Since the vote in favour of Brexit, there has been a reported rise in racial abuse suffered by members of the black community. While the EU and the UK’s presence therein has no direct linkage to or implications for African or Caribbean countries, to the minds of many, the vote to leave the EU was synonymous with a vote against immigration; both from within the EU and outside of it. Clearly, there is more to the EU than the issue of freedom of movement, moreover it is clear that – irrespective of what some may attach personally to Brexit – the move to leave the EU is of no direct consequence to the immigration status of Africans and Caribbeans legally.
The wider issue here is thus that the Brexit debate has been hijacked by xenophobes and, in turn, has forced members of the black community to approach the subject of Brexit on a largely reactionary basis, that is: because we are black, we feel that we must reject what would appear to (at least partly) be a racist discourse and therefore support “Remain” arguments. While this is understandable, it has worryingly led black social actors away from the actual questions of society and policy that Brexit poses.
In the context of the now imminent June general election, this reactionary discourse among ethnic minorities risks further fuelling the dominance of misplaced Identity Politics in ethnic minority voter choices, many potentially seeing “Soft Brexit” policies as somehow more “Pro-minority” or “Anti-racist”. For a number of reasons stated below, I posit that when approached purely as a matter of policy, Brexit could otherwise be viewed as an opportunity for the black community at large. My reasoning is as follows.
To echo MPs such as Dominic Raab: the EU inveterately favours Big Business to the detriment of small businesses. Put simply: if Brussels is dictating the course of regulations affecting trade, it is the large corporations that have the resources to instruct lawyers and lobby EU institutions for a better position. Local businesses, offering the same goods and services (but without the luxury of expensive tactical advice or lobbying presence) will inevitably lose out. Combined with the visible trend of middle-class people moving to working-class areas, this has a domino effect: as the bigger chains further their interests in the EU, they are able to flourish in these newly gentrified areas and as a result, local business owners face a challenge to their livelihoods and consumers in these areas see the cost of living rise. Waitrose is less affordable than the corner shop or the market, and so on. Eventually, there is no choice but for members of the original working-class communities to move to areas where the price of living is lower, and the smaller outlets have no choice but to close up shop. As a result, independent (often ethnic minority) business owners are being systematically pushed out of traditional ethnic minority hubs, such as Hackney and Brixton.
A number of campaigns have been set up as of late in an attempt to combat this problem, cases in point being the Brixton Pound community currency, the petition to rescue various Brixton businesses from eviction and the “I love Hackney” campaign. While there is no doubt there are some positives in historically lower income areas welcoming in the middle classes and developing mixed-economies, gentrification must be kept in check in order to prevent original communities from being completely expelled; and the disproportionate bargaining power as between large corporations and locally owned businesses in the context of the EU exacerbates the risk of this being the case. As such, Brexit offers a chance to more effectively control gentrification.
The treaty of Rome, with its ethos of “ever closer union” was arguably the beginning of a project to develop the EU into a super-state. By default, minority groups should be mindful of the activities of any state, especially a large one. The following instances exemplify why:
1. The Suffragette Movement (1903): women demanded the vote from the state, with many women being imprisoned and Emily Davison dying for the cause.
2. The Sexual Offences Act (1967): to be gay in the UK only started to be legalised at this point (while partially legalised in England, it remained illegal in Scotland and Northern Ireland). Before then, gay men like Alan Turing were being imprisoned and chemically castrated as a matter of public policy.
3. The Macpherson report (1999): following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, an inquiry was commissioned which revealed the fact of institutionalised racism in the police force and spawned the Race Relations Act 2000.
Hence, beyond policy, history would suggest that it is impossible for a state to be completely neutral, even if it means well. Like any honest human, a state will take on its own presumptions and sets of preferences which will at times favour some groups to the detriment of others. It follows that I can envision only two logical methods by which to counter state discrimination.
The latter approach is potentially more efficient and realistic. The former, while noble in its goal, is essentially a purification exercise: a project in ensuring the correct action of all state representatives at all times. To continue further integration into a super-state with a wide (and growing) list of policy interests is to risk a fresh influx of democratic short-comings among its actors; Brexit counters this risk.
The political landscape of mainland Europe
The success of Marine Le Penn in the recent French presidential elections and the popularity of the likes of Norbert Hofer in Austria and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands stand as indicators that on subjects such as race relations, many other EU member states are far behind the UK in terms of supporting a progressive model of multiculturalism.
This is compounded by the fact that the UK Conservative Party currently sits as part of the EU’s wider “European Conservatives and Reformists” Europarty , and therefore must fraternise with the likes of Latvia’s National Alliance, many members of which have been accused of Nazi-sympathies, fascism and racism. Our largely centrist political parties are hence being exposed to dangerous far-right discourses, in the name of the EU project. Brexit will reduce (if not dismantle) these affiliations.
The UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth
While the arguments that stronger economic ties with the commonwealth could “replace” our relationship with the EU are quite debateable, fundamentally, I side with the central arguments of the “Leave” campaign in that I do not believe we will fail economically due to a Brexit. There are other proven models that the UK can take inspiration from.
From a more ideological angle, the Commonwealth is a potentially awkward part of English history, but factually, because of it the UK has “Special Relationships” across the globe and these are being neglected in favour of the EU project. For example, the proposals for various types of Commonwealth Visa have amounted to nothing. Brexit thus represents an opportunity for the UK to put less resource into an optimistic project, the rewards of which are not always obvious, and foster its relationship with nations that have been contributing to this country’s economy and culture for centuries.
In closing, so far the ethnic minority discourse on the subject of Brexit appears to have largely been led by a movement against racism, and perhaps with good reason. However, with Brexit being a topic central to the 2017 general election, we must be careful to not allow our concerns about the ignorant who have latched on to Brexit in order to further a xenophobic agenda to completely steer the conversation within ethnic minority communities. Brexit could very well suit our agenda too, as such, we owe it to ourselves to observe the topic objectively.