Law, Race and Brexit Britain

This blog was contributed by Devin Frank, a graduate of the School of Law at Birkbeck. He will soon be returning to the College as a PhD candidate and part-time seminar tutor.

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Credit: Cole Peters 2017.

On 15 May 2017 students and academics gathered for the launch of Birkbeck’s new research initiative, the Centre for Research on Race and Law, focusing on Law, Race and Brexit Britain.

After an introduction to the new Centre by the Acting Dean of the Law School, Dr Stewart Motha, and the co-director of the Centre, Dr Sarah Keenan, five speakers discussed how conceptions of race permeate law, politics and policy — not only in Britain, but across numerous jurisdictions.

At the heart of the discussion was an underlying paradox: conceptions of race and racism manifest through law, while law in itself is often a last defense against racism. Reflecting on my own experience working as a caseworker and paralegal, nowhere is this paradox more apparent than within the immigration systems of the Western world, particularly in the UK, US and Australia. Having endured the horrors of having to read and engage with Home Office refusal letters, it is abundantly clear that racism is not only tolerated within the diameters of immigration decision making, it is actively encouraged. When faced with a letter claiming that an individual’s immigration application is refused based on a legally accepted notion of race, the response of any lawyer is then to plead with the law, often in the form of an appeal or judicial review, to seek a legal remedy to the artificial and racist conception of law that allowed for injustice in the first place.

After Professor Patricia Tuitt, Executive Dean of the Law School, skillfully laid the foundation for considering how race and racism permeates all institutions, including that of law, the next four speakers showed how race matters in political discourse, immigration controls, EU trade policy and Brexit Britain. Tuitt’s opening talk had reminded us that the colonial dogma of race still infects the bureaucratic mechanisms of all aspects of society, including the university – a critique from which Birkbeck and the Law School are by no means immune.

Professor Gurminder Bhambra (University of Warwick) aptly highlighted the need to ‘get history right’ in order for concepts to have useful meanings — something that was an abysmal failure in the Brexit campaign. Bhambra began by examining the Brexit referendum data to debunk the myth that the Leave result was the resounding voice of ‘the left behind’ white working class. Rather, Bhambra showed that the vote to Leave was determined by property owners, pensioners, and well-off white middle class voters.

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The rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ lacks any kind of historical or political reality: Britain is not and never has been a nation, rather it is an imperial polity. British citizenship only came to refer primarily to people living in Britain in 1981, as this citizenship was formerly shared between Britain and its colonies. The British psychosis brought on by a fear of non-white migration goes to highlight the need for research initiatives such as the Centre for Research on Race and Law to further facilitate discussion based on sound research, with dignity and respect.

Following the EU referendum, it became all too common to ignore the underlining causes, divert attention away from blatant racism and xenophobia and pose a simpler question: ‘what about the economy?’. Professor Diamond Ashiagbor (Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) discussed the relationship between economic inequality, race and global trade in the context of ‘Empire 2.0’, encapsulated in Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox’s, plan to negotiate new trade deals with Commonwealth countries in order to compensate for the EU trade that will be lost with Brexit. Ashiagbor argued that leaving the EU against the backdrop of rewriting/forgetting histories of empire, migration and race will exacerbate the internal economic equalities caused by open markets and global trade.

Drawing on ideas stemming from the political economist Karl Polanyi, Ashiagbor argued that markets only work without destroying society if they are constrained, and if social redistribution is facilitated. Pre-Brexit, such constraints and redistribution were put in place by domestic British law and also by EU law. The irony of Brexit racism, Ashiagbor argued, is that much of the labour migration upon which Britain has relied and against which the Leave campaign rallied, has long been fuelled by European plunder of the rest of the world. The sense of ‘the left behind’ voting for Brexit fails to capture the reality that the industrialised working class (both white and non-white) in the UK has long been supported by extraction from colonised states. Only through the plunder of resources and exploitation of labour from the Global South has the UK been able to build its welfare state.

Professor Iyiola Solanke (University of Leeds) sought to address the question: what of the forgotten groups that will be affected by Brexit? In the news and within mainstream discussion many rightly pose the question: ‘what status will EU citizens have in the UK and what status will UK citizens have in Europe?’. While this is a pertinent question, Solanke noted that it fails to address the situation of third country nationals, such as spouses and family members of European citizens in the UK, and so-called ‘Zambrano families’ (those who care for EU/UK citizens). While it seems likely that predominately white men, coming from the United States and earning high incomes working in London’s financial centres will find the legal categories to remain in the UK regardless of the ultimate Brexit deal, the future status of black parents from Nigeria, Ghana and Jamaica currently in the UK caring for their British children is much more ominous.

Finally Dr. Nadine El-Enany, Senior Law Lecturer and Co-Director of Centre for Research on Race and Law spoke about the importance of taking critical race scholarship seriously. With explicitly racist far-right movements on the rise in many parts of the world (including but not limited to the Brexit and Trump victories), El-Enany argued that it is more important than ever for legal academics not only to offer analyses which critique the role of law in upholding racism, but also to be creative about the strategic use of law for immediate survival of the most vulnerable in society. Drawing Mari Matsuda’s work, El-Enany argued that we have much to learn from critical race feminists who have written about the need to be strategic in relation to law in order to survive in a structurally violent world.  El-Enany recounted that during her own PhD studies she was told that race was not a useful analytical concept for scholarship on migration law, and that her intellectual development and psyche were significantly hindered by this falsity for many years. The new research Centre will lead the way, and provide a much needed space, to support the study of the relationship between race and law.

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Racism and Nationalism after the Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election

This post was contributed by Dr Brendan McGeever of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck)

Racism-Nationalism-in-the-UKOn Friday November 13 the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research very generously hosted a one-day colloquium on the theme ‘Racism and Nationalism after the Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election’. The event brought together seven speakers to address the relationship between racism and nationalism in the Scottish, Welsh, English and Northern Irish contexts. The rationale for doing so was born out of a desire to reflect on the historic events of the past year or so – the Scottish Referendum of September 2014 and the General Election of May 2015.

With the dramatic electoral surge of the Scottish National Party and the prospect of the EU Referendum to come, the British state, it seems, has entered a new phase of constitutional crisis. In these changing times, with UKIP also on the rise electorally and the future of the Union seeming uncertain, the colloquium offered a timely opportunity to explore the extent to which racism across Britain is finding expression through the assertion of new nationalisms.

‘Non-racial’ Wales, and Unionism in Northern Ireland

The day was split into three sessions. In the first of these, Dr Bethan Harries (University of Manchester) presented on racism and nationalism in Wales, and Dr Robbie McVeigh addressed the Northern Irish context. Dr Harries began proceedings by showing how a discourse of national ‘innocence’ has led to an erasure of Welsh complicity in colonialism. The dominant political narrative in Wales, Dr Harries argued, is not ‘post-racial’ but actually ‘non-racial’, and it presents serious barriers to the elaboration of an anti-racist politics in the here and now.

In the second presentation, Dr McVeigh offered a stark picture of Northern Ireland, where the decline of Unionism as a political force is leading to the articulation of a specifically defensive type of racist politics that is not just colour-coded, but anti-Catholic as well. Dr McVeigh further argued that as Unionism continues to be rooted in a shrinking demographic base, the politics of racism and British nationalism will likely come to be posed in ever sharper terms.

Ethnic and national belonging in Scotland

The second session was dedicated entirely to Scotland, and included presentations by Dr Nasar Meer (University of Strathclyde) and Dr Brendan McGeever (Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck). In his presentation, Dr Meer surveyed elite political discourses in Scotland on ethnic and national belonging, showing that despite the real advances that have been made in recent years, there remains much to do.

By referencing various interviews with members of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, Dr Meer showed how implicit hierarchies continue to shape elite understandings of Scottish nationhood. In a paper co-written with Professor Satnam Virdee (University of Glasgow), Dr McGeever suggested the question of racism has been largely occluded from the national conversation that has been taking place since the beginning of the Independence referendum campaigns, and that this has further consolidated the longstanding Scottish myth that there is ‘no problem here’.

This national re-imagining of Scotland as a uniquely ‘tolerant’ society acquires its powerful appeal, argued McGeever, precisely through its capacity to define itself in opposition to that which it is not (e.g. British/English). According to McGeever, not only does this project Scotland’s disproportionate role in Slavery and Empire onto England, but it arguably prevents any serious discussion of racism in the country today.

England, north and south

The third and final session consisted of two papers on England, the first given by Professor Anoop Nayak (Newcastle University), who explored racism and nationalism in North East England, and the second by Dr Steve Garner (Birmingham City University) who discussed south England. Professor Nayak’s contribution took the form of a historical-geography of the North East, showing how its transition from being a region of production to consumption has been accompanied by further transformations in the politics of racism and identity. Professor Nayak argued the case for decoupling whiteness from nationalism, and suggested that English nationalism is not of high capital in the North East and that local and regional identifications remain much stronger. This, he argued, is reflected in both the politics of racism and anti-racism.

The final paper by Dr Garner presented a quite different picture of South England. Based on a range of qualitative interviews with white working class participants in Bristol and Plymouth, Dr Garner showed how English national belonging is deeply racialised, and is structured by a ‘moral economy of whiteness’. Garner examined the affective and emotional routes through such racialised nationalism is articulated, showing how ‘nation’, ‘welfare’ and ‘immigration’ provide the frame through which racism and (localised) English nationalism come to be expressed.

Finally, Professor Claire Alexander (University of Manchester) gave a set of closing remarks that offered insights into each of the presentations. Professor Alexander closed the event by inviting participants to reconsider Englishness and English nationhood, and to question why minorities in England continue to find them so difficult to claim as their own.

With Britain’s constitutional crisis remaining far from resolved, it seems that the various issues discussed in this colloquium are unlikely to go away any time soon.

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(Homepage slider image caption: ‘UK Grunge Flag’, CC Nicholas Raymond via Flickr)

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