised outsiders and foreign interests against the supposedly conservative cultures and values of the white English proletariat. Blairism was disastrous for workers and the poor, but it also fed the caricatures of class, race and identity which became so central to the Brexit culture war. The class-fracturing effects of spatial Thatcherism, already exacerbated by New Labour’s aggressive neoliberalism and embrace of City-led growth, and scarcely mitigated by its ‘regional development’ schemes, were further worsened by the racial management politics arising out of the party’s response to the northern riots, and its policing of Muslim minorities. If these reconstituted cultural antagonisms lacked a language of class, Gordon Brown’s reign as Prime Minister and his subsequent handling of the 2007–8 financial crash would fill that absence.
In the wake of the crash, the bailing out of the banks and the first major sign of the disintegration of the global economic order, Blair’s successor tried to rearticulate British nationalism in one last gasp of an exhausted New Labour. Whilst the words were first uttered by Brown upon his ascendancy to the British premiership in 2007, the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ became an attempt to recalibrate New Labour’s image in the wake of the financial crash. When this nativist lurch was met with support among striking workers across manufacturing and construction sites, particularly at the Lindsey Oil Refinery, a huge argument erupted among some of the most organised sectors of the trade union movement. Unite leader Derek Simpson was even photographed with the right-wing Daily Star next to the nationalist ‘British jobs for British workers’ banner.
Whilst common cause was eventually made between migrant workers and English workers, isolating the influence of trade-union racism and the divisive efforts of the fascist British National Party, Brown’s speech would set a precedent for how political actors would begin to reanimate a nationalist class politics in the wake of neoliberalism’s disintegration.
The election of David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition in 2010 marked a sharp turn toward austerity. Ostensibly addressing the budget deficit, austerity measures were carefully targeted at public-service users and welfare recipients, rather than the rich or middle-class tax payers, and the draconian cuts to local government financing overwhelmingly hurt Labour-controlled councils while leaving the Tory heartlands relatively unscathed. To note just one example among many, almost a billion pounds had been sucked out of the North-East since 2010 according to Tom Crewe.
In multicultural cities and towns, the racial regime the Tories inherited was fine-tuned and accelerated to coalesce with the new conditions of neoliberal austerity. As they further disintegrated what remained of the ‘social state’, they ensured that in the cases of welfare, healthcare, employment, housing and much more, the legal and institutional basis for the creation of the everyday border cop was created. As Maya Goodfellow has documented in Hostile Environment, by ‘stitching immigration checks into every element of people’s lives’, David Cameron’s regime ensured that the ‘threat of being fined or sentenced to jail time loomed over’‘ all those who ‘failed to carry out checks to ensure people they encountered through their work were in the country legally’. Thus, the Conservatives enshrined into the dynamics of their austerity regime the increased hierarchisation of the labour market, the bolstering of competition through the illusion of an illegitimate ‘enemy within’ ready to steal work from the indigenous labourer, and the political incentive for the monitoring of racialised workers throughout everyday life.
The defeat of the student movement, the failure of the anti-austerity movement to pose a threat, the collapse of public sector strikes, and the authoritarian public response to the 2011 riots, all indicated the disarray and weakness of the organised working class and the Left. Ed Miliband’s ‘soft left’ bid for power quickly degenerated into triangulation, as he accepted austerity, turned against his union supporters in the largely contrived Falkirk scandal, and tried to deploy a softer version of the Right’s messaging on immigration. The Conservatives won a narrow parliamentary majority, while Nigel Farage’s UKIP increased its vote share to 15 per cent in the 2015 general election.
Little did the political class realise that the 2015 general election would set alight the conditions for the subsequent unravelling of political stability. Miliband’s inefficacy would create the rare opportunity for someone to his left to take the reins. At the same time, Cameron’s attempt to cope with the rising threat from UKIP by promising a referendum on Europe, would end up creating a magnitudinous crisis for the British ruling-class.
However one voted, the Brexit campaign was a carnival of reaction. From the point at which David Cameron announced renegotiation of Freedom of Movement as the basis on which Britain might retain its membership of the EU, to the moment Nigel Farage claimed Leave had won the referendum ‘without a single bullet being fired’ – a week after the neo-Nazi murder of Jo Cox MP – the reactionary impulses of the British Right were naked. Yet, the racism and social sadism that was so characteristic of the Brexit campaign was hardly absent in the official Remain campaign. In the months running up to the referendum vote, leaders of the official Remain camp – Cameron, Osborne, the CBI and the Parliamentary Labour Party – would compete with the polarising racism of the official and unofficial Leave campaigns, led by Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and Boris Johnson on the one hand, and Farage’s UKIP on the other. Cameron himself argued that Britain should remain in the EU in order to stop refugees from Calais entering the country, Home Secretary Theresa May announced a ‘compassion quota’ to limit the number of refugees accepted outside the official settlement quotas, and the government itself declared that British troops would be used to intercept and return refugees from Turkey to Europe.
The result itself saw a devastating increase in racist violence against minorities, of 42 per cent between 16-30 June according to the National Police Chiefs Council, and subsequent increases of 49 per cent and 58 per cent in the fourth and fifth weeks after the referendum, according to the Guardian.
Whilst Cameron wanted to repeat the narrow referendum victory against Scottish independence, defending the interests of the British state as a neoliberal haven for multinational capital, the Leave campaigns’ aims were less clear. Ending free movement, implementing a points-based immigration system, ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, rolling back Brussels regulations on business, and independence for Britain’s fisheries were all floated as the basis for the campaign. Boris Johnson’s keen sense for political opportunity aside, for the venture-capitalist wing of the Brexiteers a more likely driver was the delusion of a ‘Singapore-upon-Thames’ paradise, freed from stifling global regulations, open to the vicissitudes of laissez-faire economics and free to line the pockets of bankers and worsen the conditions of workers.
What this referendum battle represented above all else however was a profound process of internal dislodging which had struck the British ruling class, as the strategy of moral panic over immigration and race collided with the tactic of ‘Project Fear’ over challenges to the status quo. This referendum was never just a story of ruling-class entropy though; it was also one of profound working-class discord. .
In the Lord Ashcroft poll released after the referendum, using the ‘social grades’ scheme developed by the National Readership Survey, only the A and B group, compromising professionals and company bosses, turned out a majority for Remain. The C2, D and E grades, comprising semi-skilled, unskilled, unemployed and pensioned workers, voted 64 per cent for Leave. C1, usually classified as ‘middle class’ but comprising a lot of temp-working students, nurses and menial office workers, carried it by a slight majority too. Additionally, Ashcroft reveals that ‘around two thirds of council and housing association tenants voted to leave’. Outside of London, every English region voted for Leave, with majorities as high as 54 per cent, 58 per cent and 59 per cent in the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside, and West and East Midlands respectively. If it is the case however that of the top fifty areas with the largest portion of people from D and E backgrounds, only three voted to Remain, what this doesn’t necessarily account for is that the large urban citadels – places like London and Manchester -–are places where Britain’s racialised and often poorest workers live side-by-side with both the super-rich and the professional middle-classes.
Dorling and Tomlinson’s claim that the Leave vote was a middle-class one, based on Ashcroft’s poll, isn’t tenable. It relies on the dubious argument that the majority of Leave voters, 59 per cent, were ‘middle class’. By ‘middle class’, they mean that these voters belong to social grades A, B and C1. But these grades are not good proxies for class. And at any rate, since they represent 57 per cent of the electorate, their representation in the Leave vote is not disproportionate. The Leave campaign assembled a cross-class bloc, backed by millions of traditional Conservatives in the English South as well as a minority of the traditional political and business elite, but its victory would not have been possible were it not for the huge insurgency which swept some of the most impoverished and downwardly-mobile parts of the country. Similarly, the Remain vote was a cross-class one, encompassing huge swathes of the middle-classes, the vast bulk of the British elite, and a large section of workers and the poor. What then, in a historical epoch noted for the sheer lack of working-class participation in elections, drove these respective proletarian turnouts?
Class and class outcomes were obviously a huge factor. In towns and cities across the country where stable, familial life built around industry had been shattered by neoliberalism, the vote to leave the European Union was majoritarian. The collapse of these settlements, from the shipbuilding industry of Hartlepool (70 per cent for Leave) to the milltown of Burnley (67 per cent for Leave), was a long product of dissatisfaction at the lives and social worlds left in neoliberalism’s wake. A generational process making itself felt, this dynamic was massively exacerbated by the effects of Cameron’s austerian turn, cutting local government purse-strings and demolishing what remained of any welfare or local support net in many of these same areas experiencing decline, and beyond. As Tom Hazeldine noted in ‘Revolt of the Rustbelt’: ‘The strongest Out vote in the North West came in the deprived seaside resort of Blackpool, which has suffered the greatest financial loss from government welfare cuts of any local-authority district.’
As Mark Fisher argued in Capitalist Realism, class since the miners’ strike has been lived as ‘reflexive impotence’, with young people deprived of meaningful futures reduced to a kind of ‘depressive hedonia’, wrenching tiny pleasures out of a futile situation. Consider this in relation to the so-called ‘Red Wall’, the former mining and single-industry towns, the areas where traditional class situations have been broken up and dislocated: violently uprooted by Thatcher, shredded by Blair and Brown and reduced to ashes by Cameron, Osborne and May.
While the depressive hedonia of the young segued into student uprisings and riots, the riot of the older, decomposed industrial working-class was Brexit, imbued with all the nationalist and racist anxieties which Thatcher, Blair and Cameron had actively sought to cultivate and through which they had refracted historic class grievances. When very few rebellions have landed deadly blows on the system-at-large, Brexit assumed a feasibility that no genuine rupture with ‘capitalist realism’ had achieved. It was a concrete offer not to reverse years of defeat and decomposition, but to avenge them on Britain’s political class and its racialised outsiders. The really interesting question is how to explain the peculiar object of that revolt, and so to measure its political content: if frustration at neoliberalism was part of the story here, why did it choose so apparently indirect a target as the European Union, and what does that tell us about its ideological valence?
A second factor, intimately bound-up with the first, lies in the nature of the postwar moment. The truth is that beyond some notable flashpoints, Britain’s working classes have never really known anything other than the nation. Hardly unique in this respect, if the nation is the modality through which classes contend with one another, the historical landmark represented by 1945 has more of a role to play in the Brexit referendum than is presently recognised. The image I offered earlier, of the settlement torn apart by Thatcherism, with its lexicon of national self-sufficiency, ‘Buy British’ and the close intimacies between official, institutional class politics and economic nationalism, linger subtly underneath the road to Brexit. The obligatory remark in John Harris’ vox pops travailing deindustrialised Britain – ‘We used to make things’ – speaks precisely to this. Far from the desire for a renewed British Empire, this retort to the question of ‘Why leave?’ is the transfigured product of the long-subdued class subjectivities shattered by Thatcher. As well as a yearning for some economic and social security, it is the reflection of a deeply rooted style of class politics bitter at the loss of a world, undoubtedly better, but still partially imagined.
A third factor is the influence of anti-migrant racism. According to the previously-cited Ashcroft poll, 33 per cent of Leave voters, when asked, said that exiting the EU ‘offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders’. Likewise, in the same survey, 62 per cent of Leave voters thought immigration was a ‘force for ill’. This spectre of the migrant, as an economic, cultural or social threat has always been a feature of working-class politics, competing with proletarian internationalisms, and as long as the nation is the racialised, territorial form through which economic life is organised, political struggles unravel, and global conflicts are fought, there will always be a racialised outsider.
But by relating to class grievances routinely through the language of a limited and sometimes scarce national pool infringing on the rights and living standards of the culturally conservative ‘white working class’, both Labour and Tory leaderships have sought to recalibrate class issues as problems of too much migration, undercut wages and overstretched public resources. The oppressive conditions – insecurity, stratification and repression – this visits upon racialised workers themselves, for whom any embrace of racial parity must come alongside an acceptance of an exclusive and strengthened border regime, only further debilitates the possibility that a proletarian internationalism encapsulating radical anti-racist class politics might be constructed. In this context, Britain’s decaying economic order is seen as the fault of increased migration and the burden that puts on an increasingly shrinking national pool of resources. The language of capitalism, class and exploitation is overrun by a cultural lexicon intent on absolving the structures of power of any responsibility. In one of the historic problems identified by Satnam Virdee, ‘socialist nationalism’ has repeatedly thrived after epochal working-class defeats, in the context of a mass social movement’s repression and subsequently transfigured suction into the orbit and harmony of the national community. Brexit is what happens when even the ‘socialist’ component of that tendency is remoulded around far more thoroughly compromised and neoliberal conduits.
The other side of this coin informs our final factor: the defensive nature of the working-class Remain vote. Most predominant in the bigger urban citadels, it is no coincidence that the rapidly transforming dynamic cities, suggestive of class mobility despite its frequent intangibility, and offering multiple socialities and amenities, might give some weight to the story advocates of the European Union tell about it. The vision of a particular kind of cosmopolitan existence unconstrained by borders or passports, and open to a multitude of possible experiences, is an image that chimes with London’s picture of itself, even as property developers, landlords and untamed employers discard the possibility of its realisation for the vast majority of its inhabitants.
By any measure, most Remain voters have a more progressive attitude than their Leave counterparts towards multiculturalism, climate change, feminism and many other key markers of twenty-first century progressive politics. One of the two key pillars of the aloof Remain and Reform campaign led by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in conjunction with parts of the trade union movement, was to defend workers’ rights on the one hand and on the other, migration and particularly Freedom of Movement. There is absolutely nothing wrong with those aims in and of themselves, and in the context of the toxic referendum debate they were spoken out of necessity. Yet the sad reality that this campaign reflected, that to stand up against racism and the erosion of workers’ rights had become synonymous with defending Britain’s membership of the EU, represented a seismic shift in both anti-racist and trade-union thinking. This anti-democratic, neoliberal trading bloc, fortified at the expense of migrants and refugees and responsible for pulverising the livelihoods of workers across Southern and Eastern Europe, had become the apparent salvation of minorities and workers. This transformation not only signified a dulling of the horizons of socialists and anti-racists who once saw the Common Market and the state as an enemy and organiser of their oppressed existence. It exemplified the institutionalisation of anti-racism and the defeat of working-class trade unionism away from their inclination to mass popular action, towards a fragile dependency on the idea that the representative statist institutions of capitalist society could be relied upon to defend worker and racialised minority interests. A cleavage which had opened up out of the defeats of the seventies and eighties found its final, farcical expression in the notion that the EU was the last hope of progressives: out of the weakness of anti-racist organisation and the contortion of its theory arose anti-racist Remain; out of the weakness of trade unions arose the workers’ Europe.
The story of Brexit is one of the political decomposition of the working class. Anti-racism and social rights were pitted against sticking it to the elite, and vice versa. A profound, seemingly unbridgeable division had come to the fore in what, as far as David Cameron was concerned, should have been a gentlemanly affair between two wings of the British bourgeoisie. Gramsci’s ‘active-man-in-the-mass’, partitioned as he is by the contradiction between ‘what unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world’ and what he has ‘inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed’, is taken to its tipping point.
And Now What?
The populist interregnum after the 2016 referendum was a moment of volatility. In an effort to stamp her authority over Brexit, Cameron’s successor Theresa May called an election which saw her almost routed by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party uniting workers and the poor in both the multicultural urban citadels and the smaller denidustrialised towns over a programme of historically moderate, social-democratic class distribution and respecting the vote to Leave. A subsequent general election two years later, called by Boris Johnson against Parliamentary opponents seeking to stop Brexit, turned this on its head. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour – standing on a far more radical and transformative programme, but committed to a second EU referendum – were decimated at the polls, handing Johnson a seventy-eight majority. This radical socialist Corbyn had ended up reluctantly and unconvincingly articulating the orthodoxies of Europhile centrists. Having reversed his position on Europe and now appearing just like the ‘rest of them’, it is no wonder that a swathe of older workers would choose the vengefully tangible option to leave the European Union over a manifesto of policies which decades of working-class defeat had given them little reason to believe would ever materialise.
As we reeled from Boris’ brief Winter of Disbelief, many of us were still too much in mourning, both from the traumas of Corbynism’s demise and from the Covid-19 pandemic, to predict a new phase of revolt. When Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, the largest social movement in the history of the USA erupted onto its streets. This movement had huge reverberations across the planet. In Britain, the Black Lives Matter protests spread across 260 towns and cities involving hundreds of thousands of people, marking the largest and most widespread anti-racist mobilisations in British history. The issues this social explosion forced into the public conversation and the geographical depth of the movement should force the radical Left to think. Both about the paucity of its anti-racism throughout Corbynism’s tenure: abandoning or watering down critiques of policing and border systems for example; and also about the timidity of its outreach, seemingly shrunk by the disaster of December 2019.
Still in mourning, the left shouldn’t accept the right-wing’s culture wars narrative that the small towns of this country are lost to the old and racist, and the cities are for the young multiracial Left. The penetration of BLM into Leave-voting places like Rugby or Stoke-on-Trent, let alone other towns and areas that have never before seen anti-racist mobilisations, should be a source of optimism for our side. It should force us to rethink and re-embrace the potentiality of constructing the types of social blocs which Corbynism once provided an example of.
We ought to take this task seriously too, because what we can say for certain is that there lies an implicit dishonesty in the types of state and corporate anti-racism – as noticeable over Brexit as they were over BLM for those that were looking – which, whilst keen to preserve their relevance and moral efficacy, are less keen to disabuse themselves of the racial processes for which, in the form of money, control or legitimacy, they are so dependent. Similarly, the various shades of labourist anti-racism have been exhausted. The idea, popularised in recent years by Jeremy Corbyn’s detractors, that Labour is an anti-racist party is a nonsense. The Labour Party has always been an innovator in techniques of racial governance, and an insistent lobbyist among the working-class movement, that class ascendancy and national prosperity are one and the same. Paul Gilroy, writing in his classic There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, pithily remarked: ‘It is as if the only problem with nationalism is that the Tories have secured a near exclusive monopoly of it.’ The labourist insistence on such a position should be rejected.
As the black Left today, in the shape of organisations such as Black Lives Matter UK, figures out how to conjure up the mechanism through which Sivanandan’s ‘communities of resistance’ can develop forms of struggle attendant to the moment, the entire anti-racist Left ought to also begin to seriously think about how the especially classed experiences of what Valluvan terms the ‘everyday multiculture’ can be transformed into a political practice wedded to both proletarian internationalism and pushing out beyond the Left’s contemporary comfort zones in the big cities. If 2016 provided us with a warning shot as to how profoundly divided the working class is, 2017 offered us an example of transcending this.
Observing the intensely stratified horrors of the nineteenth-century American South, Karl Marx proclaimed, ‘Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.’ By this he meant simply that a working-class movement beholden to, and invested in the processes of racialisation which constitute its everyday life, will never be able to realise its own emancipation. The same is true in contemporary Britain, and if the working-class cannot escape the racialised nation form that structures our social existence, it stands little chance of enacting socialism.
* With thanks to Jonny Jones, Barnaby Raine, Jaice Sara Titus and Neil Rogall for their encouragement and comments.
Jonas Marvin is an independent activist and researcher, as well as a participant in the Frightful Hobgoblins Collective.
This essay first appeared in print in Salvage #10: The Disorder of the Future, our Spring/Summer 2021 issue, alongside another piece ‘Brexit From Above: British Capital and the Tensions in Global Capital Accumulation’.