Race Matters

Race equality and Brexit: One year on

Today (23 June) marks the first anniversary of an EU referendum result which not only upturned our political landscape but had a profound impact on our collective understanding of British identity. Here, Runnymede Director Dr Omar Khan examines the lasting effect on the UK's BME communities.

A year on from Brexit, Britain looks no more sure of itself than it did the morning the Leave vote was confirmed victorious. Far from creating clarity about our future course and identity, the referendum, its fallout, and the fraught, complex negotiations have revealed a Britain uncertain about its place in the world; we are uncertain about who we are. 

These issues are particularly concerning for black and minority ethnic (BME) people in Britain, as well as immigrants. Three-quarters of black people and two-thirds of Asian people voted to remain in the European Union. This was likely a reaction to the anti-immigrant nativism of the Leave campaign than any love for Brussels or an interest in freedom of movement.

Even the large minority of BME voters who votes for Brexit will be concerned about the rise in hate crime that followed the referendum result. Furthermore, the claim that non-EU migration (then running at 180,000 net) would rise upon leaving the EU was always a false promise, especially from those Conservative MPs and UKIP representatives who were also committed to reducing migration to ‘tens of thousands’. As with other such promises, the claim that non-EU migration would increase has been unceremoniously scrapped, with curry house owners only the most vocal about their dissatisfaction.

In many ways the issues Brexit has raised for race equality aren’t fully related to our membership in the European Union. As others have noted, attitudes on the death penalty and multiculturalism were among the strongest predictors of voting leave, suggesting that the vote reveals a deeper cultural or identity divide in modern Britain.

Stark versions of this ‘two tribes’ view of Britain place BME people all in the ‘cosmopolitan, better-off, outward looking, liberal’ tribe. This analysis misses out that BME people are more likely to be disadvantaged, and that their social and political attitudes may vary from the stereotypical ‘cosmopolitan liberal’ too.

Evidence suggests that BME voters were more likely to vote Leave in the referendum than to vote for the Conservatives in the 2017 General Election. There was a clear swing to Labour in diverse constituencies, and polls suggest that the BME Labour vote has risen to more than 70%. In particular, in the most deprived and diverse constituencies there were very large swings to Labour, and often large  rises in turnout.

These outcomes also show why public discussion of the ‘British working class’ as white and pro-Leave is so limited. As Runnymede has recently argued Minority Report: Race and Class in post-Brexit  Britain (pdf), there is much that unites the multi-ethnic working class across the UK, and rather than only focusing on the divides Brexit has revealed, we should remember how lack of resources, investment, and representation affect all working class communities. 

Nevertheless there are significant challenges for race equality post-Brexit. The minimal requirement for the government is that rights and race equality are not diluted through the process, as Runnymede and others have argued in the 2017 Race Equality Manifesto. Instead, we need to see a post-Brexit Britain that affirms the value of race equality, and the rights and protections that can make that value a reality.

Finally, Brexit does provide an opportunity for re-thinking our national identity. In many ways Britain was an unwilling partner in the European project, and specifically didn’t see the European Union as a guarantor of values such as liberty and democracy. Britain (or at least England) has a different account including Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution and incremental reform. 

At the same time, Britain still hasn’t come to terms with its own past and continues to suffer what Paul Gilroy has called ‘post-colonial melancholia’. As we take off the loosely warn cloak of European-ness, the challenge of facing up to that past becomes even more urgent.

Although we don’t yet see public or policy focus on this task post-Brexit, this honest discussion and reappraisal of our past is happening all around us. In Germany Angela Merkel is more confident of asserting the values of equality, freedom, democracy and minority right, and directly challenging domestic and international politicians who reject those values. By learning how we failed to live up to the best British values in the past, we understand better and become stronger supporters of those values today.

However Brexit is negotiated these issues aren’t disappearing. If immigration has dropped down the agenda that is likely to change over the coming years, with adverse effects for ethnic minorities wherever they were born. We must continue to argue for a positive, outward vision for Britain, and one that sees race equality as a fundamental British value.

In a sense, Brexit hasn’t changed things, but revealed what we already know: that Britain remains uncertain or in denial about who it is, and that this is still one of the biggest barriers to tackling racial inequalities today.
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