On Tuesday, I attended a meeting in London. On the train back home, late in the evening, I sat next to a middle-aged couple. Elegantly dressed, they looked as if they had just attended the horse races in Ascot. For all of our journey of more than two hours, their conversation, loud and angry and clearly audible, revolved around the need to quit the European Union and get rid of all the immigrants that were stealing British jobs, burdening public services and living off welfare.
Ten hours earlier, on the train to London in the morning, a largely identical conversation took place among my seat neighbors, a group of middle-aged middle-class men in polo shirts and jeans. In fact, on each and every of my recent train journeys, I have had to listen to this very same conversation. It has likewise become a frequent companion in restaurants and pubs, and even at work.
Today, for instance, an acquaintance who works at a large university in the Midlands told me that most of his colleagues will vote for Britain’s departure from the EU, in part due to serious concerns about immigration. Add to this newspaper stories about the greatest invasion of the West since the Mongol conquests in the 13th century and blatant lies told by leading politicians about the threat immigration poses to British public services, and you may understand why I feel less than comfortable in Britain these days. In the run-up to next week’s EU referendum, I fully expect front-page headlines about the threat migrants pose to cute British pet rodents.
This discomfort is exacerbated by the realization that all this has been long in the making. It is a result of decades of lies about the EU, foreigners, immigrants in Britain’s virulently right-wing press. It is a result of the government stigmatizing immigrants (1, 2). It is a result of the way in which the term ‘migrant’ is now used in British public life: in order to lump together refugees, low-skilled workers, highly-skilled professionals, transnational families and others whose lives cross borders under a single epithet, which can then be used to dehumanize, exclude, stigmatize and punish (1, 2). In Britain today, there exists a direct continuity between the language of far-right political parties and the language of mainstream mass media (1, 2, 3). If Britain does vote to quit the EU, it will not be in response to complex arguments about sovereignty, economic globalization, trade and international relations. It will be in a fit of xenophobic fury.
Whatever the result of the referendum will be, it seems likely to have lasting consequences for foreign academics in Britain. Academic labor in Britain, as elsewhere, is heavily stratified along lines of ethnicity, nationality, gender, social class and so forth. Nonetheless, universities can also be cosmopolitan spaces, in which scholars are brought together by shared intellectual interests regardless of their national, cultural or ethnic origin.
I gained a strong sense of the cosmopolitan potential of academic life when I first moved to Britain as an undergraduate student, a decade and a half ago. My classmates at the University of Essex had come from all over the world, and we were taught by a similarly diverse group of academics. Today, many of the foreign academics I know tell me about their growing understanding that they are not welcome in Britain any longer. I came to Britain because I felt that I could make a genuine contribution to intellectual life here, through my research, my teaching, my work with my colleagues, my encounters with my students. How can I make such a contribution if I feel that, as a ‘migrant,’ I am regarded as an undesirable presence in this country? This is a question which many foreign academics who have worked hard to come here and build a career here may be asking themselves right now.
If Britain votes to leave, we can expect a sharp decline in our working conditions that will set us apart from our local colleagues. Even if Britain votes to remain a part of the community of European nations, it is likely that a profound feeling of disquiet will remain for many scholars. It may be that we are witnessing the end of truly cosmopolitan academic life in Britain.