Why has Brexit Britain not had a sustained, open-ended public debate about immigration and the roles that immigrants play in British society?
The outcome of Britain’s referendum on European Union membership in mid-2016 has prompted vigorous assertions of nationalist feeling, including nostalgia for Britain’s lost empire. Alongside resurgent nationalism, there has been a spike in publicly visible expressions of xenophobia and racism. Bestselling newspapers such as the Sun and the Daily Mail inflame anti-immigrant sentiment, as they have for many years before the referendum. The British immigration authorities have continued policies that were well-established long before the referendum.
On the one hand, they attempt to create a hostile environment for immigrants. On the other hand, they use tightening legal restrictions on immigration and settlement in Britain to extract commercial profit from would-be migrants. Alongside anti-foreign sentiment and its applications in migration policy and public life, vocal minority voices point to the significant contributions which immigrants have made to economic development and the labor market, and there is now some concern as to the growing numbers of EU citizens who have left employment in vital professions such as nursing and moved abroad.
There has been, however, no sustained and high-profile public conversation about the importance of immigration and socio-cultural and ethnic diversity to British society. On one hand, this may have something to do with the nature of public debates in Britain after the EU referendum. From one day to the next, the referendum severed whatever there had been in Britain in terms of a sense of supra-national, European citizenships. As a sense of shared belonging to Britain and Europe was replaced by a new nationalist narrative, EU citizens in Britain became a cultural and ethnic other, and, consequently, found themselves marginalized in public debates. In this sense, the othering of EU citizens through the referendum replicates the exclusion which immigrants and descendants of immigrants already faced in British public life. Thus, post-referendum public debates have been about the future of Britain and British citizens, and questions about the lives and futures of EU citizens in Britain have faded into the background.
Moreover, the absence of an open-ended public conversation about immigration speaks to the ways in which power organizes truth. Over many years, incessant anti-immigrant rhetoric from large parts of Britain’s political class and commentariat and the misrepresentation of immigration in the country’s media seem to have created a kind of anti-immigrant consensus among the British public. Widespread negative attitudes towards immigration give expression to this consensus.
On the other hand, even when Britain’s membership in the European Union was not at stake in the way it is today, a positive narrative about the EU and its citizens failed to emerge into public life. Instead, Britons were treated to urgent warnings about an impending Eastern European invasion in the wake of the accession of countries such as Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union (1, 2). Britain’s anti-immigrant consensus is grounded in lies that, by way of incessant repetition, have become truth. It may be for this reason that Britain’s political leaders, from the right to the left of the political spectrum, seem to find it so hard to say anything positive about immigration that reaches beyond weak and narrow arguments about immigrants’ economic usefulness. In the context of Britain’s post-referendum nationalist upsurge, it may have become harder than ever to question the anti-immigrant consensus.
In the absence of a self-conscious public debate about immigration, something truly special may soon be lost. Perhaps much more for continental Europeans than for Britons, the European Union has always been just as much about shared European citizenship as about economic development. Growing up in Germany very near the Dutch border, the rise of European citizenship became tangible through the opening of borders, the establishment of a joint currency, school exchanges, and many other little, mundane events that nonetheless created a sense of living in a shared, European space in which national differences and hierarchies mattered less and less. Brexit marks the destruction of European citizenship, the re-establishment of national differences and hierarchies, and a return to 19th century-style nationalist politics. How could anything good possibly come from this?