Brexit: Britain’s Xenophobic Search for National Identity

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In the few days following “Brexit,” I followed anxiously the articles observing the increased anti-immigration sentiment, often erupting into violence, coupled with the rhetoric of nationalism and the assertion of British identity. Ironically, a week before the referendum saw the 104 anniversary of the birth of Enoch Powell, the Conservative British politician whose “Rivers of Blood” speech roused overwhelming anti-immigration sentiment in the late 1960s. It seems today’s Britain may be taking a page from its former self.

Speaking to the Conservative Association in Birmingham on April 20, 1968, Powell declared in a premonitory flourish that he saw the “River Tiber foaming with blood” and warned against a day when non-white immigrants outnumbered white Britons. In 1968, the United Kingdom was on the cusp of a large immigration “crisis.” The independence of its former colonies in Africa precipitated the expulsion of many people of South Asian-descent who had moved to and lived in Britain’s former African colonies, particularly Kenya, for many generations. These citizens of the former British Empire became stateless after the decolonization of Africa and many of them sought to move to the United Kingdom following their expulsion from Kenya. Politicians dubbed this wave of immigration the “Kenyan Asian Crisis,” and Powell’s speech was in direct response to this phenomenon. Powell called for the abandonment of the British Commonwealth, the last link to Britain’s former vast empire, and the preservation of “Englishness,” which Powell considered the jewel of British identity and precluded immigrants and people of non-Anglo-Saxon descent.

Powell’s speech roused widespread anti-immigration sentiment, especially in industrial cities and among white, blue-collar workers, who staged marches and demonstrations in support of him and the expulsion of South Asian and other non-white immigrants. Powell’s supporters expressed frustration at the economic stagnation and the “corruption” of British society with these other cultures. Underpinning the outcries for the preservation of “Britain for the (white) Britons” was both a nostalgic yearning for Empire and a sense of loss in its unraveling. After World War Two, the rapid decolonization and decline of the British Empire precipitated renewed reflection on the heritage of “Englishness,” which once again played a significant role in British identity. Powell’s harkening call to return Britain to its Anglo-Saxon heritage revealed a sense of longing for a Britain that eluded imperial disappointment and returned to its “untarnished” roots. To a time before immigration disturbed a cultural and racial homogeneity that never truly existed.

The Smithfield meatporters march against immigration.
The Smithfield meatporters march against immigration.

The similarities are stark in Britain today, where UKIP has risen up on a xenophobic campaign and 51.9% of the country voted for Brexit, largely to curb immigration. Attacks on immigrants, campaign posters warning against job-stealing foreigners, and large-scale protests against refugees eerily resemble the marches and chants on the docks and in front of the House of Commons of some fifty years ago. Economic stagnation, immigration, and an influx of refugees have led people to gravitate toward rousing speeches that no longer forebode rivers of blood but still promise a bright future in a narrative of British isolationism and racial homogeneity. British identity is shakier than ever today, and the Scottish independence referendum can perhaps attest to that even more than the fluid borders within the European Union. Amidst the calls to “make Britain great again” is the unspoken (or perhaps blaringly outspoken) yearning for the mythical past of racial homogeneity. If that’s the past they’re searching for, then Brexiters would have to look a lot further back than they might think. Juxtaposed with the late 1960s, Brexit seems a twenty-first century attempt, once again spearheaded by opportunistic politicians, to reassert a national identity with empty promises for better days at the cost of multiculturalism and inclusion.

It should be noted that, despite Powell’s speech, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw Britain’s commitment to European unity: it joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 and voted to stay in 1975. This time, the move is in the opposite direction, pushing away from the European Union like Powellians once pushed away from the Commonwealth. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that all British citizens are experiencing this identity crisis and acting this way. Just as politicians and large swaths of the public vehemently opposed Powell, so too have we seen the dismay and anger in the aftermath of Brexit among many sections of Britain. Despite the protests against Powell then, the “Rivers of Blood” speech was nevertheless the harbinger of the conservative turn, evidenced by the restrictive 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act and the victory of the Conservative party in the 1970 general election. We may and probably will see similar changes in the coming days and years. One thing’s for sure: this assertion of self, in the form that 51.9% of the voters have chosen, does not come cheap. In 2016, “Little England” seems to have won, but this time, the move might just prove irreversible.

Protesters against immigration in Dover in February 2016.
Protesters against immigration in Dover in February 2016.

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