Redefining Identity in the wake of Brexit

by George Hatjoullis

A great deal has been written about the UK referendum on continuing membership of the EU. I have viewed it from a model of identity that may now need to be updated. This model supports the popular view that the result is all about immigration. Two pieces of evidence suggest my model may no longer be fit for purpose. Like any good scientist I must respond to new data.

The first piece of evidence is Raheem Kassam. He is standing as leader of UKip and has the support of Aaron Banks. In my model he does not even stand let alone win. He may not win but having the support of Banks is not unimportant. If he wins it blows my model out of the water. A racist UKip does not elect Raheem Kassam as its leader. This will be an important election.

The second piece of evidence comes from a study conducted by a team at Warwick University Economics department entitled Who Voted for Brexit? The research identifies the growth rate of migrants from the 12 EU accession countries that joined from 2004 as significant in explaining the Leave share of the vote. Importantly, it finds no relation with migration from the original 15 EU countries or elsewhere in the world. Brexit is about immigration but a specific aspect of immigration. Moreover, it is clear from the study that a great many other factors were behind the Leave share of the vote (which was always understood but is quantified to some extent).

My model has always had at its root the notion that integration into the UK (and most countries) is impossible because the host population must allow it and typically a sufficient proportion refuse to do so. This forces immigrants back into cultural ghettos and justifies this proportions assertion that it is the immigrants that are refusing to integrate. The above evidence suggests that the proportion of the host community resisting  is now very small and that second and third generation immigrants are breaking out of these cultural ghettos and integrating. This is really rather encouraging.

There is also a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence that the immigration aspect of Brexit is specific. The unfortunate wave of violence that followed the vote was directed, according to the media, towards east Europeans. Moreover, a great many people of immigrant origin voted to Leave (which makes little sense in my model). It would seem that it is possible eventually to identify as British and be accepted as such by most (probably never all) of the population. Or at least this is how the generation, to which my sons belong, perceive the situation. Identity is a generational matter and my generation perhaps are out of touch.

The Warwick study supports the view that the Leave vote had a significant generational element. The older generation voted overwhelmingly to Leave. The reasons are not finessed but I can offer some insight based on my membership of this age group (albeit as a Remain voter). The older generation were reacting to the rapid change in traditions and values that has occurred over the last 60 years. In an attempt to achieve rapid social change political forces created a climate of oppression (as perceived by this generation). This oppression has euphemistically come to be known as political correctness. Habits of thought and expression that were the norm 60 years ago have become taboo. This has required a rapid and revolutionary adjustment by the generation that was normalised to these now taboo traditions. The revolution has produced a reaction and manifested itself in the rise, and continuing existence, of UKip, and the referendum result. The EU has come to be associated (not without some justification) with shrill political correctness. Reactionary forces prevailed and in the UK there has been a counter-revolution.

Exit from the EU has been discussed in economic terms at length. However, it may be the reactionary social forces that should be of greatest concern. Shorn of the political correctness of the EU, ‘traditional’ values may assert. Ironically, this may make my original model of identity relevant once again. The only hope is that reactionary forces fade as my generation dies out.