How Brexit Unleashed the Dragon

After endless articles and discussion pieces written on the reasons why one-third of the British population voted to Leave the EU in the recent referendum, there is still reason to explore some of the over-arching concerns implied by this eventuality.

Renowned Oxford University geographer Professor Danny Dorling argues that years of austerity and inequality have divided an already broken society, driven even further apart by the Tories since the 2008 global financial meltdown.[1] Many others have argued that right-wing politicians, with the sole aim to scare the populous into a Brexit vote, whipped up a fundamental fear of immigration. These politicians took existing anxieties about the new ‘other’ in society and generated further alarm through sheer fabrications and falsehoods.

There is also a growing sense that these last two weeks have revealed a dark and ugly underbelly in English society previously unseen or unknown until now. The reality is that it has always been there. It is part of the nature of the imagined English nation – a cultural phenomenon emerging from the heritage of the Anglo-Saxons, not one as an island established by waves of immigration and settlement – from the Romans to the post-war ‘New Commonwealth’ immigrant groups to 21st-ceuntry EU groups. Successive UK governments tried to eliminate structural and cultural racism in Britain by introducing various anti-racist, anti-discrimination and pro-equality policies, however to only partial avail the situation as the deep-seated characteristics of the problems of racism are entrenched in all aspects of society.

Therefore, the question is, is the cause and immediate outcome of the EU referendum about racism again or is there something else to consider. Race and capitalism, as WEB Du Bois and Oliver Cox have argued, are central to the realisation of the American Dream.[2] From slavery to colonialism and then to imperialism, Britain was a vast empire, peaking in the early part of the twentieth century before two wars with Germany ended the reign of Britannia. However, the end of the Second World War did not end the sentiment among vast aspects of society that Britain is still supreme, whether among elites in London operating in institutions wedded to the idea of Britain’s permanent greatness, at all cost, or among working class communities whose loyalty to the monarchy remains unchallenged. Fast-forward to the EU referendum, these working class communities, now left behind for good, sensed the need to give the establishment a bloody nose for ignoring them for decades. From Thatcherism onwards, neoliberal economics has led to the growth of the financial services sector but decimated industry and manufacturing, the heart and soul of many regions in the Midlands and the North.

Historically, however, both the city of London and manufacturing towns in the north grew out of advantages again from imperialism and colonialism. Moreover, as early as the 1905 Aliens Act, anti-immigration sentiment was rife. Its sole purpose was to keep Jews fleeing persecution in Europe from entering Britain. There was anti-Semitism among the establishment in the lead-up to the Second World War. During the bombings campaigns over Poland, while the British Jewry lobbied Churchill’s government for recognition of the mass killings of European Jews by the Nazis, the Allies bombed all over Poland, except the extermination camps, which were deliberately avoided. As witnessed over the centuries, modern racism is not just about colour – but also about culture and class.

The racism endured by post-war African-Caribbean and South Asian communities has been captured by many an academic study.[3] From race riots in Notting Hill in 1958, to the sus laws in the 1970s, Black Britons faced the wrath of colour racism. South Asians experienced culturally effeminisation while Black Britons were hyper-masculinised. The ‘race riots’ of the early 1980s were, however, not an explosion of resistance against police brutality and racism within the criminal justice system, but often an alliance among disaffected groups all affected by deindustrialisation and economic restructuring in general. South Asians were quietly getting by in spite of all the problems they faced until Muslim groups became politicised in the wake of global conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war and the soviet invasion of Afghanistan, both spanning the breadth of the 1980s.

After Rushdie, the first Gulf War and the Bosnian Crisis, British Muslims are perpetually associated with identity politics. No appreciation of the idea of a multicultural Britain, the idea of diversity as a good for its own sake, could mollify the white working classes or elites in the establishment. Without the removal of structural inequalities and the barriers to social mobility put in place by a racialised class structure, multiculturalism was merely a liberal idea with little relevance to people’s lives in reality. Instead, it became a political football, instrumentalised at will. Come 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’, Western Muslims across the globe faced an existential threat to their very existence, securitised, criminalised and incarcerated at will.[4] There is little mention of valuing differences in such a climate of intolerance and bigotry. The outcome is to push communities inwards – out of which spill those few who self-annihilate in order to self-actualise based on an eschatological framework.

As the EU expanded to include various Middle European, South East European and Eastern Europian countries, a wave of ‘new racism’ engulfed Britain. This was not characterised by colour or even religion but through a fear of ‘other’ based on the idea that these others were culturally undesirable, socially inferior or politically irrelevant. These groups came because the EU rules permitted them to do so. Upon arrival, they work hard, pay their taxes and stay out of trouble. Net welfare costs are minimal in the immediate and in the long-term, as such groups provide a considerable boost to the coffers of the state. However, all this is lost on aspects of Britain who regard these new foreigners as a burden on the state and a risk to their already marginalised life-chances. This is where politicians operating out of London take full advantage of their fears.

Herein lies the centrality of the argument presented here. Racism and capitalism are incredibly interlinked to this day. Brexit fizzed to the surface a fear of the other that stems back to a much wider historical period in British history. Brexit unleashed a sleeping dragon. The spike in hate-crime has demonstrated how much of this pent-up fury is against Eastern Europeans but also how it has further evoked Islamophobia. With the Tories in disarray, Labour about to engage in civil war and UKIP now redundant as a political project, the Lib Dems are the only ones making a case of reversing Brexit. The economic and political cost of Brexit is still to be determined, but with a broken Britain now reeling in deep division, hate and disinterest towards the rest of the world, unless the dragon is restrained and placed back into the pit of hell from which it escaped, all our near futures are condemned.


[1] Danny Dorling (2014) Inequality and the 1%, London and New York: Verso; Danny Dorling (2016) ‘Brexit: the decision of a divided country’, BMJ, 354 doi:

[2] WEB Du Bois (1903) The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, Chicago: AC McClurg & Co; Oliver Cox (1959) Caste, Class and Race, New York: Monthly Review Press.

[3] EJB Rose et al (1969) Colour and Citizenship: a Report on British Race Relations, London and Oxford: Institute of Race Relations and Oxford University Press.

[4] Akbar S Ahmed (2003) Islam under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-honor World, Cambridge: Polity.

1 thought on “How Brexit Unleashed the Dragon

  1. Comments such as “people in this country have had enough of experts” uttered by Michael Gove, one of the icons of Brexit, during the campaign do reflect the level of ignorance among Tory top brass. The former education secretary is using ignorance to feed more ignorance, let alone the well-established lies of Boris Johnson, another icon of the Brexit…etc. No wonder Britain now faces the unknown and a bleak future!

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