Racist talk is returning to English drawing rooms as post-Brexit Britons begin to question their position in the wider world.
It is now 5 years since the UK voted to leave the European Union. In Patricroft- a small town near Manchester, England- Peter Firth has witnessed a change in social attitudes since then.
“My neighbour’s been enjoying the hot weather. I commented on his tan and he responded by laughing and saying, ‘Yeah, you’d think I was a nigger’".
Firth was born and raised in Scotland. He’s been living in England for 12 years. “It might have been common to use racist language like that, openly, back in the 70s. But the drive behind Brexit was from old white English men who wanted just this- to make it ok to say stuff like this. People weren’t speaking like that 6 years ago. Today it’s the language that’s worsening, tomorrow it is going to be the behaviour”.
Firth’s brother-in-law, a single, well educated, middle class IT engineer in his late 30s, has recently started liking the videos of far-right nationalist Tommy Robinson and is now vehemently opposed to immigration, “particularly non-white immigrants”, because, Firth says, he thinks “they come here and change the culture”. “He’s a regular guy buying into this and I’m worried about how many others are falling for this nonsense”.
A ten-minute walk from Patricroft is the small, friendly and welcoming town of Eccles where, if smiled at, most people respond accordingly. Firth frequented the restaurants here before the pandemic. Though they’ve re-opened this summer he no longer visits the town. England’s football team is currently competing in Euro 2020. All the pubs in the town centre have draped their exteriors in English flags.
“Some of these flags will stay up well after the football now”, Firth laments. “We’re all going to have Englishness- which is inherently racist- shoved down our throats going forward. It’s the way the tide’s been turning and it’s what the powers that be want”.
Firth’s view is shared by many across Britain but doesn’t give the full picture. Next door to one of the pubs- whose clientele are all white- is a shop front displaying far more English flags than any other building. It is owned by Pakistanis.
Firth’s concerns, however, are not unjustified. UK Home Office data shows a rise in racist hate crimes in 2019-20 in England (and Wales), up 6 percent from the previous year.
But is a rise in racism the biggest factor behind increasing English nationalism?
“We tend to assume that nationalism is always about the hatred of difference but this is an unhelpful simplification”, says Simon Winlow, Professor of Sociology at Northumbria University and author of The Rise of The Right: English Nationalism and The Transformation of Working Class Politics.
“Elements of the population believe that unchecked immigration cannot be allowed to continue”. Winlow believes some of this is rooted in racism and is spurring nationalism but there is another crucial issue at play.
In 1999 Scotland was granted a devolved parliament and since then its autonomy has gradually increased. However, funding for Scotland’s public services still comes from UK wide taxpayers- mostly English citizens. Using this money the Scottish government provides free higher education and medical prescriptions. The UK government doesn’t provide such things in England and so many English people feel they are funding privileges they themselves are missing out on, breeding resentment.
Additionally, Scotland’s parliament has been dominated by Scottish nationalists who want independence from the UK. The politics of England and Scotland are rapidly diverging over issues such as welfare and immigration and a complete decoupling of the nations is being sought by the Scottish government.
“The rise of English nationalism seems dialectically connected to the nationalisms of other British nations. As Scottish and Welsh nationalist movements attempt to drag themselves free of Britain, so men and women throughout England come to reflect upon their own national history and what it means to be English”, argues Winlow.
An Ugly Reflection
People like Claude Hendrickson feel this reflection is resulting in more racism. A youth and community worker from Leeds, his parents migrated to England from the Caribbean island of St Nevis & Kitts in the late 50s. He witnessed race riots in his hometown in the 80s and feels more civil unrest is inevitable.
“The biggest issue we as people of colour have in the UK now is that Britain is out of Europe. The far-right English nationalists helped that happen, not the left-leaning Scottish nationalists. Far-right politics is an English thing more than British. Many English see England as white and as their land which we are on. They are easy to stoke up and get thinking it’s all the fault of Asians and blacks”.
He, like Firth, believes this means far-right values, no longer kept in check by the relatively centrist values of the EU, will now hugely shape government policies and social attitudes, worsening racism.
He’s concerned about how children’s minds are being shaped by an increasingly nationalist, post-Brexit culture. A recent survey revealed a third of children in the UK aged between 6 and 15 have heard racist comments at school. One example of this can be seen in a 6-year-old black boy recently being told by a white classmate he didn’t want to sit beside him because of the colour of his skin.
“We have another generation of race riots coming”.
This increased vulnerability to being stoked up has deeper roots. “The fundamental issue is security. Neoliberal globalism has corroded security – the problems of psychological, social and economic insecurity are legion,” argues Winlow.
“In outsourcing production to China and handing it the means to establish itself as the world’s premier surplus economy, western states have relinquished a good deal of traditional power. At the same time, under global liberalism there has been a massive redistribution of resources from national populations to an international oligarchic class whilst environmental change has transformed trends in human migration. As migrants move to western nations undergoing their own problems, new forms of ethnocentric nationalism advance. There is racism here but not just that”. Pressure on wages, he says, is a bigger factor. But for the likes of Hendrickson pressure on wages and racism are in a symbiotic relationship.
“Migrant communities are used as smokescreens”, says Hendrickson. “Rich people want to keep poor people poor." He feels English nationalism facilitates this suppression.
As England questions its position in the wider world after changing its position in Europe the entire world will be keeping an eye on what develops. The last time England questioned its place in the world it brutally colonised a third of it. “Back then Great Britain sure did rule the waves”, says Firth. “This time the tide has turned; it will be little England washed ashore”.