No, Brexit Didn’t Make Britain a Far-Right Dystopia

The British vote to leave the European Union is often cited as a far-right breakthrough. But as anti-immigration parties surge across the EU, Europe's own claim to represent internationalist values looks increasingly in doubt.

A clerk puts a Union Jack nex to a flag of the European Union at the European Commission in Brussels on June 19, 2017, as Britain is to start formal talks to leave the EU. (John Thys / AFP via Getty Images)

During the last decade, and especially since 2016, there has been a widespread tendency to view both domestic and international politics in an extraordinarily simplistic way. International politics is widely seen as a struggle between authoritarianism and democracy, and its domestic counterpart as a struggle between liberal centrists and illiberal “populists,” who are in turn aligned with and supported by authoritarian states like Russia. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago, this tendency to see politics in terms of good and bad guys has become even more pronounced.

One of the consequences of this binary thinking has been to equate a whole series of heterogenous figures, movements, and parties around the world which were seen as following what is often called a “populist playbook.” In the case of the British referendum on leaving the EU in 2016, this inflationary use of the concept of populism was even extended to include a decision. Opponents of Brexit, both in the UK and beyond, identified it with the far right — and in the United States, it was seen as a kind of British equivalent of Donald Trump, who was elected as US president just a few months later.

However, Brexit was in reality a much more complex and open-ended phenomenon. All kinds of different arguments were made for leaving the EU from political actors of different kinds. In particular there were left-wing arguments for leaving the EU as well as right-wing ones (though this is often forgotten or dismissed), and arguments that are difficult to classify into left/right terms, such as those around democracy and sovereignty. In the referendum in June 2016, voters were not asked to make a choice between parties with manifestos setting out policy positions but rather to answer the simple question of whether to leave or remain in the EU. Equating Brexit with the far right obscures not only what actually happened in 2016, but also the trajectory of British society since.

No So Black and White

The research we now have on why 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU reveals an extremely complex picture — though this has not prevented many commentators and analysts, both in the UK and elsewhere, from making simplistic and misleading judgements about the causes or meaning of Brexit. In particular, the meaning of Brexit is often simply reduced either to the rhetoric of individual politicians like Nigel Farage or conflated with simplistic voter categories like “the white working class,” said to have driven the Leave vote.

A look at attitudes toward the EU among non-white British people — a third, that is, around a million people, of whom voted to leave — complicates this picture. For some of them, voting for Brexit was not so much an expression of racism but rather its opposite: a rejection of the EU as a bloc that many of them saw as racist. In particular some saw freedom of movement as a kind of discrimination against them in favor of Europeans — anyone from Bulgaria, for example, had a right to settle in the UK, whereas many non-white British citizens were unable to bring their own family members from back home to come and live with them.

Two-thirds of non-white British people who turned out on June 23, 2016, did vote to remain — a higher proportion than the population as a whole. But it is clear that they tended to identify even less with the EU, and the idea of Europe, than white British people did. There are multiple reasons for this: the way that, historically, “European” meant “white”; the sense that continental Europe (especially central and eastern Europe) was more hostile to non-white people than Britain was; and the perception that the EU had done little — certainly much less than the UK had — to protect them from racial discrimination.

More recently, much attention has focused on the desperate measures by the Conservative government to “stop the boats” — that is, prevent asylum seekers from reaching the UK — which it is tempting to see as confirmation that Brexit was a far-right project all along. But such extreme measures against asylum seekers are part of a Europe-wide trend rather than a specifically British one. In this, there is little difference between the approach of so-called “populists” and that of centrists. For example, the British government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was pioneered by the Social Democratic government in Denmark.

Moreover, whatever the intentions of those who campaigned for it and voted for it, Brexit has not led to an overall decrease in immigration at all but rather a dramatic increase. It is true that the number of EU citizens living in the UK under the principle of freedom of movement has fallen. But there has been a huge increase in non-EU immigration — in particular from former British colonies like India and Nigeria. These developments raise the question of whether, after Brexit, the UK will actually become a more multicultural and multiracial society than it ever was during nearly five decades in the EU and its predecessor, the European Communities.

Nationalism and Regionalism

The identification of the decision to leave the EU with the far right is a function of two related tendencies that are widespread in Europe but also exist in the United States, particularly among progressives. First, the tendency to idealize the EU as a cosmopolitan, post-national project, which is thus incompatible with, and even the antithesis of, far-right ideas. Second, a tendency to reject all nationalisms as a wholly negative force in international politics rather than distinguishing between different versions of this phenomenon.

The EU is clearly an anti- or post-nationalist project — notwithstanding arguments by revisionist historians like Alan Milward that during its early phase, European integration was meant to “rescue” the nation-state after World War II rather than to overcome or move beyond it. But especially since the end of the Cold War, “pro-Europeans” — that is, supporters of European integration in its current form — have gone further in idealizing it as a cosmopolitan project. Ulrich Beck and Jürgen Habermas were among those to theorize the idea of a “cosmopolitan Europe” in the 2000s.

However, imagining the EU in this way tends to mistake Europe for the world. It is imagined that when someone says, “I am European,” and in doing so reject national identity, they are saying that they are a citizen of the world rather than of a particular region. It is imagined that by removing barriers to the movement of capital, goods, and people within Europe — the essence of European integration — the EU is somehow open to the world. Leaving the EU is, therefore, seen as a rejection not just of Europe but of the world beyond it, despite the Conservative government’s rhetoric around the idea of a “Global Britain.”

The flipside of the idealization of the EU is the undifferentiated rejection of nationalism as a “dark, elemental, unpredictable force of primordial nature, threatening the orderly calm of civilized life,” as the Indian political theorist Partha Chatterjee has put it. It is a tendency that exists throughout Europe. In his last speech to the European Parliament in 1995, for example, French president François Mitterrand declared simply: “Nationalism is war.” But unsurprisingly, given its own disastrous experience with the-nation state, this view is particularly strong in Germany.

Sometimes, it even seems as if people do not just associate nationalism with the far right but that they actually conflate them — or, to put it differently, that they think what makes the far right what it is is that it is nationalist. In Germany, for example, members of the Alternative für Deutschland are often referred to as German nationalists as if that were the main problem with them rather than their far-right ideas — for example, their approach to questions around identity, immigration, and Islam.

Rather than simply rejecting it, a better way of thinking about nationalism is to distinguish between different versions of it. In particular we can distinguish between an ethnic/cultural nationalism on the one hand and a civic nationalism on the other — a conceptual distinction that goes back to Hans Kohn’s book The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in Its Origins and Background, first published in 1944. As I argue in my book Eurowhiteness, we can also apply this distinction to the EU as a regionalist project, which we can think of as being analogous to nationalism, but on a larger, continental scale.

If we think in this more differentiated way about both different kinds of nationalism and different kinds of regionalism, we can see that the far right can influence both a nation-state like the UK and a regional integration project like the EU. Leaving the EU is not in itself a far-right act — it is also possible to imagine a left-wing vision for a post-Brexit Britain. Conversely, just because the EU is a post-nationalist project, this does not mean that it cannot itself be taken over by the far right. In fact, as the far right rises throughout Europe and the center right increasingly mimics it, especially on questions around identity, immigration, and Islam, that appears to be exactly the direction in which the EU is going.