Inequality, Brexit and the End of Empire

Inequality, Brexit and the End of Empire

Dr Clare Stainthorp reflects on discussions from LSE’s recent Inequality, Brexit and the End of Empire evening of discussion which posited, in 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union – but has yet to leave its Empire past behind. What part did the long afterlife of the world’s largest-ever Empire play in Britain’s view of itself and world? And could a post-EU Britain, against all the odds, become less unequal?

Perhaps inevitably, for an event held on what was intended to be ‘Brexit Day’ (29 March 2019), much of the discussion at ‘Inequality, Brexit and the End of Empire’ circled around the latter two concerns, with the intersections with inequalities often being left unsaid. Nonetheless, the startling fact that Britain has gone from being the second most equal country in the EU upon joining to now being the most economically unequal was a touchstone throughout. The opening provocation – how did we come to be in this state and where do we go from here? – was pointedly directed at both structural inequalities in society and the fraught nature of Brexit.

Professor Danny Dorling opened by emphasising that working out why people voted for Brexit is as important a question as asking, “what next?”. Reminding the audience that age was the clearest indicator of how individuals voted in the 2016 referendum, he pushed back against those who have suggested that deprivation underpinned the leave vote. Professor Sally Tomlinson drew out the ramifications of this data: those generations who voted overwhelmingly for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union received a fundamentally imperial education. The textbooks in use as late as the 1970s show that school children were raised on the notion of British cultural, economic, and linguistic superiority, encouraging them to take pride in the legacy of empire. The majority of individuals who led the Brexit campaign to leave therefore come from a demographic who were taught jingoistic myths of the British Empire. She argued that their rhetoric draws upon the legacies of colonialism and has fed into anxieties about Britain relinquishing power within a union of equals.

Professor Gurminder K. Bhambra further interrogated the intersections of nation and empire, observing that the UK has never been a nation state but was an imperial state that joined the EEC upon losing its colonies. It has therefore never been isolated or truly had to negotiate and address its colonial history. Structural inequalities faced by non-white citizens were also placed in historical context, Bhambra pointing to the bestowal of colonial citizenship in 1948 to those who were previously British subjects and the moral panic that ensued upon these “darker-hued citizens” exercising their right to move to the UK. The steps taken in the mid-twentieth century (in government and the media) to transform citizens into migrants has clear parallels with the disenfranchisement faced by EU citizens in the UK today.

The conclusion to Dorling and Tomlinson’s new book, Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, is optimistic, foreseeing a more equal society arising in the post-Brexit era (whatever that might look like). Dorling suggested that we might consider the cultural and social revolution led by the young after the Suez Crisis as an indicator of how good things can arise out of national embarrassments and defeats. Dorling and Tomlinson place their faith in younger demographics, citizens of a connected world who embrace multiculturalism. The hope is that they have been galvanised by recent events to push back against older generations whose austerity measures have widened the gap between rich and poor and who manifestly cannot be trusted to build a more equal society. Bhambra was left unconvinced by this optimism, noting that there is currently no indication that the coming years will bring the economic growth and increase in public spending required to fix a fundamentally unequal society.

Whatever the UK’s trajectory, there was agreement that for structural inequalities to be addressed we must first contend with the nostalgia of the old and the ignorance of the young in order to face Britain’s colonial past and the damaging effects of its legacy.

Dr Clare Stainthorp is a research assistant on Exploring Inequalities – igniting research to better inform UK policy. The project, a partnership between UCL’s Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality, UCL Public Policy and the Resolution Foundation, seeks to challenge researchers, business, practitioners and policymakers to think disruptively to generate new solutions designed to tackle inequalities in UK society. More information about the project is available here.