‘We want our country back’

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(from flickr)

It’s been a tumultuous year on both sides of the Atlantic and as 2016 draws to a close it appears that ‘we’ in the UK and US are on course to ‘get our countries back’. But are we really? And if so, what country is it that we’re getting back? Or, perhaps a better question would be whose country?

Imagined nations

In 1983, Political Scientist Benedict Anderson wrote a book called Imagined Communities in which he argued that nations exist and are maintained as imagined communities. We never meet everyone in our nation but we imagine them nonetheless as ‘one of us’. Nations are also constructed and maintained by projects of belonging, which tell us who and what belongs and shapes the mental image we have of the nation. These projects of belonging have been nudged into the spotlight this year by Brexit and Trump’s election, forcing some of us to take a long hard look in a cracked mirror.

When Brexit voters shouted and waved signs saying ‘We Want Our Country Back’, they were laying claims to Britain, to its territory, and to their right to belong in and have a say over that territory. This might not seem problematic on its own, after all we want people to have their democratic say. However, where such claims are based on nativist understandings of autochthonous belonging they automatically imply an ‘other’ who does not belong and who is, therefore, less entitled to speak.

Deciding to act or speak as nationals means accepting the logic whereby one has a nation and belongs to a national community and, by implication, to a territory. When ‘we’ say we want ‘our’ country back the ‘we’ are speaking from a place of privileged, or to use Anthropologist Ghassan Hage’s term, “homely” belonging. At the same time, the call implies that someone – elites? Migrants? The EU? – has taken the country hostage and that they should no longer have it. The ‘we’ is exclusive and possessive.

Since the referendum, the ‘we’ who wants its country back has been constructed as white and working-class, a ‘left behind’ population who voted to make a stand against the elite and against immigration.[1] Whether this is true or not (and evidence suggests it was actually middle-class votes that won the referendum), one thing seems clear: This was a specifically nationalist populism with debates, agendas, and interests framed in specifically national terms and based on a desire to locate decision-making solely in the hands of the nation-state. So yes, Brexit was about race. Yes, it was about class and yes, it was about economic inequality. But Brexit was also about nationalism.

Despite claims that the world is moving to a period of post-nationalism, the growth of nationalist (and nativist) populism in Western Europe and the United States suggests that at least in these parts of the world the national framework retains its potency. Populist parties like UKIP often claim to be the natural defenders of cultures and values. Even some who see themselves as international, global citizens and want an outwardly looking, open Britain – as Boris Johnson and now Mrs May claim to want – want to do so as Britons. What is less clear, however, is what Britain looks like to these people, how it is imagined.

What, where and who is Britain?

What became clear in the Brexit debates, and I think also in the US Election, was just how significant ‘place’ is to national politics and populism. Places, as understood by geographers, are not simply locations but locations with meaning. What those meanings are and what mental images they create matters since they determine not only what kind of country we imagine Britain to be, but who we imagine belongs.

In a recent talk to the Association of Ethnicity and Nationalism, Professor of Sociology Gurminder Bhambra explained that: “What gives people rights as citizens in the present is to be able to claim some sort of legitimacy by virtue of belonging to the nation historically”. In other words, when it comes to our right to speak about state and nation it is our historical rootedness that matters.

This is especially important because some Britons, particularly people of colour, have been written out of the nation’s story. British history is routinely represented as an Island Nation’s story rather than a story of Empire, and has white-washed out Britons of colour.[2] The role that Empire, and I would add Europe, play in the imagining of Britain as a nation affects who or what is seen to belong as part of the nation. If the history of Britain as an Empire is recognised, for example, the national community may be opened up to include people descended from colonial migrants, who have tended to be portrayed as people ‘out of place’ despite the fact that many of these migrants arrived on British passports as British citizens.[3] Similarly, imagining Britain as a European nation, long intertwined with the continent, will produce very different effects to an imagining that sees Britain as a stand-alone, eccentric and unique ‘island nation’.

The point is then that geographical and historical imaginations matter for, as Bhambra puts it, “People are in place if you broaden your historical imagination”.[4] Too often the national imagination has been hijacked by nativist politics seeking to divide and rule by presenting some Britons as more legitimate, more deserving and more entitled to live, act, and belong in Britain. Where these distinctions are drawn in a history long passed this is especially unjust and yet nativist politics are exceptionally powerful, clearly.

What will Brexit Britain look like?

One of the (many) problems facing Brexit Britain is what the country will look like. We’ve been told that we’re a nation divided over Europe but more than this, our vision of the nation, our national imagination is divided and we’re not even all sure we’ll still fit in. As one friend on Facebook asked on June 24th, the day after the vote, “Can this Britain still be my Britain?

There is little consensus over who or what Britain is. Those who wanted their country back have apparently ‘won’ but are yet to find out what that country will look like. Meanwhile Remain voters want their country back. Last week, for example, columnist Laurie Penny explained:

I want the tolerant, compassionate Britain back. And I’m worried that we’re losing it

(Question Time, 1/12/16). Among those who understand Britain as a tolerant, nation, or as a multicultural nation, many have said, like Penny, who now want their country back from the Right.[5] The media have continued to present the nation as divided and back in June one journalist even wrote that “Hell is other Britons”.

Everyone in Britain is affected by how the nation is imagined. It shapes our politics. It determines who has rights and who has access. It affects who we think of a belonging, as ‘in place’, and who is out of place. While Leave and Remain voters continue to battle over the national imaginary, over who or what Britain is (and should be), however, there are others from whom the country really risks being snatched, who risk not only being left behind but deported or ‘removed’. Whether or not ‘we’ choose to protect or stand up for these most vulnerable members of society, including migrants whose status, belonging and well-being hangs in the balance, will say as much about ‘us’ as the decision to leave the EU.


[1] This is despite evidence that it was middle-class votes that won the referendum for Leave (also here).

[2] According to Bhambra, Britain was, since its inception in 1707, an Empire and it was only with the dissolution of Empire that it started to construct itself as a nation-state.

[3] All populations were subjects of British Empire under the queen until the 1948 British Nationality Act which established a common citizenship for ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ and a separate Commonwealth Citizenship (with the same rights). People in the colonies were, therefore, formally given the same citizenship and rights as people in the UK.

[4] The recent Black British season is a good example of this, a series of programmes on the BBC aimed at writing black British history into the national story (beyond a single reference to the Empire Windrush).

[5] Such views receive strong criticism, however. See for example: https://doukhobor666.wordpress.com/2016/06/28/laurie-penny-goes-full-retard-over-brexit/

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