Brexit and Belonging

So flying back from Menorca to a broken Britain was unpleasant to say the least. Although while I’d been away I’d created this image of carnage and chaos taking over the streets in my head, things are kind of just carrying on in people’s everyday as they were, just with the ever increasingly cold realisation that nothing will ever be the same again.

It’s fascinating because depending on who you ask, what you believe and what you are fighting for (or indeed against), you will have a completely different perspective on what Britain leaving the EU actually means. So here’s my two cents on how this creates a fascinating, and troubling backdrop to my research into the ways in which migrant, refugee and asylum seeking women make the city their home through the things they do in their everyday lives.

The seemingly politically condoned public racism which ensued following the referendum result has been vile to see. This post by Dr. Anna Matthews for the Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network blog talks about this, and similarly relates it to her own research, which I intend to do in this post.


Glasgow Welcomes Refugees March, June 2016 – photo taken by me

This article in the Guardian sees Homa Khaleeli talking with sociologist Paul Bagguely about the rise in vociferous public racism. He argues that it wasn’t a racist vote in itself, but the fact that immigration was the dominant element in the Brexit narrative made many people feel like it was acceptable to make their racist ideas much more public.

I’m interested (outside of my PhD, but feeding into it) in the ways that Brexit and the aftermath of it has brought to the fore questions of Britishness and belonging in the imaginations of those who voted because they wanted to close the borders. This article by Will Self considers how the patriotism spouted by Brexiters is essentially identity politics, arguing that “if the emotional fallout from the referendum result causes us to do anything, it should be to question our own identities, and how – if at all – these relate to concepts of national sovereignty.” Describing his own heritage; American-Jewish mother and Left-leaning English father, he explains how his understanding of ‘patriotism’ as it was swirling around him in the 70s and 80s (the kind that’s rearing it’s ugly head in the wake of the Brexit result), had been that it was something wholly unsavoury, and holding both a British and US passport, he regards himself as a Londoner having been born, bred and still living there. This is just one of the ways in which people can determine where home is for them and how the various parts of their identities intertwine and interrelate with each other in different ways at different times. Like my previous post, I maintain that my childhood home in bradford still has a strong mythical homeland feel to it, given how much of my life was spend within its walls, but these things are complex, changeable and always being worked out as we move, or meet people who have moved. This idea links back to a post I wrote about making sense of ourselves in relation to others (relationality is really important to thinking about identity and home, as who we are not, or who we are like, where we are from or where we are not from). In the case of Brexit, it has been used in its most toxic nationalist form, to carve deep rifts between those who ‘are’ British, and those who are ‘not’. 

mead and baldwin

The babes that are Margaret Mead and James Baldwin

What is particularly interesting, is that the framing of this question of British identity as being with or without Europe, has meant that the focus on the black and asian communities, or those who are ‘visibly other’, has broadened out to include those who are less ‘visibly other’. People are being ‘outed’ as ‘not belonging’ by speaking Spanish on their phones, or by having a ‘foreign accent’ when they speak English. Signs of outsiderness are no longer just about race, they are about other signifiers of strangeness. One woman I interviewed spoke about her fear that her accent would let people know she ‘wasn’t from Glasgow’, as something that would mark her out as different. This more general xenophobia that Brexit brought to the fore, has triggered a crisis of questions of where home is. Articles writing about racist accounts are littered with the quotes ‘go back home’and get back to your own country’. 


One of the women I’ve been working with took a photograph of the church she goes to, telling me that she took the picture “just to show you the international approach of the church. I do feel good there. I do feel very safe there. They keep underlining that they are for everybody.” This was certainly not the line of the Leave campaign…

People in Britain have used this vote to claim ownership over what it means to be British, and to decide for others where their home is, which certainly, in their eyes, is not here.

The work I’m doing for this PhD is hoping to continue the struggle of representation; by giving participants the power to represent their lives and stories through photography, I am adding to a body of work which pushes against the dominant narratives of mis-representing individuals and groups on their behalf as we have seen for so long in the media. I’m also wanting to add to thinking which challenges the kinds of ideas which in part fuelled the Brexit campaign; that home is fixed in one place, and that belonging too, is determined largely by a long-lasting heritage and lineage attached to one place, and that borders and nations are homogenous entities which must at all costs be protected against outsiders.

We have a duty of care to the rest of the world, and for the most part, Britain has had a prettttyyyyy big hand in a lot of the crises which many people are fleeing from, so we also have a duty to provide for the people whose homes we have helped to break, and part of that provision is about making sure that we are open to newness, that we are open to learning; about how things work in different parts of the world, about politics, both locally and globally, and maybe even (heaven forbid) other languages, and that we are open to changing the way we think about what home actually means, and make sure that we enable people to feel like this place they have ended up in, however they’ve come to be here, can be a home too.


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