Samantha Heley and Renata Forste, Department of Sociology
In June of 2016 the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. Known as ‘Brexit’ the majority decision was for the UK to leave with 52% of the vote. The Brexit vote was fueled in part by anti-immigration and racist propaganda that promoted a national identity centered on being “English” rather than “British.” With the decision to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom must now act carefully to not upset its economy, while grappling with the issue of immigration. The direction that the UK takes is tied to views of national identity (Rothì, Lyons & Chryssochoou, 2005). For many national identity is linked to being “English” and is more exclusive and racially based than identification with being “British.” English identity is generally comprised of cultural attributes such as shared language, history, ancestry, values, and race. Complicating the identity crisis are immigrant identities as cultural and legal residents of the UK. Collectively the English and immigrant identities are now confronting one of the United Kingdom’s largest questions, who are we and what does that mean?
During the 2016 winter semester I reviewed the literature on national identity under the direction of Professor Renata Forste from the Sociology Department. I began evaluating the formation of identity, particularly in the UK and across Europe. During the summer of 2016, I lived in London for 6 weeks and spent one week traveling in northern England. I also had trips to eastern and southern England. Initially my project was to focus on the Muslim community, but with the referendum vote, I took advantage of the current political climate and broadened by research to include views on national identity across England. During the 6 weeks I spoke with more than 15 individuals across England. I spoke with 1st and 2nd generation immigrants and those that considered themselves native English or nationalists. We discussed their perceptions of national identity and issues of immigration. In addition, I reviewed news articles about current immigration issues following the Brexit vote.
Most nationalists live in rural England and most immigrants reside in London, which lead to the voting results of rural England voting to leave the EU, while London voted to remain. Surprisingly, there was little difference between the rural and urban populations in how each described being “English”. Both populations emphasized the importance of assimilation into the culture and conformity to common views and expectations. However, the two populations differed in their views of the economic contributions of immigrants and in the degree to which immigrants must assimilate. Nearly all immigrants deemed it unnecessary to reject all customs, values, or languages bequeathed to them by their family, yet they felt one cannot be English, or be accepted in England without cultural and social immersion, e.g. attending English schools, enjoying tea, having English friends. First generation immigrants I spoke with adopted British culture and engaged in social immersion that instilled an English identity; despite their mixed culture at home they considered themselves wholly English. Immigrants that lacked the early childhood immersion that many 1st and 2nd generation immigrants experienced, did not consider themselves English but thought of themselves as culturally accommodating and contributing economically, thus creating the right to stay in England. Many of these immigrants felt more comfortable identifying as “British” rather than “English” – with British being seen as more inclusive ethnically and racially. In contrast, nationalists defined their “English identity” unshaped by foreign culture. Furthermore, the nationalists defined identity based on English ancestry and an “English” appearance.
Discussion and Conclusion
Following Brexit I heard many express concern and anxiety about issues of national identity and immigration. Directly after the referendum the UK dealt with financial, governmental, and social instability and a rise in hate crimes towards immigrants and minority residents. If the separation from the EU is continued, the referendum will take years to fully implement, creating years of tension between immigrants, minorities, and nationalists.
As the UK navigates its departure from the EU it will be faced with xenophobic and racist rhetoric from extreme nationalist supporters that can have damaging effects on the economy and society. It is hoped that communities can preserve an English identity that was created by centuries of integration and assimilation of immigrants. As noted by Leddy-Owen (2014), many English communities have experienced economic and social disruptions that have been associated with issues of race and class. Such issues will have to be addressed if English identity is to be inclusive and multicultural.
Leddy-Owen, Charles. 2014. Reimagining Englishness: ‘Race’, Class, Progressive English Identities and Disrupted English Communities. Sociology, 48(6):1123-1138.
Rothì, Despina M., Evanthia Lyons, and Xenia Chryssochoou. 2005. National Attachment and Patriotism in a European Nation: A British Study. Political Psychology, 26(1): 135-155.