Almost six years after the 2016 referendum, scholars are still grappling with the causes as well as the consequences of Brexit. There is some consensus that it resulted partly from an already deepening cleavage between ‘identity conservative’ and ‘liberal’ sections of the electorate, expressed after the vote as a polarisation between Leavers and Remainers. However, the referendum campaign itself and its roles in political and social change have received less continuing attention.
Conclusions about the referendum have been widely accepted which are not fully supported by the evidence: for example that immigration was secondary to the core question of sovereignty; that the issue was mainly the preoccupation of the secondary Leave.EU campaign rather than the officially-designated Vote Leave; and that the spike in hate-crimes during and immediately after the referendum did not reflect a larger problem of racism in Brexit.
My new study – drawing on research by political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and others, reports from a wide range of organisations, press articles and public commentary – addresses these questions.
It locates the campaign within a historical perspective on how hostility to the EU related to the longer tradition of anti-immigration politics on the British right. Although Nigel Farage’s launch of Leave.EU’s Breaking Point poster became the emblematic moment of the referendum, it was Vote Leave which was the central actor in the campaign. I show that the organisation mounted a two-phase campaign in which (as Dominic Cummings acknowledged) immigration became increasingly central.
This worked on two levels: combining Johnson’s appeal to ‘manage’ immigration with crudely alarmist propaganda, echoed by the Brexit press, about the threat of Turks and – implicitly – Muslims coming to the UK.
The campaign’s focus on potential immigrants rather than Europeans already in the UK appears to have partly been a strategic move to avoid pushback, reinforcing a misleading promise that nothing would change for EU citizens (Vote Leave leaders would abandon this after the vote, and Amber Rudd, Home Secretary in Theresa May’s government, told the Brexit Witness Archive that no one asked for it to be honoured). A complementary strategy aimed to win ethnic-minority votes by prioritising Commonwealth immigration, while the Remain campaigns largely failed to challenge these Vote Leave orientations.
I compare Vote Leave to previous Conservative uses of immigration. Although Margaret Thatcher capitalised on the impact of Enoch Powell’s ideas after his notorious 1968 speech, Randall Hansen points out that the issue was not central to any late 20th century general election. Tim Bale argues that the Tories consistently ‘pulled their punches’ on immigration well into the present century. In this perspective, Vote Leave was the first ‘mainstream’ right-wing UK national election campaign to go all-out on immigration, and it appears to have paid dividends, simultaneously mobilising broad anti-immigrant sentiment and pulling out enough habitual non-voters to help take Leave over the line.
I also compare the immigration policy effects of 2016 with those of 1968. When Powell warned of ‘rivers of blood’ unless black immigration was halted and reversed, he was marginalised and ultimately failed in his objectives. In contrast, Leave leaders have achieved near-total political power, and theirs was a victory for the anti-immigration tradition in British politics as well as for anti-Europeanism, even if Farage, who originally fused the two, saw his agenda appropriated by the Conservative right.
It is crucial to understand the structure of the Leave vote: two-thirds of Leave voters had previously backed UKIP. In turn, as radical-right ideas were mainstreamed, the mainstream party was radicalised or ‘far-righted’ (although we need a better term for this direction of change) and anti-Muslim tropes were used by Johnson as he won the premiership and the 2019 election.
These were successes for what I call ‘political racism’, the mobilisation of racist sentiment for political goals, a concept which complements the emphasis on structural racism which dominates racism analysis. I argue in my concluding chapters that this remains a powerful perspective with which to analyse the shifting UK politics of immigration, asylum and minority rights. Although polling shows some liberalisation of attitudes to immigration since 2016, this both indirectly confirms the salience of the intensive anti-immigrant campaigning before and during the referendum and needs to be understood in the light of the victory it achieved.
The Johnson government’s radical responses to the Channel crossings issue, culminating in the proposal to deport some arriving refugees to Rwanda, suggest that it still perceives anti-immigrant voters as important in its electorate. If the government’s crisis deepens, we may expect a continuation or even an escalation of this kind of politics, although it may not become as dominant as it was in the exceptional moment of the Brexit referendum.
By Martin Shaw, Emeritus Professor of International Relations and Politics, University of Sussex.