“Go Home”: Mapping the unfolding controversy of Home Office immigration campaigns

Book cover

Detailed Findings Report Cover

This is the project website for “Go Home”: Mapping the unfolding controversy of Home Office immigration campaigns, an 18  month research project that explores the impacts on local communities and national debate of current publicity campaigns about migration by the UK Home Office.

Our detailed project findings were published in June 2015 at the end of the funded part of the project, and a book based on the project was published in March 2017 by Manchester University Press. We continue to write on findings from the project, and the website will continue to be updated to reflect this.

The project was supported by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and by support in kind from four national civil society partners. The research was conducted by academic researchers from seven UK universities, in conjunction with local community organisations.

The research project set out to:

  • document and describe the current wave of high-profile Home Office campaigns against irregular immigration, in six local areas of the UK and at a national level
  • identify the impacts of government migration policy and its communication, and their real-time interaction with public debate and civic mobilisations, in six local areas of the UK and at a national level
  • produce real-time analysis and findings that intervene in debates and inform community action and policy formation
  • evaluate the impact of our own interventions, in real time
  • produce research that is of value to civil society organisations, both in terms of outputs (evidence, analysis and a toolkit for urgent activist research) and participation in the research process (enhancing networks and skills)
  • develop new methodologies that enable a specific focus on the links between digital, face-to-face and ‘traditional’ communications and policy channels
  • evaluate the effectiveness of the research and dissemination methodologies used in the project, in real time
  • explore longer term collaborative outputs and funding which enhance the impact of this urgent research intervention.

This website will be updated as the project progresses, with information on emerging findings and the process of the research. You can also follow the project’s Twitter account, @micresearch


What is the message of Hungary? Reflections on refugees, referendums and resistance


By Linda Nagy

Recently Hungary has been featured more frequently in international news media due to the country’s response to the increasing influx of refugees and migrants. The Hungarian government’s harsh legislation, the razor-wire fence and police violence at the borders as well as the xenophobic billboard campaign as part of the ‘National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism’ in 2015 have led to many headlines and much critique.

The latest political development in this regard was the October 2, 2016 referendum initiated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his governing right-wing Fidesz party on the mandatory resettlement quota. Although referendums are usually celebrated as the pinnacle of democracy, what makes the Hungarian case controversial was not only the government’s campaign leading up to the referendum but also its reception of the outcome.

A few months prior to the referendum the government started a campaign urging the public to answer ‘no’ to the question: ‘Do you want the European Union to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the consent of the National Assembly?’. The main rhetoric of the campaign was to ‘Send Brussels a message’, implying the European Commission, whose policymakers proposed the idea of resettling refugees in the member states of the EU along with a financial aid package intended to contribute to the integration of refugees to the given host country. The Hungarian government’s position is clear, it rejects this proposal and is doing everything in its power to gain public support for its views beginning with placing hundreds of billboards across the country with messages such as:

  • ‘Did you know that the Paris attacks were carried out by migrants?’
  • ‘Did you know that there has been a major increase in harassment against women in Europe since the beginning of the migration crisis?’
  • ‘Did you know that nearly one million migrants want to come to Europe from Libya only?’
  • ‘Did you know that more than 300 people died in terrorist attacks in Europe since the beginning of the migration crisis?’

Seeking to maintain public attention, the campaign kept utilising more and harsher statements and as the date of the referendum came closer one could hardly escape this ubiquitous propaganda. It was not only visible in the form of billboards in public spaces, but also as posters on the sides of public transport, as images in newspapers and as adverts in between television and radio broadcasts. The £8.5 million of public money spent on the campaign even allowed the government to send out a letter to each citizen eligible to vote with a specific request: ‘Do not let others decide on your behalf, we ask you to vote no on 2 October!’ as well as an 18 page-long detailed pamphlet highlighting that ‘we have the right to decide who we want to live with’; ‘immigration puts Europe’s future at risk’; ‘illegal migration increases terror threat’ and ‘mandatory resettlement endangers our culture and habits’.

The exaggerated level of fear and threat manifests in a paranoia which is useful for the government to legitimise its restrictive policies and practices. Besides the publicity campaign the recruitment of 3000 ‘border-hunters’ was launched who will join police and army forces in patrolling the borders and keeping out asylum seekers. Claiming to inform Hungarians about these alleged threats, the campaign instead invites terrorism into the discourse, is alarming and provoking while further reinforcing xenophobia, intolerance and hate. Refugees arriving from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan suffer a backlash precisely because they are identified with the threats that they are trying to escape. Without acknowledging their refugee identities, dignity and agency, referring to them as ‘illegal migrants’ and criminalising them as potential terrorists the campaign portrays them as threats to the security, economic welfare and cultural identity of the Hungarian nation and Europe. Let us not forget that refugees crossing Hungary today are walking on the footsteps of nearly 200,000 Hungarian refugees fleeing in 1956.

However, it cannot be assumed that these views are received homogeneously across the public. Despite the strong anti-refugee rhetoric of the government and its supporters, there is a counter-discourse emerging which challenges this hostile position on the grounds of solidarity and human rights. Hungarian NGOs started a counter-campaign urged the public to boycott the referendum by either not attending or casting an invalid vote by ticking both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ on their ballots and thus making the referendum a failure. The ‘Magyar Kétfarkú Kutya Párt’, a fringe political party placed billboards and posters in public spaces with satirical statements such as ‘Did you know that there is a war in Syria?’ ; ‘Did you know that people are not stupid?’ and the opposition also encouraged people to ‘Stay at home, stay in Europe!’ on 2 October.

The majority of Hungarians indeed either stayed away or gave an invalid answer to an unclear, misleading question — the actual EU proposal would mean the resettlement of 1,294 refugees to Hungary and the quota system was suggested in the first place to ease the weight on border states of the EU. As a result, the referendum was invalid given that the number of valid votes did not reach the 50% threshold with only 41.32%. Even though the referendum is not legally binding due to the low turnout, the government and its supporters still celebrated the outcome as a victory based on the 98% of those taking part backing the government’s standpoint, rejecting the EU plans. The government tries to communicate the invalid referendum as a success with some follow-up billboards stating that ‘We have sent a message to Brussels: 98% NO to the mandatory settlement quota’, the production of which cost another £3 million and benefitted the allies of the government, certain media and advertising firms. An extension of the government’s agenda, gaining even more control of the media was the shutting down of ‘Népszabadság’, one of the leading daily newspapers in the country, also known for criticising Orbán and his government as well as the quota referendum.

For some, staying away came with a significant risk given that in certain rural regions, especially those with a Fidesz leadership, the dependence on government support and the fear of austerity pressured people into voting. Although silence is often considered as agreement with a particular political standpoint, it is not necessarily the case. Silence and ignorance can be regarded as resistance too as actively choosing to be ignorant and resisting that way requires a certain level of engagement and is not the same as not caring at all or assuming that one is not affected by political issues entirely.

In a country with an ethnically homogenous population, where phrases such as ‘Roma crime’ have been present in the political vernacular for decades along with systemic racism and the marginalisation of ethnic minorities, coupled with the rise of right-wing radicalism it comes hardly as a surprise that the tactic of the government is to mobilise masses around exclusion. It seems to me that this system thrives on division, its interest is to uphold current inequalities and hierarchies in order to maintain power. This aim is served by keeping the public eye on the refugee and migration issue, steering away attention from other socio-economic problems in the country’s healthcare and education systems among others. It is both controversial and ironic that the government is so vocal about rejecting economic migration while there is an ongoing out-migration from Hungary for economic reasons.

However, a reason for hope is the various modes of resistance, the counter-actions by individuals, communities and organisations withstanding the government’s agenda, refusing to be homogenised as complicit in this process: people boycotting the referendum by not showing up, or casting an invalid vote; people taking to social media posting their invalid ballots with messages on them expressing their disagreement; NGOs working on helping refugees and migrants to integrate, on educating the public and advocating for rights. These show that there are ways of resistance even within this system, that there is political discussion, engagement and action diverging from the campaign’s intentions.

These anti-refugee and anti-migrant sentiments are definitely not confined to Hungary but have parallels across Europe and the USA. Although the inimical position of the Hungarian government and its supporters to refugees have been widely condemned abroad, a conscious resistance from within is the first step towards systemic change which is why it is so important. It must be realised that this fear mongering rhetoric and these hostile attitudes are truly dangerous, they divide and polarise, poking larger and larger holes in the very fabric of social cohesion that will have repercussions for people on both sides of the Hungarian borders.

Linda Nagy graduated from the University of Warwick in 2016 with a BA in Sociology specialising in Cultural Studies.

The Protective State: Theresa May and the revenge of the Home Office

By Will Davies

The revenge of the Home Office

One of the tasks we faced during the Mapping Immigration Controversy research was to get inside the mindset of the Home Office and its officials, in an effort to understand how things had reached such a dire juncture. This was methodologically difficult, but involved some off-the-record conversations with various civil servants past and present.

A powerful image emerged of a department that had become embattled over a long period of time. In a ‘neoliberal era’, in which national borders were viewed as an unwelcome check on the freedoms of capital and (to a lesser extent) labour, and geographic mobility is treated as a crucial factor in productivity and GDP growth, the Home Office became an irritant for Treasury and BIS officials, with its obsession with ‘citizenship’ and security. Clearly there has been an ideological conflict within Whitehall for some time, regarding the appropriate role of the state towards markets and citizens, but which has been masked thanks to a succession of highly prominent, very ambitious Chancellors pushing primarily economic visions of Britain’s place in the world. One can imagine the resentment that would brew amongst Home Secretaries and Home Office officials, as they are constantly represented as the thorn in the side of Britain’s ‘economic competitiveness’, year after year.

Beyond this, there is a more subtle sense in which the Home Office occupies a different position vis a vis the public, which sometimes translates into class politics. Home Secretaries are often moved by the plight of those who are defenceless in society: children such as Baby P, the elderly people plagued by rowdy teenagers on their estates, the victims of Harold Shipman (whose suicide apparently tempted then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to “open a bottle“). Often, these people are defenceless because they are powerless, and they are powerless because they are poor, less well educated and culturally marginalised. And yet they are still British, and deserving of the state’s defence. One former Home Office official I spoke to suggested to me that the Home Office has long been identified as the voice of the working class inside Whitehall, and feels looked down on by Treasury and Downing Street Oxbridge elites. This person compared the ethos of the Home Office to that of Milwall fans: “No-one likes us, we don’t care”.

Home Secretaries view the world in Hobbesian terms. The world is a dangerous and frightening place, in which vulnerable people are murdered, assaulted and blown up, and these incidents are a result of state failure. What’s worse, lawyers and Guardian readers (who are rarely the victims of these events) then criticise the state for trying harder to prevent these tragedies through surveillance and policing.

I suspect that many Home Secretaries have developed some of the above symptoms, including (or maybe especially) Labour ones. Blunkett and John Reid were both shaped by it. However Theresa May’s long tenure (6 years) and apparent comfort at the Home Office (often a political graveyard) suggests that these symptoms may have become more pronounced in her case or meshed better with her pre-existing worldview. This includes a burgeoning resentment towards the Treasury, George Osborne in particular (who she allegedly sacked with the words “go away and learn some emotional intelligence”), and the ‘Balliol men’ who have traditionally worked there. In making sense of Theresa May’s extraordinary speech at Conservative Party Conference yesterday, the first thing we need to do is put it back in the context of her political experience. For her, the first duty of the state is to protect, just as Thomas Hobbes argued in 1651, and this comes prior to questions of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

Looking after people

The ‘protective state’ that May was outlining was of a state that looks after people. This is very different from the neoliberal state, whose job was characterised by Peter Mandelson, Bill Clinton and other Third Wayers in the 1990s as ‘steering not rowing’. The target political audience of the neoliberal politician was always the ‘hard-working family’. This imagined unit had ‘aspiration’ and wanted to ‘get ahead’. They needed the state to keep interest rates low (on the assumption that they want to own assets) and otherwise maintain a ‘level playing field’ so they can reap the rewards of all that apparent hard work. Clearly most people cannot be conceived of as entrepreneurs in a neoliberal society, although the ‘sharing economy’ is now belatedly pushing that original Thatcherite dream much more deeply into the fabric of society. But they are nevertheless exerting themselves in order to become something better – richer, happier, healthier etc. They are optimisers, just as economists assume.

May has replaced ‘hard working families’ with ‘ordinary people’, which includes the ‘working class’. She says she wants the Tories to be the party of ‘working people’, though it no longer sounds as if these people are looking for much improvement, growth or change. Faced with the unknown, they are more likely to retreat than to found a start-up. They need looking after. This means that the necessities of life (health, energy, housing) must be kept affordable, and threats must be kept at bay. The role of the state is to prevent change in general, on the assumption that it is likely to be undesirable, than to initiate or facilitate it. Clearly, in an age of political and economic crises, the ‘protective state’ must develop a very clear idea of who is to be looked after and who is to be rebuffed…

The state that looks after people (its own people) is not quite the same as the state that cares for people, of the sort that was developed in Britain after World War Two. If May wanted to push care to the centre of her vision, this would mean a new politics of welfare, one which used fiscal policy to respond to basic social and physical needs. Needs are things we all have by virtue of our humanity, not our identity. A care-oriented state pursue a far-reaching, cultural reversal of the Osbornite, neoliberal condemnation of welfare-recipients. In fairness, there have already been signs that the more punitive end of recent welfare policies will be abandoned. It will be interesting to see how much more there is to come in that regard. But for the time being, it sounds as if the May government is going to listen to the fears and demands of its particular people, rather than seek to map and meet the needs of humans in general.

Protection… and protectionism?

Economic liberals are already nervous that the new British Prime Minister is a protectionist. Outside of her Home Office brief, there are signs that her thinking – and that of her policy advisor, Nick Timothy – departs from the Thatcherite, neoliberal consensus in key ways. Abandoning Osborne’s austerity targets and declaring war on tax evaders are signs that the financial sector and very wealthy can no longer view the Conservative Party as their tool. Timothy’s vision of ‘Erdington conservatism‘ (named after a working class area of Birmingham) imagines the state intervening in the economy, to defend the interests of the immobile against the mobile, for reasons that liberals will never really understand because they’ve probably never experienced hardship. Resonances with ‘Blue Labour’ and ‘Red Toryism’ have been widely noted.

There is obviously no contradiction between social conservatism and economic protectionism: both are hostile to the fluidity, cosmopolitanism and perceived snobbery of liberalism. Theresa May’s comment at this week’s Conservative Party conference, “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” was pitched as much at bankers as at leftwing intellectuals. Whether it was also a ‘dog whistle’ regarding refugees probably depends on what breed of dog you are. Marine le Pen certainly didn’t disagree. But if anything, it was the Thatcherite effort to weld social conservatism to economic liberalism that was contradictory – as Stuart Hall famously diagnosed [pdf] at the outset – and not this latest turn towards economic interventionism. This latest reconfiguration of conservatism could ultimately be a more sustainable one even than Thatcher’s.

We currently have no idea what her actual intentions are in this respect, just as we have no very clear idea of how actively she would like to police the boundaries of ‘British citizenship’. In all likelihood, the two agendas – the economic and the nationalist – will emerge in tandem, just as we got a hint of with the suggestion that companies be forced to list their foreign workers. Prejudice in society is far more plausible when it is also pursued in the economy. The reason German neoliberals (or ordoliberals) of the 1930s and 40s were so hostile to cartels and monopolies was not because they saw them as necessarily inefficient, but because they viewed them as a necessary precondition of the Nazi political economy: non-market economies can be more easily requisitioned in the service of political goals. By contrast, competitive markets perform a liberal function, because they offer a blockage to the social and political ambitions of interventionist leaders. Without suggesting any direct analogy here, if neoliberalism is indeed now over, we should remain aware of the various new social and cultural opportunities this offers the state, and not only the new economic ones. Protectionism (of indigeneous industries and workers) is never simply an economic policy, but involves clear statements of who is in and who is out.

The European Union was founded partly around ordoliberal principles, hence the inclusion of anti-trust and anti-State Aid provisions in the Treaty of Rome. Member states are simply not allowed to ‘pick winners’ and defend ‘national champions’ or look after those that have greater claims to indigeneous economic rights (though the application of these rules has been variable). This European post-nationalism is what Brexit was pitted against. May and Timothy therefore have far greater legal and political opportunity to pursue a protectionist agenda, now that Britain is on its way out from that ordoliberal framework. If May was a secret Brexiter, one can understand why. The question is to what extent any of the grave fears of the ordoliberals will be realised as a result of Britain’s withdrawal from the ordoliberal framework.

Post-class Conservatism

Britain is a more unequal society than it’s been since World War Two. Class is a powerful determinant of the lives people lead. However, one reason why May’s ‘protective state’ has become possible and necessary is that class doesn’t perform quite the same cultural and political role in sustaining the status quo that it did prior to neoliberalism, and certainly not as it did prior to the 1960s. One thing that Brexit demonstrated, which May is clearly keen to exploit, is that cultural divisions no longer map tidily onto economic ones. Working class lives are buffetted by change, including the changes represented by immigration, but New Labour only ever invited people to embrace even more change. Traditional and aristocratic middle classes have not been in the driving seat of British politics for over 30 years, as financial elites and nihilistic investment funds exploited the modernistic exuberance of fin de siecle Britain, London especially. I heard it said that Thatcher wanted a society of people like her father, but produced a society of people like her son.

Clearly May wants to change that. But the new cultural coalition that she aims to represent – of working class Brexiters, pensioners, Daily Mail readers and traditionalists- scarcely holds together as a single identifiable group. Nor are the boundaries around these identities very clear cut. I’ve no doubt that they may aggregate into a fearful electoral resource, which could yield May a big majority in 2020. But it is quite another thing for the state to actively intervene to look after these people, when historically it was the job of cultural institutions, ties, networks and communities to preserve their way of life, for all the reasons pre-Thatcher conservatives celebrated. To wed a Burkean ideal of community to a Hobbesian ideal of the protective state is problematic and potentially dangerous. The difficulty for Burkean conservatives today is that neoliberalism destroyed the resources on which ‘little platoons’ depend and thrive, meaning that tacitly understood conventions and rituals are now to be reintroduced by the very thing that conservatives traditionally wanted to avoid depending on, namely the modern state. The gaping hole in Blue Labour and Red Tory agendas was always the question of state-craft: what exactly will the state do to promote ‘faith, flag and family’?

A danger lies in the fact that the state is going to have to start performing the acts of conservative discrimination that historically were performed via cultural capital and softer forms of power. An example of how deranged this can look lies in Nick Timothy’s suggestion that work visas only be granted to foreign students of Oxbridge and Russell Group universities: the dull snobbery of a General Melchett-type, with scant understanding of the modern world, risks being translated into government policy. Equally, where the state starts to intervene in ways that are culturally or nationally biased, policy-makers will find that snobbery or chippiness work perfectly well when vocalised in the pubs of Dorset, the op-ed pages of the Daily Mail or the working men’s clubs of Scarborough, but start to feel far more troubling when converted into the heavy-handed, printed word of the statute book.

Whose values?

It sounds as if the ‘protective state’ is ready to discriminate, and won’t be ashamed to admit it. It will discriminate regarding good and bad economic activity; it will discriminate between good and bad migrants; it will discriminate between good and bad ways of life. May is not afraid of trying to sort the wheat from the chaff. This may be why grammar schools symbolise something important for her, regardless of the evidence pitted against them. In that respect alone, there is continuity with neoliberalism, which sought to divide ‘winners’ from ‘losers’ in a range of different tests and competitive arenas.

The key difference from neoliberalism is that the latter uses rivalry itself to identify the worthy. The neoliberal state offers no view on what a good company or school or artist looks like. Instead, it uses rankings, contests and markets in order to discover what rises to the top. The question that any neoliberal or liberal might now want to ask is this: on what basis do you distinguish the worthy from the unworthy, Theresa May? Are we now simply to be driven by the contingency of biography, where Timothy is fuelled by the anger he felt as a lower middle class boy in the early 1990s, or May is guided by the example of her Anglo-Catholic clergyman father? Is the fact that liberals haven’t experienced being the victim of regular petty crime or a failing school now going to be the main basis for ignoring them?

Politicians have always used cultural tropes in order to build popularity and even hegemony. Thatcher spoke a nationalist, militarist language, while doing considerable harm to many institutions and traditions of Britain. Blair had his football, coffee mug and badly-fitting jeans. Conservatives have often struggled to find a coherent post-Blair cultural scheme, alternating between fake displays of liberalism (Cameron’s huskies) and the embarassing reality of their party base. Right now, however, it seems as if the small symbols are no longer merely semiotic in nature. Matters of nationality and cultural tradition no longer seem like window-dressing: once the state is offering to look after some of us, but not all of us, how one looks, talks, behaves and learns might come to be the most important political issue of all.

This post originally appeared on the PERC Blog http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/the-protective-state/ on 6th October 2016

iStreetwatch: Mapping and resisting street harassment

by Hanna Thomas

I watched Nigel Farage’s victory speech in the early hours of June 24th. When he claimed the result of the EU referendum as a victory for ‘real people’, it felt like my heart dropped into my stomach. ‘Am I not a real person?’ I thought. Who were these ‘real people’? Because of the racist and viciously anti-immigrant tone of the Leave campaign, I couldn’t help but think that by ‘real people’ he meant white, non-immigrant people.

Even if that was not Farage’s intended meaning, it appears I am not alone in my interpretation. Almost immediately, reports of racist and xenophobic hate crime spiked. Simmering resentments spilled forth over that following weekend, those with racist sentiments given some perceived permission to be more vocal and more bold. More entitled to treat their neighbours, colleagues, and service providers as less than human.

I have experienced my fair share of racism over my life, most of it in public spaces, so I know it has always been a problem, always there. But I heard one too many stories from my friends, and friends of friends, during that weekend after the referendum. I didn’t want to just hear these stories, or console. I didn’t want them to remain anecdotes, easily dismissed. I had an idea to map these stories, in real time, and demonstrate that racist and xenophobic street harassment is a real problem and likely to get worse in this new political climate.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 21.22.44

Inspired by reporting sites like iHollaback (that collects stories of sexist street harassment) I gathered a group of skilled friends together and in 5 days we built iStreetWatch.

iStreetWatch is an online mapping tool that tracks racist and xenophobic harassment in public spaces. By accepting reports from people who have either experienced or witnessed a racist or xenophobic incident, we aim to make these now everyday incidents visible to a wider community; help people at risk map which areas are safer to be in, and collect data over time to help monitor the correlation between these incidents and inflammatory speech from the media and politicians.

We have received 232 reports from all over the country, from Cornwall to Edinburgh. They range from the daily micro-aggression to the all out physical assault. They span people from all walks of life — Black, Polish, Muslim, Greek, South Asian, East Asian, Italian — and immigrants and non-immigrants alike. The “n” and “p” words are proving popular. The phrase “F**k off back to your country” is a common refrain. And this is all information gathered in just the last 10 days.




The reports make for gut-wrenching reading. But there is some hope in all of this. iStreetWatch is also inviting people to take a pledge to commit to making our streets safer for everyone. Since we launched, 3,000 people have pledged to tackle racism and xenophobia on our streets — that is 13 people for every incident reported so far.

Many people feel unsure what to do when they witness abuse or harassment. But doing something is better than doing nothing at all. People who take the iStreetwatch pledge are committing to taking action whenever it is safe to do so, including documenting incidents of harassment and where possible reporting them to the police. We’re asking people not to look away if they see someone being harassed on the street, to speak up in situations where someone is being racist or xenophobic, and to offer support to people who have been harassed.

The rising tide of fascism will only be diminished by a united, persistent, and vocal movement of people who do not welcome racist or xenophobic attacks. It will only be diminished by the recognition that we are all real people, all deserving of a safe and peaceful life, all deserving to walk down the street free from fear.

Hanna Thomas is the co-founder of iStreetWatch and Campaign Manager at SumOfUs.org

Brexit Response 4. Breaking Point: why we need more sociological imagination to understand the Brexit arguments

by Hannah Jones

First published on 21st June 2016 here

Take More Refugees Ritz

This week it does feel like things are reaching breaking point. A week before the referendum to decide whether Britain leaves or remains in the European Union, a national political campaign revealed a billboard whose imagery directly mirrored that of Nazi Germany, urging ‘we must take back control of our borders’. That day, an MP who had spent her life fighting with compassion and grit for social justice was assassinated. Witnesses reported that the murderer shouted far-right nationalist slogans of a group to which he apparently had longstanding links, Britain First.

The UK feels like it is splitting in half. This isn’t something that happens in an instant. Fractures creep over time, but eventually they reach breaking point. The campaign for the UK to vote to Leave the European Union has suggested that the country is at ‘breaking point’ because of migration. I would suggest it is at breaking point because it has become an intensely polarised place politically, socially and economically, and unable to discuss the complex – sociological – causes of this.

There is an outpouring of disgust and grief across the country at Jo Cox’s death. There have also been, over the days since, condemnations of the ‘politicisation’ of her death – met with the retort that there is a good deal of evidence that this was a politically motivated attack. Britain First, to which media coverage suggests the suspect was connected, has made official statements and taken actions which appear to meet the legal description of terrorism, and to make it a candidate for proscription by the Home Secretary. In court following his arrest for Cox’s murder, Thomas Mair gave his name as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ (Britain First slogans) and it was heard that he had told police officers he was a political activist when he was arrested. The UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who launched the ‘Breaking Point’ poster for the EU Leave campaign on the day of Jo Cox’s assassination, and who has previously stated that ‘It’s legitimate to say that if people feel they’ve lost control completely, and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the EU, and if people feel voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step,’ refused to mourn Jo’s death, and instead claimed, as MPs entered the House of Commons to pay tribute to their murdered colleague, that the Remain campaign was using Cox’s death for their political advantage.

Farage followed this up by stating, ‘The Remain camp are using these awful circumstances to try to say that the motives of one deranged, dangerous individual are similar to half the country, or perhaps more, who believe we should leave the EU’. This ‘one deranged, dangerous individual’ was, it seems, part of an organisation that declares it shares many political goals with Farage’s UK Independence Party. This is not the same as saying that Thomas Mair’s motives in (allegedly) killing Jo Cox were the same as half of the country. What I am saying is that it is very clear this murder was not one isolated, fluke incident, but something for which the ground was prepared by the undermining of social institutions leading to despair and anger, and the determination of political leaders such as Farage to turn this despair and anger on migrants.

In the referendum campaign, making the EU debate centrally about immigration (‘take back control of our borders’, ‘I want my country back’) and blaming ‘the elite’ for siding with the EU has been the secret of Farage and others’ success so far (bearing in mind, of course, that all of the leaders of the Leave campaign are part of the political and economic elite). Being able to simplify arguments to the point where, even when claims are shown to be outright lies, they can still be insisted upon as the truth, and being given the space to do so by claims to ‘balance’ in the media, has undoubtedly helped. When spokespeople for the Leave campaign are challenged on their claims about amounts of money paid into the EU, they admit they have given false information, and in the next breath insist the information is not false. When they are challenged on their claims about what other politicians have said, they simply insist they are right. When they are challenged on claims about migration figures, they assert that it is impossible to keep promises while in the EU, but will magically become possible outside of it (leaving aside, of course, any discussion of the rights and wrongs of ‘controlling migration’ in the first place).

This is symptomatic of a political culture which has dismissed critical thinking, understanding of the complex relations between personal experience, political and social structures and historical processes, in favour of who has the snappiest one-liner and is most willing to insist on their viewpoint in the face of all evidence. There is a reason why Boris Johnson dismissed ‘sociological justifications’ for the London riots of 2011, and why former Prime Minister of Canada Steven Harper refused discussion of the root causes of terrorism by stating it was not the time to ‘commit sociology’ following arrests of suspected terrorists in 2013. It’s because sociological thinking, at its best, makes the links between individual experiences and actions and societal and structural forces. It analyses power relations and questions taken-for-granted assumptions. Sociological thinking would refuse the lack of questioning and engagement that we have seen on both sides of the EU Referendum debate.

Let’s go back to that quote from Boris Johnson referring to ‘sociological justifications’ too. There is nothing that requires sociological thinking to provide justifications for actions or decisions. Moral and ethical questions aren’t solved by thinking about the relationship between personal lives and political structures. But those moral and ethical questions do get more complicated when you think sociologically, and that, presumably, is what Boris doesn’t like.

The Guardian, among others, keeps spouting articles that claim to uncover dissatisfaction among ‘the working class’, and therefore justified direction of anger about this dissatisfaction towards new migrants (and by proxy against the EU, which for the sake of shorthand public debate apparently stands for open borders, despite the EU as a whole seeing countless people die at its borders over decades). These articles are no more nuanced than Farage’s Breaking Point poster, and they lead to similar conclusions, but they are passed around by self-flagellating left-wing middle-class circles as if they make some kind of left-wing case for leaving the EU.

It’s important to listen to people with a different perspective, and to understand where they are coming from. But there’s a difference between understanding why people are doing something, and thinking it’s the right thing to do. There’s a difference between understanding why people are voting Leave, and thinking it’s the right way to vote (and/or that voting Leave would address issues that make people anxious – lack of decent jobs, lack of decent housing, creaking public services). I’m not saying all people who plan to vote leave are racist/fascist/stupid. I’m saying there does seem to be an upsurge of mistrust of people in power, and the Leave campaign and the mainstream press have managed to angle that at the EU, bypassing the super-rich, the current government, and the major newspaper proprietors who support them, and who will continue to ransack the place, in or out.

Let’s be clear: there ought to be potential for a social justice argument for leaving the EU (‘Lexit’). This is that the EU restricts welfare arrangements (as in Greece), fails international humanitarian standards in the treatment of refugees, engages in deals which privilege multinational corporations over social justice and exploits unbalanced trading power with non-EU countries. But Britain does all these things on its own too. There is no reason to believe the UK outside the EU would abandon any of that. But it would abandon labour protection laws including protected maternity rights, environmental standards, anti-discrimination protection, and – importantly – it would signal to many that Britain is an even more ‘hostile environment’ for anyone born overseas (or suspected of being).

To put it more succinctly, the argument most ‘Lexiters’ give is that the EU is a neoliberal project; but the Leave campaign is not giving an alternative to neoliberalism. They also lean on quotes from business leaders and ‘job creators’ (many of whom, like James Dyson, are not particularly patriotic when it comes to the opportunity to ‘create jobs’ with lower wages and worse job conditions than they would get away with in Britain – or the EU).

The kind of articles that claim to ‘burst a middle class bubble’ by voicing an ‘authentic’ working class without putting that in social, political or historical context just feed the neo-fascists. The points about mistrust need to be made but it can’t be left as of the only conclusion is that a vote to Leave (or closing borders more completely) is the answer to those justified grievances. If we Leave, it won’t solve any of the problems expressed in these articles, and then the next place to go in rejecting the status quo with promises of ‘jam tomorrow’ will be outright fascism.

If we want to work together to understand and address the anger and mistrust that is leading many people to vote Leave, those interested in social justice – and who see that the way to achieve this is to recognise the importance and interplay of personal experiences and political issues – need to get better at making nuanced arguments more clearly. We need more sociological imagination – and to act on it – if we are to address the complex causes of the current ‘breaking points’ our society is reaching.


Brexit Response 3: Thoughts on the sociology of Brexit

by Will Davies

Originally posted on PERCblog

1.The Geography reflects the economic crisis of the 1970s not the 2010s

It became clear early on in the night that Leave had extraordinary levels of support in the North East, taking 70% of the votes in Hartlepool and 61% in Sunderland. It subsequently emerged that Wales had voted for Leave overall, especially strongly in the South around areas such as Newport. It is easy to focus on the recent history of Tory-led austerity when analysing this, as if anger towards elites and immigrants was simply an effect of public spending cuts of the past 6 years or (more structurally) the collapse of Britain’s pre-2007 debt-driven model of growth.

But consider the longer history of these regions as well. They are well-recognised as Labour’s historic heartlands, sitting on coalfields and/or around ship-building cities. Indeed, outside of London and Scotland, they were amongst the only blobs of Labour red on the 2015 electoral map. There is no reason to think that they would not stay red if an election were held in the autumn. But in the language of Marxist geographers, they have had no successful ‘spatial fix’ since the stagflation crisis of the 1970s. Thatcherism gutted them with pit-closures and monetarism, but generated no private sector jobs to fill the space. The entrepreneurial investment that neoliberals always believe is just around the corner never materialised.

Labour’s solution was to spread wealth in their direction using fiscal policy: public sector back-office jobs were strategically relocated to South Wales and the North East to alleviate deindustrialisation, while tax credits made low productivity service work more socially viable. This effectively created a shadow welfare state that was never publicly spoken of, and co-existed with a political culture which heaped scorn on dependency. Peter Mandelson’s infamous comment, that the Labour heartlands could be depended on to vote Labour no matter what, “because they’ve got nowhere else to go” spoke of a dominant attitude. In Nancy Fraser’s terms, New Labour offered ‘redistribution’ but no ‘recognition’.

This cultural contradiction wasn’t sustainable and nor was the geographic one. Not only was the ‘spatial fix’ a relatively short-term one, seeing as it depended on rising tax receipts from the South East and a centre left government willing to spread money quite lavishly (albeit, discreetly), it also failed to deliver what many Brexit-voters perhaps crave the most: the dignity of being self-sufficient, not necessarily in a neoliberal sense, but certainly in a communal, familial and fraternal sense.

2. Handouts don’t produce gratitude

By the same token, it seems unlikely that those in these regions (or Cornwall or other economically peripheral spaces) would feel ‘grateful’ to the EU for subsidies. Knowing that your business, farm, family or region is dependent on the beneficence of wealthy liberals is unlikely to be a recipe for satisfaction (see James Meek’s recent essay in the London Review of Books on Europhobic farmers who receive vast subsidies from the EU). More bizarrely, it has since emerged that regions with the closest economic ties to the EU in general (and not just of the subsidised variety) were most likely to vote Leave.

While it may be one thing for an investment banker to understand that they ‘benefit from the EU’ in regulatory terms, it is quite another to encourage poor and culturally marginalised people to feel grateful towards the elites that sustain them through handouts, month by month. Resentment develops not in spite of this generosity, but arguably because of it. This isn’t to discredit what the EU does in terms of redistribution, but pointing to handouts is a psychologically and politically naïve basis on which to justify remaining in the EU.

In this context, the slogan ‘take back control’ was a piece of political genius. It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic. Think of what it means on an individual level to rediscover control. To be a person without control (for instance to suffer incontinence or a facial tick) is to be the butt of cruel jokes, to be potentially embarrassed in public. It potentially reduces one’s independence. What was so clever about the language of the Leave campaign was that it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it. The promise had nothing to do with economics or policy, but everything to do with the psychological allure of autonomy and self-respect. Farrage’s political strategy was to take seriously communities who’d otherwise been taken for granted for much of the past 50 years.

This doesn’t necessarily have to translate into nationalistic pride or racism (although might well do), but does at the very least mean no longer being laughed at. Those that have ever laughed at ‘chavs’ (such as the millionaire stars of Little Britain) have something to answer for right now, asRhian E. Jones’ Clampdown argued. The willingness of Nigel Farrage to weather the scornful laughter of metropolitan liberals (for instance through his periodic appearances on Have I Got News For You) could equally have made him look brave in the eyes of many potential Leave voters. I can’t help feeling that every smug, liberal, snobbish barb that Ian Hislop threw his way on that increasingly hateful programme was ensuring that revenge would be all the greater, once it arrived. The giggling, from which Boris Johnson also benefited handsomely, needs to stop.

3. Brexit was not fuelled by a vision of the future

One of the most insightful things I saw in the run-up to the referendum was this video produced by openDemocracy’s Adam Ramsey and Anthony Barnett discussing their visit to Doncaster, another Labour heartland. They chose Doncaster because it looked set to be a strong pro-Leave location, and wanted to understand what was at work in this. Crucially, they observed that – in strong contrast to the Scottish ‘Yes’ movement – Brexit was not fuelled by hope for a different future. On the contrary, many Leavers believed that withdrawing from the EU wouldn’t really change things one way or the other, but they still wanted to do it. I’ve long suspected that, on some unconscious level, things could be even stranger than this: the self-harm inflicted by Brexit could potentially be part of its appeal. It is now being reported that many Leave voters are aghast at what they’ve done, as if they never really intended for their actions to yield results.

This taps into a much broader cultural and political malaise, that also appears to be driving the rise of Donald Trump in the US. Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences. The discovery of the ‘Case Deaton effect’ in the US (unexpected rising mortality rates amongst white working classes) is linked to rising alcohol and opiate abuse and to rising suicide rates. It has also been shown to correlate closely to geographic areas with the greatest support for Trump. I don’t know of any direct equivalent to this in the UK, but it seems clear that – beyond the rhetoric of ‘Great Britain’ and ‘democracy’ – Brexit was never really articulated as a viable policy, and only ever as a destructive urge, which some no doubt now feel guilty for giving way to.

Thatcher and Reagan rode to power by promising a brighter future, which never quite materialised other than for a minority with access to elite education and capital assets. The contemporary populist promise to make Britain or American ‘great again’ is not made in the same way. It is not a pledge or a policy platform; it’s not to be measured in terms of results. When made by the likes of Boris Johnson, it’s not even clear if it’s meant seriously or not. It’s more an offer of a collective real-time halucination, that can be indulged in like a video game.

The Remain campaign continued to rely on forecasts, warnings and predictions, in the hope that eventually people would be dissuaded from ‘risking it’. But to those that have given up on the future already, this is all just more political rhetoric. In any case, the entire practice of modelling the future in terms of ‘risk’ has lost credibility, as evidenced by the now terminal decline of opinion polling as a tool for political control.

4. We now live in the era of data, not facts

One of the complaints made most frequently by liberal commentators, economists and media pundits was that the referendum campaign was being conducted without regard to ‘truth’. This isn’t quite right. It was conducted without adequate regard to facts. To the great frustration of the Remain campaign, their ‘facts’ never cut through, whereas Leave’s ‘facts’ (most famously the £350m/week price tag of EU membership) were widely accepted.

What is a ‘fact’ exactly? In her book A History of the Modern FactMary Poovey argues that a new way of organising and perceiving the world came into existence at the end of the 15thcentury with the invention of double-entry book-keeping. This new style of knowledge is that offacts, representations that seem both context-independent, but also magically slot seamlessly into multiple contexts as and when they are needed. The basis for this magic is that measures and methodologies (such as accounting techniques) become standardised, but then treated as apolitical, thereby allowing numbers to move around freely in public discourse without difficulty or challenge. In order for this to work, the infrastructure that produces ‘facts’ needs careful policing, ideally through centralisation in the hands of statistics agencies or elite universities (the rise of commercial polling in the 1930s was already a challenge to the authority of ‘facts’ in this respect).

This game has probably been up for some time. As soon as media outlets start making a big deal about the FACTS of a situation, for instance with ‘Fact check’ bulletins, it is clear that numbers have already become politicised. ‘Facts’ (such as statistics) survived as an authoritative basis for public and democratic deliberation for most of the 200 years following the French Revolution. But the politicisation of social sciences, metrics and policy administration mean that the ‘facts’ produced by official statistical agencies must now compete with other conflicting ‘facts’. The deconstruction of ‘facts’ has been partly pushed by varieties of postmodern theory since the 1960s, but it is also an inevitable effect of the attempt (beloved by New Labour) to turn policy into a purely scientific exercise.

The attempt to reduce politics to a utilitarian science (most often, to neo-classical economics) eventually backfires, once the science in question then starts to become politicised. ‘Evidence-based policy’ is now far too long in the tooth to be treated entirely credulously, and people tacitly understand that it often involves a lot of ‘policy-based evidence’. When the Remain camp appealed to their ‘facts’, forecasts, and models, they hoped that these would be judged as outside of the fray of politics. More absurdly, they seemed to imagine that the opinions of bodies such as the IMF might be viewed as ‘independent’. Unfortunately, economics has been such a crucial prop for political authority over the past 35 years that it is now anything but outside of the fray of politics.

In place of facts, we now live in a world of data. Instead of trusted measures and methodologies being used to produce numbers, a dizzying array of numbers is produced by default, to be mined, visualised, analysed and interpreted however we wish. If risk modelling (using notions of statistical normality) was the defining research technique of the 19th and 20th centuries, sentiment analysis is the defining one of the emerging digital era. We no longer have stable, ‘factual’ representations of the world, but unprecedented new capacities to sense and monitor what is bubbling up where, who’s feeling what, what’s the general vibe.

Financial markets are themselves far more like tools of sentiment analysis (representing the moodof investors) than producers of ‘facts’. This is why it was so absurd to look to currency markets and spread-betters for the truth of what would happen in the referendum: they could only give a sense of what certain people felt would happen in the referendum at certain times. Given the absence of any trustworthy facts (in the form of polls), they could then only provide a sense of how investors felt about Britain’s national mood: a sentiment regarding a sentiment. As the 23rd June turned into 24th June, it became manifestly clear that prediction markets are little more than an aggregative representation of the same feelings and moods that one might otherwise detect via twitter. They’re not in the business of truth-telling, but of mood-tracking.

5. The least ‘enslaved’ nation in the EU just threw off its ‘shackles’

If the EU worked well for any nation in Europe, it was the UK. Thanks to the scepticism and paranoia of Gordon Brown, Britain dodged the catastrophic error of the single currency. As a result, it has been relatively free to pursue the fiscal policies that it deems socially and politically desirable. The fact that it has consistently chosen neoliberal ones is not really the fault of the EU, the stability and growth pact notwithstanding. But in contrast to southern European members of the EU, Britain is scarcely constrained at all. Instead, it has benefited from economic stability, a clear international regulatory framework and a sense of cultural fraternity with other member states. One could even argue that, being in the EU but outside of the Eurozone, Britain has had the best deal of any member state during the 21st century.

This has been abandoned. Meanwhile, nations that might genuinely describe themselves as ‘shackled’, have suffered such serious threats to their democracy as to have unelected Prime Ministers imposed upon them by the Troika, and have had their future forcibly removed thanks to the European Union, might look at Brexit and wonder.

Brexit Response 2: Open letter to my friends in Europe

by Eiri Ohtani

Originally published on Silent Flags

Dear Friends,

From Cyprus all the way to Belgium, you contacted me to check if I am OK after the Brexit news greeted all of us last Friday.


Thank you everyone, and I am sorry I haven’t responded to you yet. I never thought I would come face to face with such a grave catastrophe that is likely to have an irrevocable repercussion for the entire world.

This Referendum meant different things to different people. It was more than just a question of whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union, which, among other things, guarantees freedom of movement within EU.  For some, it was also a question of identity; are we European or not?

On the night of the Referendum, I stayed up watching the news until 3:30am.  Anxiety meant I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to know the result before my partner woke up, so that I knew how to respond to him. His grandmother came to the UK from continental Europe when fascism last engulfed Europe. Being a polyglot in many European languages, he has never doubted his identity as European. Brexit, for him, has been like “being deported to the UK for no reason”.

I write this letter to you Sunday evening, two days after the referendum result has been announced. You all know that David Cameron, Prime Minister, said he would step down in October – but even he had no ideathat this would happen. Everything and everyone is still in a total muddle right now, perhaps apart from Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland. Whenhow or even whether the UK is actually going to quit European Union is unclear. Even those who were leaving Leave campaign do not seem to have a plan, and I am not joking. I apologise for so many links to different articles – but you get the gist; there is a panic in the UK, with more than 3 million people (as of Sunday 26 June) asking for the second referendum.

Maybe you think this is some sort of British humour.


I wish it was. But this is the reality of a divided nation that has been long time coming.

Remember nearly half (48%) of those who voted said they want the UK to remain as a member of the European Union. Some of my friends told me that they have been crying since the result came out. Others that I met on Friday were like ghosts – they looked pale, they were agitated, angry and didn’t know what to do with themselves. I think I was just stunned and I still am to be honest. How would you feel if your EU citizenship and identity has been annulled overnight?

Many of us have fellow EU citizens as our family members, partners, colleagues, neighbours, doctors, shopkeepers and fellow students. Can you imagine being told that these people, who make up our daily life, who make our life as European truly European, are no longer welcome here?

Apart from the collective confusion, Brexit has also unleashed a particularly virulent form of xenophobia and racism, with a direct impact on migrant communities. You will see some frightening examples here and here and I expect to encounter similar hostilities myself in the near future in the country which is now my home. But please don’t get me wrong.  Xenophobia, racism and anti-immigration feeling have always existed in the UK.  This is not new; I am just saying that Brexit is likely to make it much worse.

People must have voted for Leave for many different reasons and I think/hope not all of them are racists. However, one of the key messages of the Leave campaign was they want their country “back”, back from Brussels, back from the establishment, back from cosmopolitan elites. For some, this meant they want their country “back” from immigrants. The definition of immigrants in this case is very wide though; they could be EU citizens, third country nationals or anyone who looks foreign, including those who are not white, regardless of whether they are British or not. For some people, the outcome of the Referendum means that the entire country now agrees with them, that it is totally acceptable and correct that they should be telling us to pack our bags and go home.  Of course, for many immigrants, the UK is now home.

I am still watching this catastrophe unfold in front of my eyes. It’s like watching a slow disaster movie that somehow never ends. I am sure we will have more to discuss in the future but where does this leave me, at least for the moment?

I want to let you know that Brexit does not alter me. I intend to continue to consider myself European, British, Japanese and a migrant all at the same time, which reflects my journey and the reality of contemporary intersectional identity. I was born and grew up in Japan, spent my late teenage years in Germany and have lived in the UK for 25 years now.  Right now, my job regularly takes me to other European countries. I consider London in the UK, in Europe, to be my home. It could have been easily otherwise; depending on where I settled or moved through I could have thought of myself African, Asian, American.  Humans are incredible; we can carry multiple experiences and their significance in our life to feel we are who we are and we should be proud of our ability to connect with others while recognising our own individual uniqueness.

I am sure some will question my Europeaness and Britishness because I am a migrant, and probably more so when they see the colour of my skin. In defiance of racism and stereotypes, I am happy to continue to insist on my complicated and superficially contradictory identity born out of migration. I will also not apologise for my cosmopolitan identity, just as I will not apologise for my gender, sexuality, class, (a lack of) religious faith or ethnicity. I will not apologise for being who I am and for preferring to coexist with others than to create fences between myself and others.

I know many of you through work; together we’ve been fighting for the rights and dignity of all migrants and all human beings. I will, of course, continue this line of work – well, as a migrant and a human being, it has always been very difficult to draw a line between this work and my own life. I would like to ask you to continue to work with me and give me courage while I do my bit in the UK; I have fewer colleagues here who are prepared to fight for and with all migrants.

Here in the UK, I have not been very successful in convincing my colleagues that talking just about refugees is not helpful, when Europe could be on the brink of the resurgence of fascism. I have not been successful in convincing others that talking just about “deserving” and “hardworking” migrants is indeed toxic and reducing migrants into mere economic, labour units is dehumanising. I have not been successful in letting others understand that it is important for migrants ourselves to speak up and act for ourselves, in solidarity with supportive groups and individuals; being offered endless cups of tea is nice but it’s not going to change the world. I don’t have many colleagues in the UK who understand that migration is a global phenomenon; it does not stop at the border, it connects places and people. This Brexit will make my work in the UK harder, and I need all the help I can get.

Lastly, I feel privileged to have you as my friends, colleagues and neighbours in Europe and I appreciate that you regard me in the same way.  See you soon.

Best wishes,

Eiri (@EiriOhtani)

Brexit Response 1: On the mis/uses of Sunderland as Brexit symbol

by Emma Jackson


Picture from Right to Remain

On election night I always proudly watch as my hometown is first to declare. First to declare and always Labour, although the worrying UKIP proportion at the last election should have been a warning sign. In the referendum, though, Sunderland has taken on a different kind of symbolism. ‘Did you know it was Sunderland that threw the markets on Thursday night?’ my colleague tells me afterwards (61% Leave, 39% Remain). Later in the day I find myself in tears at a story about a neo-Nazi display at a school I used to walk past on the way to primary school, and that many of my friends attended. The story concerned an event that happened in October but it had a visceral impact on me. I think because seeing these displays on the streets where you grew up ‘hits home’ but also because over the last few weeks my hometown has become shorthand for stories of ‘the state of the nation’ in troubling ways. In short, Sunderland is being used as a marker of a narrative about Brexit as a protest vote by deindustrialised white working class people – who are then set in contrast to a metropolitan multicultured elite. The reality is that both Sunderland and white working class people are more complicated than that. And that by focusing in on Sunderland as representing this situation other stories are left out.


That Sunderland voted ‘Leave’ was not a surprise. There had been a flurry of pieces on Sunderland before the referendum. As Gary Younge has pointed out, journalists have headed into the North of England and ‘anthropologised the British working class as though they were a lesser evolved breed from distant parts, all too often portraying them as bigots who did not know what was good for them.’ If a simplistic story about a disenfranchised white working class is what you are looking for then you can find this in Sunderland. In a New York Times piece (yes, even the New York Times is sending journalists to Sunderland) a young man called John is interviewed:

“We’re segregated from the south, and the north is a barren wasteland,” he said, wearing a heavy black leather jacket with metal studs despite the summer heat. “It’s us against them.”

“The E.U. is a mystery to us,” he added. “We’ve never heard about it up here.”

‘This depressed northern city is like ground zero for the Brexit movement’ begins a piece in The Irish Times

Sunderland as location and representative of working class loss has also been explored in Grayson Perry’s programme ‘In the best possible taste’.

I do not want to trivialise the feelings of disconnect expressed through these accounts or the portrayals of post-industrial neglect that they point towards. Sunderland has been repeatedly clobbered, its shipyards and mines closed down and now it is part of one of the regions bearing the brunt of the Government cuts. If you live in a city that is a Labour stronghold (so you can’t vote the Conservatives out) and suffering from disinvestment, cuts and disillusionment with the council (see for example the wranglings over the use of the Vaux brewery site) then I can see how voting Leave does feel like exerting some kind of control or sending a message to those in power. And these are the kinds of stories that run through these newspaper accounts of Sunderland. But, and there is always a but, that is not the whole story.

Firstly, this tight focus on the deindustrialised white working class (lumped all together as a group without considering how whiteness is constructed and groups incorporated and excluded over time, see also Satnam Virdee’s excellent book) as the Brexit story misses state, elite and middle class forms of racism which may be institutionalised, more polite, or less visible. It focuses on vocal expressions of xenophobia without probing what Paul Gilroy calls ‘post-colonial melancholia’, a longing for the glory days of prosperity and ship-building that are tied up with histories of empire. It reaffirms a key argument of the Leave campaign, which as Akwugo Emejulu has argued, was the promotion of a story of ‘white victimhood’ rather than interrogate the logic and effects of austerity:

‘a key argument of the campaign was that the ‘working class’ (who were unquestionably assumed to be white) were suffering under the burden of mass immigration, which transformed the culture of their neighbourhoods and put undue strain on public services.’

Furthermore, it misses complex stories of racism and resistance that exist in places like Sunderland. The far right has tried many times to gain ground in Sunderland, and the North East more widely. Attempting to capitalise on the dispersal of asylum seekers to Sunderland and in the wake of the murder of Peyman Bahmani in 2003, an asylum seeker living in the city, the BNP tried to whip up support and contested every ward in the city that year – but failed to win any seats. And much earlier than this in the 1990s, and on a more anecdotal level of resistance, I remember my friend’s mam not only telling a BNP canvasser where to go, but chasing him down the garden path. At this time, I was part of an anti-racist youth group that used to go and demonstrate against the BNP across the North East. In 2012, a spate of demos by the EDL et al were held in Millfield, the area I grew up in, against a mosque being built – and were met with fierce resistance.

I heard more everyday and recent accounts of racism and resistance in Sunderland described by Anoop Nayak in a recent talk – if you are interested in the inter-relationships of race and class in the North East of England then read his work because this is based on years of research in the region. Racism is a real and continuing problem in the city and Anoop’s most recent work focuses on young Bengali people in Sunderland (and another coastal area in the North East). There is a small but well-established Bengali community in Sunderland whose experiences I have not seen included in these discussions of Sunderland as the epitome of ‘Leave’. The expansion of the University has also impacted on the ethnic make-up of Sunderland. The city is putting forward a City of Culture bid and has a lively music and arts scene (with many key figures coming from the ‘white working class’), best represented by the Pop Recs shop/gig space/almost community centre. I suppose what I am saying is that Sunderland is more complex, or that there are other Sunderlands. There are other predominantly working class cities too, that do not mirror these voting patterns: Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow.

In our project ‘Mapping Immigration Controversies’ we examined how anti-immigration campaigns intervened in specific places. For example, in Glasgow, in the run-up to the independence referendum, the ‘Go Home’ campaigns were interpreted as an English/Westminster intervention in a more caring Scotland. Alongside encounters with racism and xenophobia we heard of resistance and support. If we are trying to understand the voting patterns across the UK, and if we are to challenge new iterations of old racisms, then it is crucial to examine the different kinds of spatial and social histories in which the referendum intervened. The metropolitan elite/regional whiteworkingclass division is just too simplistic to help us do that work. Meanwhile, I suspect journalists looking for a post-referendum state of the nation snapshot will continue to visit Sunderland’s tattoo parlours and hair salons. What effect will this have on the city, I wonder? And what effect on our understandings of racism and class?