Elites, Empire and Indigeneity: One Australian’s Views on Brexit

Prelude

20150428_122803I am very pleased to write I am BACK in post after a period of leave. It has been a time of intense self-reflection for me during which I was out of contact with many friends and colleagues. I would like to thank everyone for the many messages of support I received while I was away, and since I began working again (which has been under the radar until now).

I am now back full-time as Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies in the English Department at King’s College London, and very much looking forward to taking the reins as Director of the College’s Menzies Centre for Australian Studies from September 2016. I feel thoroughly re-energised, and re-committed to the future of King’s and MCAS. The next few years promise to be an exciting time in the history of both institutions.

In my absence MCAS has continued to move ahead in leaps and bounds under the Directorships of Dr Simon Sleight and (from June until September 2016) Dr Peter Kilroy. The work of the Centre has also been greatly enhanced by our new project officer Maddie Gay who, along with the team in the College’s Arts and Humanities Research Institute, has brought an invigorating and fresh outlook on the Centre’s plans and a brilliant skill set for bringing them to reality.

Euro

Brexit (some personal views)

As far as experiences of crisis, self-reflection, and renewal go, my personal odyssey pales in comparison with what has been occurring at a national level here in Great Britain. The Brexit story, which I bought into only late in the day, is one that has swept up everyone I speak to here and abroad, and seems to overtake personal trajectories with an overpowering tide of national ‘mood’.

Let me clarify that ‘late in the day’. When the referendum was announced I decided, as an Australian citizen long-term resident in the United Kingdom, I would abstain from voting. It wasn’t that I thought I would be leaving the country anytime soon, or that I didn’t feel invested in Britain’s national community and its future. Perhaps my abstinence was the legacy of my surprise (in 2004) that, as a Commonwealth citizen resident in Britain for six months, I could vote in British elections at all. (British subjects resident in Australia once had reciprocal voting rights; but not so after 1984.)

Hi from London 001

Fresh off QF1 in 2004 at the MCAS offices, 28 Russell Square

This Commonwealth citizen’s right to vote gave me three impressions of Britain when I first arrived: of its extremely noticeable—in London—porosity (forged by its ancient invaders, its ‘united’ kingdom, its empire, its post-war recruitment of Commonwealth immigrants and the EU laws of free movement of peoples); of its ‘nation of shopkeepers’-hood (if you pay tax you should be able to vote); and of its deserved payback for taking over a large portion of the globe when it was fashionable in Europe to try and do so.

And yet when the referendum was announced I was still enough of an Australian national to feel it wasn’t my place to vote in the referendum: that this was rather the moral obligation of the card-carrying citizens of the British Isles, and I should graciously bow out. (I can’t help seeing myself dragged up as Queen Mary as I type that preposterous sentence.)

Anyway, soon the vitriol of the worst campaign I have ever witnessed re-ignited my political instincts (I am a Canberran by birth after all). So, with polls revealing the vote would be close, I effected my own personal EU-turn, declared I would vote, and did indeed vote REMAIN. (That said, I nearly didn’t make it to the polling place because of torrential rain in London during the morning and evening rush hours of the day in question: with transport in chaos what should have taken me 15 minutes ended up being a two-hour trek. I wonder how many Londoners couldn’t be bothered to battle the Underground that day.)

With the commentariat in overdrive since the result became known, I won’t bore you with the full details of my opinions. But in sum:ballot

  • What a disaster the terms of the referendum were in the first place! A stark question was bound to forge something like a 50/50 result, meaning campaigning also would be more adversarial than even a normal election (where there are numerous choices of parties and independents, and main-party lines are distributed across a diversity of more-or-less ambivalent candidates). It felt provocative to wear an ‘IN’ or ‘OUT’ referendum sticker on the streets in a way that ‘Vote Labour’ (or whatever) would never do. Referenda, it turns out, pose significant threats to national unity right at the monent they appear to uphold democratic ideals…which shows just how forward thinking the designers of Federation were when they built in what once seemed draconian measures for passing them in Australia. It also suggests that referenda are not the solution to the so-called uberisation of politics.
  • Calling this particular referendum was particularly reckless in the circumstances, and conditioned by a curiously British myth: that the cohorts of some few specific schools and universities represent a national ‘generation’, the stand-out individuals of which are exceptionally well positioned to lead. (Or to put it another way, the United Kingdom was lost on the playing fields of Eton.)
  • The Conservative Party leaders of the Brexit campaign seem genuinely shocked to find themselves no longer shielded by a Prime Minister when they won, leaving their lack of planning (and dubious faith in their own campaign) greatly exposed.
  • The status of the referendum is confused. Referenda usually refer to a single piece of legislation or a focused item of policy: this one vaguely gestured towards the repeal or modification of hundreds of pieces of legislation by numerous houses of parliament wherein there is nothing like consensus and—now—a stark absence of leadership (other than from Nicola Sturgeon).
  • Public awareness of precisely how representative the governance of the EU is, was almost zero and still is. So too any sense of the active participation of British nationals in EU administration and policy development. I only know what I know about it because I am an immigrant who had to sit the ‘Life in the UK’ exam. The one institution which might have rectified this situation—the BBC—was hamstrung by overbearing scrutiny as to its impartiality. (Of course, with the announcement of the result, reporters’ faces said it all.)
  • Meanwhile the ninety-year-old embodiment of national unity in this Kingdom, the woman who is the ultimate sign of stability in the British media-sphere, she whose public presence was demanded by politicians and the people in the past to alleviate national strife in far less significant circumstances, has presumably been banned from any kind of public role in the crisis.

BE

Elites, Empire, and Indigeneity

The starkness of the referendum question also lent itself to the whole process becoming an opportunity for voters to stick it to the man. This unintended effect was willfully deployed by Brexiteers, explicitly (UKIP) and implicitly (by many others), as a reason to vote ‘leave’, but it turned, of course, on attitudes to immigration…for the most part racist attitudes, that is.

The historic irony of various positions on immigration in Britain is staggering: but if I draw some of them out briefly, don’t think I am here simply to sneer at ‘ignorant’ voters. Rather, I do so to illuminate some of the challenges ahead.

Firstly, mine is a learned perspective on racism; by which I mean my education taught me how to perceive it in myself. I didn’t experience it because I am white; it wasn’t built into my being through everyday encounters big and small, I don’t innately sense it (as I can do homophobia). Rather, like many Australians, I had a scales-fall-from-eyes moment when I suddenly saw how I had been written into a violent history of colonialism and nationalism, and how pervasive it was in my sense of personal identity. The moment didn’t make me any less Australian: it rather revealed to me the complexity of Australia and the demands our country places on its citizens to engage with problems of justice, governance, and mind. When racism is invoked, then, and particularly if they are accused of racism or accuse others of it, white people need to take a breath, put their brains in top gear and keep it there for a while. They won’t suffer for it, and they might alleviate some other people’s suffering in the process. You’re worth it.

That present-day Britons should vehemently object to being ‘invaded’ by their fellow European Unionists would be laughable if the history it masks were not so tragic. Thousands and thousands (picture it) of men, women and children in what we now call Australia lost their very lives when so many English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish and other peoples of the global north moved onto their country; and did so with nothing like the locally-mandated legitimacy of Europeans in Britain. (Nor have retirement-age Aboriginal Australians moved en masse to English seaside resorts.)

Further irony: BTL commentators in the press have urged that Britons are not anti-immigration, they just prefer immigrants from the Commonwealth rather than Europe. This forgets history which is so recent most of the commentators actually lived through it. That contemporary British society functions to the degree it does speaks volumes for the optimism and engagement of immigrants from India, Pakistan, the West Indies and other former colonies; and before that the Irish and, to a lesser extent, white British subjects born in the dominions. Hint: they were not always welcome.

The rhetoric of Brexit, I’m afraid to say, then, is racist. And it is indubitably racist: even taking account of the notion that to speak up about immigration policy is not necessarily to air racist views. The only unusual thing was the racism was directed at other white Europeans.

But the other remarkable (and remarkably ironic) aspect of the whole affair, particularly for an Australianist, is the re-positioning of ‘indigeneity’ in the ‘debate’. Apparently indigeneity is now a property of Britain’s white working class, swamped by invaders who are taking their country and their jobs. The identification of ‘the wretched of the earth’ (‘les damnés de la terre’), then, has come full circle: from the ‘ouvriers, paysans’ of the Internationale, to Fanon’s colonized, and back again.

And yet, in this conflation of white workers and black colonised peoples we can see how ‘racism’ (or something very like it) can engulf both Brexiteers and those who voted Remain: and a starting point for how those who hold power in Britain (including members of the educated elite like myself) might begin to listen to the people.

Which people? Well, apparently, the ‘ordinary people, the ‘good people’, the ‘decent people’ invoked by Nick Farage in his victory speech. Nearly all Australians will hear echoes of John Howard’s ‘ordinary Australians’ in Farage’s rhetoric and spot with ease parallels between the mainstreaming of UKIP policies in Britain and One Nation’s in 1990s Australia. So too the wedge politics which places educated elites in opposition to the victorious cohort.

But there is in fact a difference, and it rests on the fact that ‘ordinary’ people have never had the cultural cachet in British as they do in Australian nationalism. There may be a House of Commons, but commoners—over time the British tar, consumers of beef, the tommy and so on—have competed with the aristocracy as embodiments of nation…Or rather, Kingdom. They have never decisively got on top.

Meanwhile, historically, the potential for violence any ‘ordinary’ Briton might possess, born of home-grown social and economic oppression, has often been directed outwards, to empire. The elite—Colonial Secretaries and their like—sat back and deplored, for example, attacks on Aboriginal Australians by convicts and lower-class settlers, while reaping the true rewards of its effects (something I suppose Kate Grenville was getting at in The Secret River.) Not without parallel is the fact that the victory, according to Farage, of those ‘who’ve had enough of the merchant bankers’, is probably doing the work of the worst of them.

And yet foregrounding the imperial parallel suggests the principal problem—post-Brexit, and according to Remainers—is that the proletariat have been deluded by the wrong type of elite (tax-dodging multinational executives not our enlightened selves); rather, that is, than that they have legitimate cause to deplore the denigration of their culture and the loss of real political power (e.g. as once expressed by the unions).

And it is in the latter we may find true cause for thinking of communities and cultures forged by the industrial revolution in Britain in terms usually applied to Indigenous peoples in postcolonial discourse. For their racism—never less than deplorable—is nonetheless an expression of something rich and meaningful: albeit a perverted expression of the same. To see these diverse cultures among Britons as anything less is indeed to regard working-class English men and women as colonists once did the locals of the New World.

Here, then, is a legacy of the referendum: divisions between Britain and Europe, north and south, class and class, immigrants then and immigrants now, the highly educated and the less so. And here is where our new leaders, whoever they may be, must do their work.

And that work is to listen to the Britons who have lost out during globalisation but to do so in a manner which (at once): gives them due time and respect; sees through border-control bullshit; rejects a Downton Abbey vision of social cohesion (Big Society); and includes at last seeing that the men and women of Britain whose ancestors weathered—and indeed sustained—the world’s first industrial revolution, are hardly ill-equipped to enter into global modernity.

It is as much as to say that all Britons should deploy the very listening skills Indigenous Australians have taught us (or are trying to teach us): and heed their vigorous rebuttal that they were ever the ‘dying race’ that colonists claimed.

Dr Ian Henderson

3 thoughts on “Elites, Empire and Indigeneity: One Australian’s Views on Brexit

  1. Hello Ian,

    Sorry to hear you have had a tough time but glad you are feeling so much better. I like this piece very much. The comparison you draw between working class British and Aboriginal people both suffering despair and anger is very poignant and well-observed.
    We missed you at the Festival this year, we (Nottingham Australian Book Club) saw Thomas Keneally at Australia House interviewed by own Mark Lawson.
    Talk about colonial grandeur, it was fascinating but bizarre, a post event wine reception in the chocolate marble halls while supporters of Manu Island detainees were demonstrating outside!
    […]

    All the best to you Ian

    Susan Roberts

    aka normadsprogg

  2. Ian, thank you for this very thoughtful and challenging blog post. I am an Australian (and later a European citizen via UK citizenship) who has lived and worked in UK (Scotland, NI, Wales & England) since the mid 1990s in heritage – mentoring UK people in heritage matters, challenging them about the silences in their history and trying to encourage more honesty and openness. Currently involved in the Hull City of Culture 2017 project and many of the issues you raise here I have also been raising – Hull voted c70% leave. While most people I know are reeling at the Brexit result and deploring it, being Australian gives me a particular insight into the issues and challenges the whole referendum has raised and continues to raise (in spite of my instinct to run back ‘home’). Listening is probably the first step although we may not like what we hear … but I would say that there is a similar right-wing intolerant intimidatory vein running through elements of Australian society at the moment which I find distressing and confronting – and Pauline Hanson rises again. Thank you again for this thoughtful and personal response. I hope I may share it?

    • Thanks for your lovely comment Lesley and sorry for the late reply! Please do share the piece. And please stay in touch! Would enjoy hearing more about your work in Hull

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