- First published as a WEB EXCLUSIVE by Street Sense.
- Was Brexit Inevitable? Street Sense Web exclusive
June 29, 2016
Was Brexit Inevitable?
While the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union sent global financial markets into a free fall and will affect trade travel across the continent, the “Brexit” vote was far less a vote against the EU and far more a racially charged vote against immigration.
Anyone can become an American. But, a person of color cannot become English — even if that person swears allegiance to the crown and becomes a British subject. Why is this? Unlike the United States, the British Isles have little experience with a multiracial democracy. English people are white. Since 84 percent of the population of the UK is English, the aforementioned terms are mostly synonymous.
A black or brown person can legally become an English citizen, but that person will never become culturally English, no matter how much money she acquires or how upper class his accent becomes. It is a subtle difference but a critical one. Does this mean that all English people who are white are racists? No, of course not. But, there are cultural lines that are almost impossible to cross.
In 2001, according the United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics, the population of Great Britain was 92 percent white. In 2011, white people in the UK comprised 87 percent: a drop of 5 percent. While the overall population has been growing, this is because of immigration and not an increase in the family size of the white English population.
While it is hard for us to imagine now, in 1945, when World War II came to an end, the British Empire still ruled almost a quarter of the globe and almost a quarter of the population of the entire world. Without the massive assistance provided by the Empire, including millions of soldiers, the Anglo-American alliance would have had a far more difficult time defeating Nazi Germany.
However, there were actually two empires in one: the self-governing white British Dominions such as Australia, Canada et al; and the non-white British colonies which were governed directly or indirectly by the British Crown. Therefore, the British had vast experience in governing people of color, but little experience in accepting them as equals.
Beginning in the late 1950s, men of color were recruited from former English colonies to come to England to work, due to a labor shortage. For instance, black men from the colony of Jamaica were recruited to drive London’s famous bright-red double decker buses. Other “coloured” subjects of the British Crown, including those from the Indian subcontinent, once ruled in its entirety by the British, could relocate to Great Britain and become citizens or permanent residents.
The white population wasn’t diluted very much in the beginning, but it slowly began to shrink as a percentage, more than many British people wanted. In the 1980s, controls on immigration of “coloured” people —defined as any person who wasn’t white, including Asians—were introduced and became more and more strict as time went on. By 2010, these controls reduced the flow of immigrants from the former Empire to fewer than 25,000 people.
However, these strict measures did not reduce the number of immigrants. In fact, the number increased. In 2004 the EU had expanded to include many of the poorer countries of Europe, especially Eastern Europe. And a citizen of any country that is part of the EU can move to any other country in the EU, settle down and work. By 2009, more than 1.5 million people, many from Eastern Europe, legally immigrated to the UK under this policy.
Prior to the Brexit, several key events occurred that pushed British voters over the edge:
1) In a 15-month period beginning in January of 2015, more than one million refugees, largely from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, sought asylum in the EU. While Britain only took a handful of refugees, this ignited a fear that a white, Christian Europe was about to be overrun with black and brown people, most of whom were Muslims.
2) On New Year’s Eve of 2015, during a traditional festival in Cologne, hundreds of German women were sexually assaulted in various ways — including being forcibly grabbed, kissed, groped and fondled. Many of the perpetrators turned out to be North African Muslims. As these men were identified and arrested, police discovered that most of them were refugees who had applied for asylum.
3) In November of 2015, Islamic terrorists murdered 130 French men and women in Paris, leading to further demands by the British public to curb immigration.
4) Great Britain doesn’t have the same historical experience absorbing large numbers of immigrants that the United States does. 47,000 people immigrated to Great Britain in 1997. By 2005 that number had grown to 320,000 immigrants. Over the 13-year period from 1997 to 2010, 3.6 million foreign migrants moved to Great Britain.
5) By 2011, Great Britain’s total population was 63 million. In 2014, 8.3 million, or 13 percent, of the population of Great Britain was foreign-born.
6) Months before Brexit, the UK government announced that between March 2014 and March 2015, net migration to the UK totaled 330,000 people.
In a country with these historic issues integrating migrants, Brexit feels inevitable.
The only surprise is that people are surprised.