Entering Brexit Britain, with Eric Cantona as my North star – Bill Bryson a trusty guide


by Umut Ozkirimli

I was 25 when I first set foot in Britain in 1995, incidentally the same year Bill Bryson published his bestselling travelogue Notes from a Small Island. Voted by BBC Radio 4 listeners as the book which best represented Britain, Bryson’s humorous account of his final trip across the country before moving back to his native US was my first guide into the idiosyncrasies of the British way of life and a language I thought I spoke well until my fateful “Tarzan-Jane” encounter with the immigration officer in Heathrow. It would take me a while to get used to two-tap sinks, outward opening windows and Marmite but, just like Bryson himself, I was happy to be called “love” by all the shop ladies in town.

The mid-1990s were interesting times for a young student of nationalism from Turkey though not as interesting, admittedly, as today. The Provisional Irish Republican Army had just declared a ceasefire, paving the way to the first meeting between the British government and Sinn Féin in over 70 years. The political field was enlivened by internecine leadership battles within John Major’s Conservative government, and an aspiring Tony Blair warming up in the outfield to join the game on the side of the Labour. Speaking of fields and outfields, the Premier League was also pretty exciting despite the absence of oil-rich Arab or Russian oligarch club owners, for there was Eric Cantona – the maverick with little understanding of the distinction between the two, as his notorious kung-fu kick against a Crystal Palace supporter when he was playing for Manchester United showed.

Otherwise, Euroscepticism and a strong sense of national pride were almost as popular back then as they are today. At least half of the public has been Eurosceptic for the past two decades, the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) reminds us. 37% and 58% wanted to leave the EU or see an attempt to reduce its powers in 1995 and 1996 respectively, as opposed to 62% in 2014 and 51.8% in 2016, the percentage of people who voted “Leave” in the Brexit referendum.

Similarly, the proportion of people who consider themselves European, either solely or in combination with one or more other identities, has been consistently low, around 15-17%, or one person in eight. While 10% of the respondents saw themselves as European in 1996, 17%, 16% and 15% chose this identity in 1999, 2006 and 2014 respectively.

Which people?

Does this mean that Brexit and the concerns of some 17.5 million people who voted “Leave” are no big deal? Of course not. But it does mean there is no reason to be so flabbergasted with the result. The numbers of potential Leave and Remain voters have always been close and oscillating up and down, and the factors that tipped the balance in favour of “Leave” are many and have a longer pedigree than the present Brexit moment, the re-state the obvious. It also means that we need to take the explanations of the ever-blooming industry of populism pundits not with a pinch, but a truckload, of salt.

It is of course true that Brexit cannot be explained by economic factors alone, though it would be equally wrong to say that the financial crisis of 2008 did not play any role in boosting the existential angst of the less well-off. It is also true that cultural and value-based differences, in particular vis-à-vis national identity and the perceived threats posed to it by immigration and unfettered globalisation, were a much better presager of Brexit than anything else, as survey after survey has shown.

And yet the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it is here that academic Brexiteers lose their grip on data, and eventually on reality. “People have spoken”, they tell us, and their wishes should be respected. But which people? The 51.8% or the 48.1%? Are we to treat the former as the sole representative of the national will, turning a blind eye to the wishes of 16.141.241 people who voted “Remain”? How about the 4.901.700 signatories (at the time of writing) of the “Revoke Article 50” petition? Or the 1 million who marched for “people’s vote” on the 23rd of March?

In any case, “thus spoke the people” narratives tend to forget all too easily that people can change their minds and that sometimes, within the span of a week, they speak a different truth. The latest YouGov poll on “Bregret” shows that 48% of Britons think the country was wrong to vote Leave as opposed to 40% who think the country made the right choice. If we are to respect the majority’s wishes, should we revoke Article 50, only to invoke it again, say, next week in the event that people change their mind?

Supply side nationalism

The Brexiteer tale becomes even more farcical when it comes to suggesting solutions to perceived problems. If fast-growing immigration is the problem, they say, then let’s slow it down and give priority to the needs of nationals at the expense of non-nationals and newcomers. If people think Britain “feels like a foreign country”, let’s revamp nationalism – with a “moderate” one of course.

What we are not told, and this is no small oversight, is that immigration has already been significantly cut down since 2015. There were 186,768 new arrivals to Europe in 2017, which represents a 52% decrease compared to 2016 and a 82% decrease compared to 2015. And according to the quarterly report of the Office for National Statistics, “long-term immigration to the UK for work has fallen to its lowest level since 2014”.

In the meantime, we can hardly argue that ethnic Britons are neglected since the highest rates of employment are found among the “White British” and “Other White” ethnic groups, at 76% and 81% respectively as of 2017, if we are to believe the employment statistics released by the Department for Work and Pensions.

The real bone of contention, however, and this is where Brexiteers and their academic souffleurs cross to the dark side, is nationalism. Is Britain a country suffering from a nationalism deficit? Really? A country ruled by a Prime Minister who regurgitates well worn-out nationalist/populist clichés in rallies or televised speeches; a nation chanting “It’s Coming Home” in unison during the World Cup, often wrapped in St George’s flag? To me, that hardly sounds like the last outpost of EU imperialism.

In short, none of the half-truths propagated by Brexiteers and their oh-so-neutral/only-driven-by-data academic wingmen are explanations of or solutions to the real problems of which Brexit is just a symptom, not least because they are already part of “business as usual”. And yet there are no signs of nationalism and populism receding.

Maybe the problem is precisely those half-truths and their perpetrators – the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the newly minted “national populism/ Somewheres/ White majorities” experts who offer us a camera obscura view of social and political realities. Maybe it is time to stop blaming the so-called “international elites”, who certainly played a crucial role in the current drama, and pay more attention to the supply side of nationalist/populist myths and falsehoods.

Whether today’s hopelessly incompetent politicians can somehow manage to pull a rabbit out of the hat is moot. Whatever the case, I liked Britain in 1995, and I like Britain now – from the looks of it, more than she likes herself. And like Bill Bryson, I know without a doubt that I will be back


About the Author:

Umut Ozkirimli is Professor of Political Science at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University. CMES. He is also an Honorary Professor in Europe, Nationalism and Globalization at the Center for Modern European Studies (CEMES), University of Copenhagen. His most recent publication is The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey. #occupygezi, edited collection, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. He is currently working on the 3rd edition of Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction.

Image by andgopink via Wikimedia Commons (cc)