2007 - 2022

Brexit Immigration Lies

13256347_10208554682758279_6777401519041456237_nTo begin, I will start by stating that I am mixed race, half Scottish, half Pakistani. I have been on the receiving end of racism, though thankfully that has not happened much in my 30 years. I say this not to make any claims to speak for anyone else, but to make clear I know what racism is. World events often peak a sense of vulnerability, particularly when it comes to the racist backlash that comes with terrorism, and the growing demonisation of Muslims. Everyone knows that it doesn’t matter what religion you are, or how irrelevant terrorism is to it, if you are brown, you are a potential target for racism. So to with immigration. The politics of immigration is not really about numbers of people, but about the ability to provoke the alienation and persecution of immigrants based on their nationality to rationalise economic failure and injustice.

In a taxi recently, the driver, an Asian man, started talking to me about immigration. He said he was worried about the growth in the Roma community. He recited the same rhetoric deployed against his family once upon a time. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone of immigrant origin say something like this. At an anti-fascist stall in Brick Lane some years ago, I had a black guy come over and tell me about why he was voting BNP. Then recently, we’ve seen this happen more. Video clips post-Brexit often include similar stories. It is a genuine phenomenon.

Yesterday I was asked about this. How could black people, and Asian people, denounce immigration? It didn’t seem to compute. But there is really a very simple reason. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is so hegemonic in parts of the UK, that it is seen as a form of self protection to assimilate to it. It is to say: all I can do is save myself, so I will join the chorus of anti-immigrant rhetoric, and build the idea that people like me are really okay, it’s these new ones coming that are arriving that are the problem.

Brexit has brought the reality of anti-immigrant hegemony into focus. And, it is not going away. The Left needs to accept we have lost a lot of ground on this territory over the past decade, and we need to work out a way to claw that ground back.

First let’s talk about the Leave vote. It is seen as an anti-immigrant vote. A large section of it is – but not all. I have seen people say about the anti-immigrant vote in particular that it is based on racism, ignorance and misguided patriotism. Again this is true. Incidentally, if we are to extrapolate this tendency from the Leave vote then it must also exist in Scotland where over a million people voted to exit the EU.

The point is Brexit is both an anti-immigrant vote and an anti-establishment vote, because immigration has become a proxy for the impact of neoliberal globalisation. Not enough decent housing? Immigration is at fault. Schools too full? Blame immigration. Wages being cut? That’s because of immigration.

This is the politics of Nigel Farage, who has been quite successful in displacing class issues onto immigration. The political consciousness of many Leave voters directly connects any defence of immigration with ‘the liberal establishment’.

But how we react to this, as racist incidents increase is, key. Analyse the results, and review the footage. You can tell the ideological racists apart from anyone else. They don’t talk about the strain on jobs, services or homes. They talk about Muslims, terrorists and Pakis.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about the reality of life in a clapped out town, with crumbling services, and no sense of a future. People here are stressed. They are penniless. Life is about getting through each day. Forget ambitions about traveling Europe. Life is about survival. Prospects for a well paid job are scarce. This is the result of neoliberalism.

In these areas, the left is absent. I don’t mean the organised Left, though they don’t exist here in any real sense. I mean the entirety of what passes for the left in the UK. The trade unions once flourished here but they receded as industry and jobs evaporated. In its place a public sector, which now lies in tatters after years of austerity. In this world – a different planet to Bob Geldof – jobs that do come along are low paid, precarious, workfare. There is a yearning for identity, and having a place in the world and a deep sense of injustice.

The answer to this has been provided on a plate by the Right. Everything – from stretched services, insecurity, unemployment and alienation – can be blamed on immigration. It is a very simple solution. Immigration as an issue provides a weak target for people without power. And conversely, it provides a toxic smokescreen for the failures of those with power.

It is blared from every right-wing rag. It is pushed by the British State. It is an ever present discourse fed by the need to keep the powerless divided. It has been a permanent feature of modern human history. And everyone knows it.

David Cameron knows it too. And yet he stands in post-Brexit Westminster and says that ‘we cannot tolerate intolerance.’ And liberals who generally don’t like Cameron give him credit for saying racism is bad. It provides me with no solidarity. I am not thankful to him. It is his government, and his system, which have bred division in our society. He cuts services and hands them over, at a knock down price, to his class. He launches schemes like Prevent which demonise Muslim youth. He is no friend of anti-racism.

It got me thinking that words are cheap and that the medium is sometimes more important than the message. Who cares if The Guardian commentators and the white beneficiaries of globalisation don’t like racism? They have a role to play – sure. But they can’t lead the argument. What is needed is to give voice to the voiceless. Working class anti-racism will always mean more – because it stands on the side of the weak and against the strong. It sweeps aside the notion that you can be in favour of grinding austerity at the same time as being a solid anti-racist.

In the context of post-Brexit UK, this differentiation – between liberal ‘anti-racism’ and socialist ‘anti-racism – needs to be made. Liberalism looks to smooth over the cracks. I have been shocked by the way people have responded to the Leave vote by instinctively attaching themselves to institutions of power like the EU, rather than seeing it as a wake-up call that large parts of the UK, especially northern England, have entrenched anti-immigrant positions and could be alienated by liberal UK so much that they only see one possible political home: Ukip. We live in the era of neoliberal decline – and it’s not going to look pretty. It’s going to require stripping back every contradiction in the capitalist system. It doesn’t matter whether you agree to that or not – you are going to see it happen anyway.

Anti-racist politics are not just the meetings and demonstrations about why racism should be opposed, though these are both needed. Anti-racist politics is the local campaign to keep the library open that can give rise to class unity over racial division. Anti-racist politics is the articulation of an economic plan for de-industrialised towns and cities that redefines the meaning of ‘take back control’. Anti-racist politics is countering right-wing populism with a left-wing populism that demonises the billionaire banking class in a much more powerful way than immigrants could ever be demonised. Anti-racist politics is the rebuilding of trade union organisation among precarious workers who are vulnerable to racist arguments. The crisis of capitalism is here to stay, and that will threaten the comfort zone of what we understand to be mainstream political discourse. The years ahead are the kind of years that will dictate all of our future.

Right now the EU is not being discussed in the UK. Mad – you must think. But it’s not. What is happening is that the built up social, economic and constitutional crisis is being refracted through the EU referendum and now the Brexit aftermath. Underneath the entire conversation lies class and race, and their intersection with the political elite, austerity and capitalist decline. Whatever happens going forward, we will only win the argument on immigration if it is located within those fault lines.

The EU itself is part of those contradictions, not our saviour from the ignorant hordes, as The Guardian would suggest. On the one hand the EU will punish the people of Greece with brutal austerity and use any means to suppress Greek democracy. On the other it is the pivot around which immigration politics is being debated in the UK. In the end we need to exert our own agency as an independent force to build a new world. In the words of Malcolm X – it is impossible to be both a capitalist, and an anti-racist.

Comments (17)

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  1. Helen G says:

    Excellent article. As clear as day.

  2. KUC says:

    The last sentence from Malcolm X is pure rubbish. Opportunity and success through improved literacy and entrepreneurship will lead to acculteration. It takes work and first generation sacrifice. Look at the success of the Cubans in the US. It wasn’t social programs and the welfare of the left that led to success … otherwise our Puerto Rican population would have better succeeded. KUC – Florida

    1. Edwin Moore says:

      Yes Malcolm X didn’t care much for white people either

  3. w.b.robertson says:

    Too easy to blame immigration as the cause of discontent. Once upon a time Labour and the trade unions represented and educated and fought for “ordinary” workers…but for the past 40 years no political party wanted to know them. Politicians, instead, concentrated on wooing the so called middle ground. The worms have now turned. The Labour Party has awoken too late.

  4. Robin Turner says:

    Racism is underpinned by the analysis of humanity into races. There being just one race. Racial discrimination occurs when difference is seen as a source of weakness so that the discrimination survives because of that weakness.

    We have racial discrimination laws but we do little to challenge the underpinning analysis of humanity that is racism. The underpinning is institutional, whether by the state or the family for example.

    We have lost the power of trade unions over the same period of time that discrimination laws have been enacted. The article is correct about class – class struggle being the most important but it is largely absent.

  5. Pogliaghi says:

    The lady in the video claims that local people voted Leave because of the EU “imposing austerity” and neo-liberalism.

    The EU didn’t impose austerity and neoliberalism on Britain. Britain imposed austerity and neoliberalism on Britain. Solidarity with Syriza? Aye, sure. Maybe the attendees of an SSP branch meeting think that, but typical working class people really don’t. Be serious please.

    It seems large parts of the far Left does not know what to think, except the working class are right by default. Thus they refuse to develop an analysis. The RISE manifesto states: “We do not have a position on the EU”.

    Working class voters were manipulated by “Leave” untruths; on the other hand they were justifiably voting against globalisation; the vote was anti-immigrant and it wasn’t; anti-immigration was not xenophobic; except it sometimes is, if it means we can have a Two Minute Hate for Nigel Farage .

    Some of the reluctance to support European integration originates from far Left knee-jerk anti-Americanism; the EU as exemplar of the “neoliberal world order” But globalisation does not stop at the borders of the European Union, and beyond it there are even more ruthless institutions of transnational capital (notably the IMF).

    “We’ve got nothing to lose” the woman says, while driving in a car, in a developed first world nation which still (just about) has functioning infrastructure and a welfare state. On the contrary: you’ve still got a *hell of a lot* to lose, and you might very well be about to lose it in Brexit-Privateer Britain.

    1. Scott Macdonald says:

      Hi Pogliaghi,

      You are quite wrong about the SSP. They rejected the argument that a Leave vote would be an act of solidarity with Greece.

      The SSP’s new international secretary – Sophia Lycouris – is a Greek national, and wrote about this carefully. She largely agrees with you, that austerity is hammered home by the Conservative Party.


  6. howauldzyergranny says:

    And how is it, as you mounted such effective protests such as banning Bibi from Stirling Uni, chasing Trump from his golf course and bawling No Pasaran from the back of a van to each other after a failed Scottish election that the Left became absent from these working class towns ?

  7. M T McGuire says:

    Great article, lots of food for thought, I would take issue with this bit:

    ‘Anti-racist politics is countering right-wing populism with a left-wing populism that demonises the billionaire banking class in a much more powerful way than immigrants could ever be demonised.’

    So … replace it with class war? Swap one toxin for another? Good plan.

    Surely the obvious answer for a happy and unified nation is not to demonise anyone, avoid blaming anyone, it’s too late for blame anyway, it’s pointless and what’s done is done and now we have to work together to get out of it.

    Maybe I’m mad but I think all hate is shite. To me, what we should be trying to do, is to imbue people with a sense of justice, of right and wrong, of pride – the right kind of pride – in their nation and each other and a desire to work for the common good. And yes, that might make people take a pretty dim view of the way some bankers go on but my point is, blanket coating one or other set of people, be it by their colour, accent, place of origin, religion or yes, their job as ‘bad’ people who are ‘to blame’ will solve nothing. That’s just lazy. Especially when we know what demonising people does and how it feels.

    Starting a new and different problem for our children to sort out will hardly help us.

    Surely a big part of making this country work is to END hatred, not just point it in a different direction.



  8. M T McGuire says:

    OK, I’ll never comment on a political article after wine, ever ever again.

    1. tickle says:

      I was gonna reply to your first post but saw your second post. I like your boozey good vibes even if I disagree with the analysis. 😀

  9. Kenny says:

    The trade unions do nothing – literally nothing – to show solidarity with people in precarious work. I graduated over a decade ago and have yet to find a permanent job. I’ve tried to join unions wherever I’ve worked on my various temporary assignments but the unions don’t want temps as members. I did get to join Unite once, while on a year long job in a third sector organisation. That was all well and good, but while I had a say in vote for the LGBT rep, no-one thought of campaigning for me to be allowed access to the pension scheme. No-one ever even asked me about my particular needs. As far as I could tell, I was another few quid in the coffers and nothing more. If “the left” is going to do anything in future, it needs to engage with the unemployed and underemployed and precariously employed. It needs to be actively recruiting people like me and actively promoting unionisation in places where there is no recognised union. It’s a tough row to hoe organising a union in a new place. I tried in one job and the relevant uniom was almost dismissive of me – “when you’ve got enough people to warrant recognition, talk to us and we’ll come and meet you.” I’m not a union organiser! I have none of the necessary knowledge or skills! Bear in mind too that I’m someone who values the purpose and power of a strong union. Younger, less politically aware people – kids working at Tesco or McDonald’s, for example – don’t even think about unionisation, much less have the time, energy and resources to mount a campaign without a bit of support and guidance.

  10. Allan Armstrong says:


    I agree that the Left should not be calling for another EU referendum. Nor should it support the other more likely possibility. Referenda only have advisory status under the UK constitution, so this one could be set aside with a majority Westminster vote. Such a move would certainly represent salutary lesson for all those Brexiters, who were talking about bringing back power to the British people. However it would only provide the Right populist and neo-fascist Brexiters with an even better opportunity to organise. I would not write off the possibility of certain Left groups forming a Red-Brown alliance in such a scenario, given their cheering on the ‘Red’/Brown alliance in eastern Ukraine at the moment.

    However, now that attacks on migrants and non-white UK residents have greatly increased since the Brexit vote, I think it is imperative to highlight the exclusion of non-UK and Commonwealth EU migrants from the EU referendum vote. 16-18 year olds, who would suffer the longest effects of any Brexit, or follow-up compromise, were also excluded. Yet both these groups were given the vote in the Scottish independent referendum, so there is a clear precedent. This also goes a long way to highlight the political difference between the two referenda campaigns.

    The two main wings of the Scottish independence campaign (SNP and the non-official campaigns such as the Radical Independence Campaign) clearly supported ‘Yes’ on a civic national basis (anybody living in Scotland who wants to be part of Scotland is welcome). In contrast, the two wings of the Brexit campaign, led by Johnson and Farage (with the support of the mainstream Remain unionist parties) clearly promoted an ethnic version of Britishness, excluding huge numbers who wanted to remain. Their refusal to extend the vote to 16-18 year olds is an indication of their conservatism.

    However, the Brexiters can not complain if a general election is held to decide on the way forward, where candidates can openly state where they stand. The Brexiters provided no programme for Brexit negotiations and sold their followers ‘a pig in a poke’ – demonstrated by their ditching any increased funding for the NHS within a day (shades of Cameron’s ‘English Votes for English Laws’ response straight after the Scottosh independence vote). The SNP government had at least published an extensive White Paper in 2014 (whatever we may think of its political limitations) to show the electorate what tit was going to do after any independence vote.

    The most legitimate resolution, at present, is a general election, where parties put forward their programmes for the new political situation. I think the Left could create an independent political profile by saying that we oppose the EU set-up too, but want to remain united with migrant EU workers and other non-UK subjects.

    During the Scottish independence campaign, RIC fought on the basis of ”Another Scotland is Possible’, ‘Another Europe Is Possible’, ‘Another World is Possible’, Now that the focus is on the EU/Europe (two different things) we need to put forward a clearer idea about ‘Another Europe’ should be – i.e. a federated, secular and social European Republic. If you like. this offers a challenge to the implicit politics of the mainstream unionists – ‘Another UK is Possible’, ‘Another EU is perhaps Possible’, ‘Another Word is Impossible’, and to the reactionary Brexiters ‘ – ‘Back to 1972/1956/1939/1914’ (take your choice), ‘Fuck Europe’, ‘For a White Christian dominated World’.

    What makes this a possibility under the current political conditions? Some of us have argued for the latent reality of a Democratic Revolution In Europe. The Scottish independence referendum and the Catalan independence struggle have already shown this. The vote of the Greek people to defy the EU bureaucracy was another indication of this. It is to the credit of RIC, in the context of its own contribution to the democratic revolution, that we recognised this. With the support of the STUC we organised the biggest demo in the UK in solidarity with the Greek people.

    The fear of the EU bureaucracy at these challenges shows that they too were aware of this possibility. Unfortunately the myopic ‘Brit Left’ can’t see this but want to go back to either 1975 or 1945 on their British road to the past. The bureaucratic British Labour Party and the British revolutionary sects are caught in a time warp, reflected in their anti-democratic behaviour and organisations. In relation to the first of these Jeremy Corbyn must surely be having his eyes opened, but his loyalty to the UK state will likely prevent him drawing the necessary political conclusions.

    The Syriza leadership did not have the politics to address the situation in Greece, and it would have needed solidarity support on the scale of the 2003 anti-war protests to force an EU bureaucracy retreat. I would argue that the Podemos leadership is even less prepared, when it sees the way forward as forming a coalition government with the Spanish Socialist Party. The best that can be said about current conditions of political stalemate is that the Spanish ruling class is being thwarted for now. This is similar to the situation in the UK now opened up by the majority Remain votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland in particular – but maybe we are witnessing the People’s City State of London challenging the City of London’s unionist and imperial empire!

    It is this latent reality of a European Democratic Revolution which makes any Brexit so reactionary. It is as if, whilst workers prepare themselves for a major struggle against their bosses, you decide not to join that struggle , but take your lead from those who say, “Hey no, some sub-managers have offered us a way out by giving us employment in a new local arms-length management unit. Let’s follow them”!

    Our other possible Europe is already latently present in all those migrant communities across the EU, in constant communication with their original homelands. They should be very much a focus for the Left’s attentions in the current situation.

    Yours in struggle,

    Allan Armstrong

  11. Crubag says:

    Scotland has traditionally preferred centrist parties, first Labour and then the SNP, to socialist parties. Social protections will come from the mainstream parties.

    This is illustrated by RISE being outpolled by the Scottish Christian party in 2026 (Solidaritu did a little better but still way behind UKIP).

    But I’ve never understood the socialist attachment to unions. They’re an essential part of a market society, but they exist – for better or worse – to promote the interests of a specific group of workers, not everyone, or even all workers.

    And they work closely with employers to achieve their objectives – evolution rather than revolution.

    1. Crubag says:

      2016! I don’t have a crystal ball…

    2. catriona says:

      Don’t knock the Unions. They’re the ones that fought for workers rights and decent pay. Thatcher did her best to destroy them by killing off our manufacturing base – remember Orgreave?

      The EU has helped defend workers rights which is one of the reasons sensible folk should want to stay in it.

  12. Gashty McGonnard says:

    Great article overall, Jonathon… but you’re still stuck in a mental trap that neoliberalism set for the Left 30 years ago: you’re still conflating “anti-immigration” and “anti-immigrant”. They’re not synonymous.

    Sudden, massive migration is never purely ‘a good thing’, from a human perspective. It’s only a definite ‘good’ for exploiters of cheap labour in the port of arrival, and others of the local profit-making class. It only makes sense if you think GDP growth is the summum bonum. It’s often bad for the already-resident population, driving down wages and living standards. It’s an enormous stressor for the migrants, and for the communities they leave: it weakens and breaks all kinds of familial and cultural support networks; the offspring of migrants have poorer mental and physical health prognoses, unto the n-th generation, than the average of either the sending or receiving country. You won’t find many upbeat emigration songs in the folk corpus of countries with a diaspora.

    The Left used to accept these unfortunate, blatantly obvious facts about emigration (Marx, Keir Hardie, Connolly – all internationalist anti-racists – bemoaned the forced economic migration that capitalism entails). So why do we shy away from these facts now? Because we want clear blue water between us and the Kippers? Because the left-wing of the establishment is charged with oiling the joints of commerce with messages of tolerance? Because if we criticise the neo-libs’ version of forced migration, somebody might mention Stalin or Mao???

    The EU and IMF could have given a massive Marshall-Plan-style boost to the local infrastructure and economies of the accession countries. It could have heavily incentivised Western businesses to invest in the East. It could have bolstered the pride and confidence of Central and Eastern Europe, and enhanced the overall dynamism of the EU-bloc’s economy. Instead, it took the myopic, thatcherite option of forcing property bubbles on the already-rich West, by inflicting Chicago School shocks and mass emigration on the ex-Warsaw Pact.

    Meanwhile, our “Left” debated identity politics and talked down to the less-than-PC working classes who were being harmed. Making hate speech and discrimination unacceptable is important and laudable, but it’s not enough. The Left stands indicted of treating the symptoms of tribalism and ignoring its causes. The rise of the poor xenophobic brexiteer is the gauge of our collective failure.

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