Written by Dr Eleni Andreouli, Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at The Open University
“How much more of our sovereignty is going to be lost and eroded? How many more things are they going to take control of? How many more countries are going to join and be given free access into our country?”
“There is so many Eastern Europeans working, cleaners, working in coffee shops, wherever you go, they’re there. Why aren’t our people, our British people, got them jobs?”
The quotes above come from a focus group study I conducted in the few weeks prior to the 2016 EU referendum in the UK. In my data, immigration was an important issue, particularly for those participants who stated that they intended to vote to leave the European Union. This chimes with other research which shows that prejudice against migrants correlates with support for Brexit (Meleady, Seger & Vermue, 2017) and that concerns over immigration were central in the Leave campaign and vote (Curtice, 2016; Hobolt, 2016).
Certainly, anti-immigration discourses are not new in the British society. They are intimately connected with Britain’s history of racism and colonialism. Indeed, my analysis shows that debates around the EU have brought to the fore older Orientalist themes (of Eastern Europe as an ‘other’ against a Western European ‘core’) as well as ‘imperial’ imaginings of Britishness (that flag British exceptionalism in relation to ‘the continent’).
The immigration-as-a-problem narrative has therefore deep roots and it does not only resonate with so-called Brexiters. It is true that the political cleavages of Brexit have very often been cast in terms of a polarity between xenophobic and authoritarian Brexiters versus liberal metropolitan Remainers. Despite its appeal, this schema conceals the fact that the assumption of immigration as a problem (rather than, say, a resource) is widely taken as a given. It can be understood as a cultural commonplace, to use rhetorical psychology terms.
In the context of Brexit, as myself, David Kaposi and Paul Stenner argue in a forthcoming paper and special issue, the key question of sovereignty is intertwined with long-standing concerns over immigration. In particular, we argue that the ‘problem of immigration’ in lay political debates is not simply presented as a problem in itself, but as a symptom of Britain’s inability to manage its own national space as an EU member. The ‘problem’ of sovereignty and the ‘problem’ of immigration become thus entangled into a wider disaffection with established political authorities, including national politicians and the EU. This lack of secure authorities upon which to build political visions opens up a space for the development of new political narratives that claim to address the failures of the status quo, particularly its failure to tackle immigration. These narratives can take many forms, but in the context of Brexit, a new prevalent discourse has been one that elevates the so-called ‘will of the people’ against ‘the elites’ and various sorts of ‘others’, be they experts (as per Michael Gove), EU bureaucrats (as per Boris Johnston), or mainstream politicians and EU migrants (as per Nigel Farage). Our current work examines how these emergent politics of Brexit come into being, both relying on, and even manipulating, deep-rooted ideas (such as immigration-as-a-problem) and reconfiguring these into new political cleavages and identities.
Andreouli, E., Kaposi, D., & Stenner, P. Brexit and emergent politics: In search of a social psychology (forthcoming 2018). Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology.
Curtice, J. (2016). The two poles of the referendum debate: immigration and the economy. What UK Thinks EU. https://whatukthinks.org/eu/analysis/the-two-poles-of-the-referendum-debate-immigration-and-the-economy/.
Hobolt, S. B. (2016). The Brexit vote: a divided nation, a divided continent. Journal of European Public Policy, 23(9), 1259-1277.
Meleady, R., Seger, C. R., & Vermue, M. (2017). Examining the role of positive and negative intergroup contact and anti-immigrant prejudice in Brexit. British Journal of Social Psychology, 56, 799–808.
Eleni Andreouli is Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology of the Open University. Her research is broadly situated in the social psychology of citizenship, focusing particularly on the study of everyday enactments of citizenship. Her current work examines the emergent politics of Brexit and the development of new political identities in this changing political landscape. Previous research includes work on identity dynamics in border-crossing practices and intercultural encounters.