‘I don’t recognize my country’. ‘I want my country back’. These have for many years been the sentiments of those opposed to immigration into Britain. Immigrants, so the critics claim, have taken over ‘our’ country, turning cities into mini-Kingstons or little Lahores, creating, in the words of David Goodhart, former director of the centre-left think tank Demos, ‘an England that is increasingly full of mysterious and unfamiliar worlds’. Or, as the Oxford University demographer David Coleman, a vocal opponent of mass migration, put it when I interviewed him for a BBC radio documentary a decade ago, ‘Many of our major cities are more like foreign countries than those of the ordinary English domestic scene’.

It was also a theme at the heart of the Leave campaign during the EU referendum. For many Leavers, ‘Take back control’, one of the key slogans of the anti-EU campaign,  became translated into a desire to protect borders, defend national culture and keep out immigrants.

Since the EU Referendum on 23 June, however, it is not opponents of immigration but supporters of the EU who have been claiming not to ‘recognize my country’ and demanding ‘I want my country back’. Aghast at the victory of the Leave campaign, they have suddenly found themselves, as they see it, in a nation full of xenophobes, bigots and ignoramuses. Ironic the phrase may be for some, but it also expresses a profound sense among many Remainers that England isn’t England anymore since 23 June.

I have over many years fiercely challenged hostility to immigration. Indeed, my previous post on Pandaemonium was ‘In defence of freedom of movement’ – and not just within the EU. But if the ‘I want my country back’ cry of those hostile to immigration is troubling, so, too, is that of the Remainers. Both groups have a fixed notion of what ‘their’ country consists, and insist that those who don’t conform to that vision do not truly belong.

Britain did not become a different country on 24 June. It did not overnight get taken over by xenophobes and racists and the ignorant. Rather people, and views, that many liberals, and many within the elite, were able previously to ignore, they no longer could.

Those who want their country back from migrants often portray migrants as backward, ignorant, and lacking the correct values. Many Remainers look upon Leavers in much the same way. Many have tried to explain away the referendum loss by suggesting that those who voted to Leave did so because they were too stupid to see through the lies of the Leave campaign, or too racist to want to see through the lies. The feminist writer Laurie Penny summed up this view, describing Leave voters as comprising ‘the frightened, parochial lizard-brain of Britain’. The political philosopher Chris Bertram has said of Leave voters that ‘I think of nearly all of them as racists and xenophobes’.

It is true that those who voted for Brexit were likely to be less educated than those who voted to Remain in the EU. Over 70 percent of people with no qualification voted for Brexit, whereas over 70 percent of people with a postgraduate degree voted to remain. But being less educated does not make them more ignorant or less able to take a decision.

Shortly after the referendum, a meme began to trend. Following the Leave vote there had been a spike in people googling ‘What is the EU?’. Many Remainers took this to be proof of the ignorance of those voting Leave. In fact fewer than 1000 people googled ‘What is the EU?’ and there was no evidence that a single person who had googled the question had voted Leave. Yet supporters of the EU continued to propagate this as evidence of the ignorance of Leave voters. If it was evidence of anything it was, perhaps, that an education is no insurance against cognitive bias, no protection against a willingness to be swayed by one’s prejudices, no shield against a tendency to jump to conclusions not warranted by the facts.


Education differences are important in understanding contemporary politics. But as political scientist David Runciman observed in an important recent essay, the real educational divide is not ‘between knowledge and ignorance’ but rather ‘a clash between one worldview and another’. Education today ‘sorts us according to where we feel we belong’.

Western societies have, Runciman argues, become more technocratic in recent years, establishing ‘safeguards… to bypass popular politics’. Central banks have become independent of politicians, judges have become more interventionist in the political process, scientific experts play a much larger part in shaping policy. All this has had ‘the effect of empowering a new class of experts, for whom education is a prerequisite of entry into the elite’ – bankers, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, technicians, pundits, academics. Once ‘knowledge becomes a prerequisite of power, then it no longer speaks for itself. It appears to speak for the worldview of the people who possess it’.

It is not that all those who are educated, still less all those who voted to remain in EU, are part of the elite. It is rather that a new cleavage has opened up in society. Once the elite and the masses were divided by class. In today’s more technocratic world, class is less salient as a social marker, and education is more so. But education is no longer seen in terms purely of knowledge or qualifications. It has come to be a marker of the worldview one possesses, the values one holds and the place one possesses in society.

The character of the elite has changed – it is no longer the ‘establishment’ of old. So have the faultlines of European politics. The key division today is not so much that between left and right as it was for much of the twentieth century, as that between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – a globalized, technocratic world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless. It is this division that is fuelling much of the hostility towards both immigration and the EU, and driving support for populist parties, not just in Britain but throughout Europe. Immigration has become both a catch-all explanation for unacceptable social change and a symbol of the failure of the liberal elite to understand the views of voters. The EU, meanwhile, has become symbolic of the democratic deficit in many people’s lives, and of the distance (social, political and physical) between ordinary people and the political class.

Economic and social changes – the decline of manufacturing industry, the crumbling of the welfare state, the coming of austerity, the atomization of society, the growth of inequality – have combined with political shifts, such as the erosion of trade union power and the transformation of social democratic parties, to create in sections of the electorate a sense of anger and disaffection. Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. It has, however, come to be the means through which many perceive these changes, largely because of the way that the immigration issue has been framed by politicians of all hues over the past half century. On the one hand, politicians have recognized a need for immigration. On the other hand, they have promoted the idea of immigration as a fundamental social problem. At the same time, politicians often express disdain for the masses whom many regard as deeply racist, and incapable of adopting a rational view of immigration. (Remember Labour leader, and Prime Minister, Gordon Brown’s description during the 2010 election campaign of pensioner Gillian Duffy as ‘a bigoted woman’ because of her worries about east European migrants? It was a moment that captured the contempt of elite politicians for the little people’s immigration concerns.) This poisonous mixture of necessity, fear and contempt has helped both to stigmatize migrants and to create popular hostility towards the liberal elite for ignoring their views on immigration.

There are certainly hardline racists among Leave voters and leaders. But it’s self-serving, not to mention counterproductive, to dismiss all those who voted Leave as racist or xenophobic. For many, immigration has become symbolic of what has gone wrong in Britain and in the their lives, not because they are BNP fodder but because of the way that politicians of all hues have presented it as a social problem.


During the EU referendum, critics of the EU certainly promoted noxious arguments about immigration, from  Michael Gove’s warnings about a Turkish invasion to Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster. But supporters of the EU have also played their role in creating an climate of greater fear and suspicion of migrants. It was Gordon Brown who claimed Labour policy as ‘British jobs for British workers’ long before Amber Rudd reheated the slogan at this year’s post-referendum Tory party conference. It was David Cameron who led a campaign against ‘benefit tourists’, despite the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee insisting that there is ‘little evidence to support the so-called welfare magnet hypothesis as a migration driver across EU countries’.

The EU itself has helped stoke fears about immigration. Brussels might favour freedom of movement within  EU borders but the quid pro quo for such freedom has been the creation of a Fortress Europe, a citadel against immigration, watched over by a hi-tech surveillance system of satellites and drones and protected by fences and warships. When EU policy plays to the image of a continent under siege, is it any wonder that there is widespread hostility to freedom of movement?

All this brings us back to the cry of ‘I want my country back’. What that sentiment suggests is that both those hostile to immigrants and those hostile to Leave voters don’t want to engage with the real world, but want to live in their own imagined safe space. Migrants are part of ‘our country’. So are those who wish they were not, or wish to limit immigration. It makes as little sense to dismiss all Leave voters as ignorant and racist as it is to suggest migrants are responsible for all our social problems or that they don’t truly belong. Until we engage with the world as it is, rather than as we would like to pretend it is, politics and democracy will continue to fray.


The images are, from top down, a Network SouthEast Dover poster; ’50 shades of England poster by Emily MacKenzie; and a poster for Shane Meadows’ 2006 film ‘This is England’.


  1. Jim Denham

    You’re much to even-handed re racism and xenophobia: during the referendum campaign it came exclusively from the Leave side (“fortress Europe” is irrelevant in this context), and the sharp and ongoing rise in racist attacks and abuse (and indeed homophobic incidents as well) can be directly ascribed to the political climate (fostered by May) following the vote.

    • So of us would say that if Cameron had asked Merkel for an emergency brake on immigration (instead of bottling-out when he heard her voice on the phone) he would have obtained it.

      And thus prevented Brexit and racial attacks etc.

      Your post is a prime example of the middle-class self-righteousness that the article implicitly condemns.

    • Jim, Fortress Europe is anything but irrelevant in this context. It is central to understanding the wave of anti-immigrant hostility, not just in Britain but throughout Europe. It is right to point the finger at Leave politicians but also too easy simply to leave it at that. What has given legitimacy to their arguments? The answer is, in large part at least, the way that politicians of both sides and of all hues have framed immigration as a social problem. So, it is not a question of being ‘even handed’. It’s a question of recognizing where the roots of the problem lie.

  2. As always, an interesting and thought-provoking essay.

    Your first theme is the ascendancy of the educated, something of a laugh really, at least in the United States. There is a difference between being schooled and being educated. An educated person has both breadth and depth, has learned to think independently and, perhaps most importantly, has learned to think critically. These attributes are found rather unevenly scattered among the nominally educated in this nation; unevenly, and not particularly generously. Yet ascend they have, and in their beneficence have given us a global economic collapse from which many nations have yet to fully recover and for which no one has been held to account, global chaos in foreign policy with a rise of totalitarian regimes, proxy wars in the Middle East, and the rising threat of great power conflict, and a new economy based on what would once have been called spying; hoovering up the details of one’s life so as to better sell them crap they don’t need. Yes, well there’s much positive to be said for the rise of what today passes for intelligentsia, I’m sure. Perhaps with another degree I’ll be able to put my finger on it.

    Your second theme, the more interesting of the two in my estimation, is the interplay between education and immigration attitudes. There certainly are xenophobic cretins for whom the world will always cleave to ‘us’ and them.’ I think though that this is a fairly small minority. Most thoughtful people recognize a difference between aspirational immigration and, for lack of a better term, opportunistic immigration. Aspirational immigrants are those who are drawn to a culture and the principles on which it stands. Opportunistic immigrants are those who immigrate wherever they can go that isn’t where they are. The current waves coming from Syria, for instance, are largely opportunistic immigrants. Absent barrel bombs and starvation, few of these would pine to immigrate to Denmark or England. Once there, they cluster in enclaves of ‘homeboys’ rather than integrate into their new settings.

    These two themes can be seen to collide in the current domestic political tumult in both Europe and America. Political leadership in the last 30 or so years has made an entire mess of it. Globalization and immigration, both important and valuable, have been so wretchedly handled, so ineptly ‘sold’ to the political constituencies, so ham-handedly implemented without buffering the negative consequences for the bottom three economic quintiles, that bodies politic are now in all but open revolt. And yet the educated ubermenschen don’t seem to have a clue what everyone is upset about, much less any idea what to do about it, thinking this must simply be a manifestation of the petty hatreds of their inferiors. Move along. Nothing to see here.

    This does not bode well for the future. We indeed have immense problems ahead, many of which require the services of technocrats whose expertise is narrow but deep. Anthropogenic climate change comes to mind. But establishing and managing an economic model for the 21st century that will provide broad economic security to growing numbers of people, and reforming geopolitical structures to accommodate the needs and expectations of vast populations who are only now becoming integrated into post-industrial modernity requires something much broader and much richer; an education that is increasingly hard to find and one that is not particularly valued by what passes for the global elite.

    I am not hopeful.

    • Speaking personally, I make a distinction between moderate – and immoderate – levels of immigration. The latter is likelier
      to lead to separatist ghettos.

      • I wouldn’t disagree. The problem is that almost no one will admit that their proposed level of immigration is immoderate. Where does one draw the line and on what objective evidence is that line based?

  3. damon

    The question for me, is who is MORE guilty of turning issues like this, into sectarian divides.
    When the Daily Mail etc does it, it’s pretty obvious and widely commented upon. And it’s all the left/liberal side do really.
    They scream and rant about how vile everyone who doesn’t think like them is.
    One of the worst people to do this is (London) LBC radio presenter James O’Brien.
    What he does is so blatant. He comes at these stories he talks about on his show, after giving it a big introduction and build up, and then won’t allow any deviation form his script with callers who phone in. He’s done nearly all the things that Kenan has outlined above. Ukip were ”the BNP in blazers” and anyone who voted Brexit was a fool who just likes ”punching themselves in the face”. And the country has become horribly racist since etc.

    What people like him don’t allow, is another narrative, looking at the same issues from a different point of view.
    Like, Britain hasn’t been stable Britain which has just become horribly racist after the referendum – but a country whose population has been rising by 330,000 every year for the past few years, and how a flood of new workers from outside the country has affected British workers wages and conditions. And pushed up house prices and the need for evermore infrastructure. From HS2 to Crossrail. And packed commuter trains and gridlocked roads.
    If Britain’s population had gently declined after WW2 instead of what it has done, it would indeed be ”another country”.
    London might have looked a bit more like Middlesbrough – emptier and more run down, but it might have been a better place too (in some ways). People could have lived closer to the centre in more affordable houses for one thing. Gentrification wouldn’t have taken off like it has, nor would some poor immigrant areas have been so shabby and troubled for so long.

  4. A new snobbishness has emerged – that of education rather than class.

    It is more arrogant and vicious than the snobbishness of the past.

    The 1950’s snobs who looked down on the working-class did not (in their better moments) consider themselves as better and wiser human beings than working-class people.

    Our modern middle-class liberals think of themselves as superior human beings in every aspect – richer, wiser, cleverer, healthier, more enlightened, purer in soul and so on ad inf.

    This appalling contempt for those below them in the pecking order, has split the UK and USA into two warring camps; and resulted in Brexit and Trump.

    Here, some British fudge may lessen the divide. But in the USA – where defeat on 8 November will inflame the Trump Movement (and the bigger the deafest, the fiercer the reaction to it)- the prognosis for that nation is death.

  5. Yes – I agree with almost all of this. There are certainly a lot of people out there who used to be described as ‘working class’ who now see even Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘genuinely/traditionally left wing’ Labour Party as just representing the views of middle class metropolitan graduates. I can see why when the most vociferous Corbyn supporters I know would be more at home in a radical LGBT+ meeting on campus or at a Palestine solidarity meeting in North London – than in a working men’s club north of Birmingham (or anywhere for that matter). At the last election over half of Labour candidates in winnable seats were Public School educated. This is a problem.

    The one thing I would take issue with is that the leave voters of my acquaintance also included some pretty wealthy people who were prepared to vote against their own economic self interest because of Islamophobia and suspicion of immigration, as well as seeing Brussels as the home of bureaucratic meddling (health and safety ‘gone mad’ and subsidising lazy southern Europeans who want something for nothing). Admittedly these people, who are doing very nicely out of globalisation etc. were are less likely to have a degree or A levels – so I agree with the above about the social divides opening up along educational as much as along financial lines.

  6. 2nd edn….

    Ecologically a defined territory (bioregion) has a limited capacity for human development. Obviously as more and more people occupy a defined territory then green infrastructure must be replaced with grey infrastructure. This exerts an increased demand for basic need imports from either other regions or other countries. Therefore whilst one defined territory is turning grey, another must turn green to compensate in order to provide for food, wood, textiles.

    Consequently a balance must be struck and incorporated into this balance is both rights and responsibilities. For example, as Britain increases its population though immigration and its green infrastructure decreases, Lithuania has seen a loss of 375,000 people which is going to cause hardship for future generations in the form of brain drain.

    This highlights that freedom of movement carries with it rights and responsibilities which requires policy coordination between different countries. The question that arises, who effects this policy coordination if not the individuals who exercise their right to freedom of movement.

    This points to an international order that is seemlessly organised and integrated, not one that is chaotically determined by markets and self-interest.

    As such, in order to enable freedom of movement on a global scale, resource flows must be managed in order to meet transnational demand. This implies a form of global socialism or a form of global mutualism as opposed to global capitalism.

    In conclusion, freedom of movement requires a systemic transformation on a global scale in order that the responsibility of fulfilling the basic needs of all that choose to move can be coordinated as policy between different countries.

    This may or may not result in highly populated regions of the world deviod of green infrastructure but it most certainly will result in a global system in which labour and economic activity must be managed.

    Thus freedom to move will result in less freedoms economically since basic needs policy coordination will need to be determined more technocratically as opposed to via free markets. Otherwise scarce resources through market manipulations could make high density populated areas prone to conflict and crisis. And who will get the blame, migrants!

    So as a global governance system we need a democratic form of technocracy whereby through feed back mechanisms (referendums, elections etc), we can choose what type of goods and services we want.

  7. I voted to remain and, given a second vote, I’d do so again, but the behaviour of the ‘Remoaners’ is verging on that of Trump in that they will absolutely abide by the wishes of the electorate so long as the electorate vote for them.

    They also seem to take perverse delight in any rise in reports of racist abuse or economic woes instead of trying to figure out how best to manage Brexit.

    If you first response to bad news is good, as if personal vindication matters more than harm to others you are part of the problem.

  8. iftikhara

    One in 33 people on the planet is a migrant in search of dignity, safety, a better future, and sometimes even adventure. With 232 million people living outside their country of birth, this is not a small number. Put together, they would form the fifth most populous nation on earth. International Migrants Day on December 18 is therefore a good time to acknowledge their role in our societies and economies. Rapid demographic changes can also create friction in communities. Some long-time residents resent the change and newcomers feel unwelcome as a result. The Town of Richmond Hill, north of Toronto in Canada, faced this problem when its population doubled to 185,000 within 20 years, and the visible minority population grew to constitute almost half of the town. Outreach to diverse communities soon became a top priority.

    It looks to me that Europeans do not want immigrants in the West since they see them only as a problem?.

    Just reflect on what you guys in the west have done in other countries.

    Think of Africa and the sub-continent in particular. Do you guys really have a reason to complain?. Or are you the elites that always should have it better than anyone else?.

    To be honest, no group of people has damaged the world, other people’s societies more than you in the west.

    The migrants don’t want to integrate or abide by western law. Just because they don´t want to wear nude clothes or at least cloth that can show how big her breast are… so these people failed to integrate. Just because they don’t like free sex, then these people failed again.. what a dirty Bush mind you have!

    The second generation of Muslim migrants is facing a huge challenge because they did not think even for a second before that someone would say, ‘You are not welcome.'”

    Continue to moan about immigration. You want Turkey and India to do business with Britain and you don’t want their citizens in Britain. What a contradiction!

    A cap on immigration from third world countries will be imposed despite cabinet concern that the policy could harm the economy. The school secretary and university minister have raised concerns that the cap could deprive the economy of skilled labour. Baroness Valentine said that the word cap is a very negative word to put out to the global market place.

    While EU nationals generally have full access to all social benefits and housing on the same basis as British citizens (those from the central and eastern European accession states have to be in registered employment for a year first), the visas of non-EU economic migrants are issued subject to the condition of ‘no recourse to public funds’. That means no welfare benefits and no public housing. Only schools and NHS treatment are freely available to non-EU economic migrant workers and their families – but the small numbers involved mean that the impact is negligible. And in terms of social justice, why shouldn’t migrant workers be entitled to public services funded by their taxes and national insurance contributions?

    This is not a race or religion issue for me, as an example a doctor from the sub-continent, might well have similar medical or surgical skills to one from within the EU, but the former would be likely to have better command of the English language, and therefore more likely to be able to respond appropriately.

    There is a strong connection between economic success and the contribution of immigrants. A study suggests that a 1% population increase through migration triggers 1.5% increase in GDP. Immigrants are also human beings with social, emotional and spiritual needs and demands. They are not just economics for the economic prosperity of the British society.

    Migration is good for economy and business. Migrants pay more taxes than they use in public services. They are just economic slaves of the British society. They have never been treated as human beings. They have been victim of racism,discrimination no bullying, physical and verbal abuse. Unskilled migrants are not welcomed because they are not economically beneficial for Britain.

    Without foreign workers, British economy will bleed to death. British society must be grateful to the foreign workers who kept them alive.

    Now migrant communities need doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers with their cultural backgrounds and who can speak their languages. They are in a better position to serve and satisfy their needs and demands.

    Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school. The number of Muslim schools is on the increase. The new Academies Bill will help Muslim community to set up state funded Muslim schools for each and every Muslim child. Muslim schools are not only faith schools but also bilingual schools. They need bilingual Muslim teachers as role models. Muslim schools should be give the right to recruit bilingual teachers from Muslim countries. Majority of Muslim children are from the sub-continent, therefore, majority of bilingual teachers should be recruited from there.

    There are hundreds of state and church schools where Muslim children are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim Academies..

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