Helen De Cruz explains why Britain is unwilling to let free movement continue during the transitional period and draws parallels between xenophobia in the current negotiations and against Commonwealth citizens earlier.

Soon the UK and the EU will negotiate about a possible transitional arrangement in 2020. The EU insists that single market rules apply, including freedom of movement. Theresa May has said that the UK wants to limit free movement and also impose registration of EU citizens starting March 2019. On Feb 1, The Daily Mail cites May's stance approvingly, with the following misleading image and caption:

Daily Mail

This will likely cause a clash, given that a transitional arrangement would need to closely emulate EU membership. Why would the UK jeopardize a much-needed transitional period, especially given that it needs EU citizens in its workforce, including the NHS, fruit farming, the hospitality sector, and higher education? Why not simply endure the extra EU citizens coming in for a bit under two years, and then pull up the drawbridge jubilantly, as the UK can finally head into the sunny Brexit uplands in January 2021?

The reason is that those EU citizens would be coming under freedom of movement, and this is something Brexiters can't tolerate. I will argue here that the xenophobia that drove Brexit is very similar to the xenophobia that led to changes in citizenship of Commonwealth citizens decades ago. I here want to analyze exactly what the xenophobia is that underlies Brexit, and how it is similar to reforms that took away significant rights of Commonwealth citizens to live and work in the UK decades before.

Xenophobia as backlash: a comparison with misogyny

It is helpful to compare the xenophobia underlying Brexit to another phenomenon where a group of people is subject to hate, in particular, misogyny (hatred of women). In her recent book Down Girl, The logic of Misogyny, the philosopher Kate Manne argues that traditionally misogyny is seen as a character trait of individual men, “a property of individual misogynists, who are prone to hate women qua women” (p. 44). The problem with this conception is that it would be difficult to pin down exactly what misogyny is and also that it would lead to the strange prediction that in a very patriarchic society, misogyny would be rare given that women would behave in a way men would like them to (e.g., be caring and cater to men's needs). What reason would men have to hate women in these societies?

Manne favors a different conception of misogyny, namely as a systematic facet of power relations. Misogyny is dependent on the patriarchy — societal structures that require that women are loving, subservient, nurturing and catering to men's needs. When women do not fit what the patriarchy demands of them, for instance, trying to become leaders, or do not fit the sexual norms of demureness and purity imposed on women, the backlash that occurs is misogyny, exemplified in the attitudes against Hillary Clinton or in acid attacks against women in Bangladesh, which is common to punish women for refusing marriage or sex.

Something similar to misogyny is going on in the case of xenophobia, fear and hatred of foreigners. Rather than a trait of individual people, xenophobia is a systematic facet of power relations, in this case, the relationship between a country's native population and its immigrants. Immigrants are tolerated as long as they are subject to stringent home office rules, the constant threat of deportation if they don’t meet their ever-tightening criteria, the various hoops they have to jump through such as being fingerprinted, and arbitrary requirements such as learning useless trivia about Kings and Queens to qualify for citizenship or indefinite leave to remain. As long as the immigrant is there to serve the UK citizen, they are welcome. But they should not be expected to be treated as equal.

To summarize, xenophobia is not a hatred of foreigners per se, and not a trait individual people possess. Rather, it is the result of an institutionalized sense of entitlement of the British-born population. Xenophobia occurs when that sense of entitlement is violated and when foreigners are perceived as having too many rights, rights that are deemed only for the British. The obvious example of xenophobia are hate crimes against EU nationals, especially from Poland and other Eastern European countries (but not restricted to them).


But xenophobia is also present in more subtle forms, including checks on bank accounts, eligibility of NHS treatment, and many aspects of the hostile environment. It fits in the discourse of many Brexiters who say they are happy with immigration as long as it's controlled. Controlled immigration suits them because it puts the immigrant in a position decidedly below that of the UK citizen, a position of dependency and possible rejection.

The EU free movement directives challenged this sense of entitlement. It means that EU citizens can come to the UK on an equal footing as British people to live and work in the UK, get access to the NHS, etc. This created the xenophobic backlash already in the lead up to the Referendum. Even while the UK was still in the EU, Cameron sought to limit the rights of EU citizens on benefits, exporting child benefit abroad and a range of other issues. The reason for asking this is not that EU citizens would weigh disproportionately on public services (indeed, this is not they case as they are net contributors) but because of the idea that immigrants, qua immigrants, should have fewer rights.

This idea of British superiority is not restricted to UKIP or the BNP, but is absolutely mainstream. It is the orthodoxy among the British establishment, including among left-leaning, centrist and centre-right writers. Take, for example, David Goodhart, who proposed to limit work permits for EU citizens for unsociable hours, thus further marginalizing them and removing them from the public sphere. In his report on immigration policy post-Brexit, he wrote:

One of the problems with freedom of movement is that it has created a new category of resident: someone who is neither a temporary visitor, such as a tourist, nor someone who is making a permanent commitment to a new country in the manner of the traditional immigrant. Many of those taking advantage of free movement in recent years have enjoyed the rights of the latter with the attitude of the former.

Many of my EU citizen friends were puzzled by what Goodhart could mean by having the attitude of a tourist. After all, many of them have lived here for decades, work, are married to British citizens, and pay tax. For all they know, they are making commitments in the manner of a traditional immigrant. But what Goodhart means — if my analysis of xenophobia is correct — is that EU citizens exercising freedom of movement currently don't need to jump through the same hoops as traditional immigrants: language tests, means testing, finger printing, the threat of deportation through changes in arbitrary rules. That is what it means to be a "traditional immigrant" for Goodhart — an immigrant who knows her place.

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Comparison: stripping rights of residence for Commonwealth citizens

There are striking parallels between Brexit, which among many things aims to strip away rights of EU citizens to live and work in the UK with the sweeping legislative changes about British nationality in the 1970s and 1980s which resulted in stripping away the rights of residence of millions of Commonwealth citizens. To see how legislation about Commonwealth citizens connects to Brexit, and how both are a result of xenophobic backlash I recommend this excellent lecture by Gurminder Bhambra

Lecture by Gurminder Bhambra about Brexit

Bhambra believes Brexit is the result of a sense of entitlement that is a legacy of the British Empire. As she reminds us, British nationality is fairly recent. It was established first by the British Nationality Act in 1948 which made all British and Commonwealth citizens a Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC). One consequence of this was possible freedom of movement from people of the former British colonies to the UK. The high net migration alarmed some of the British population, resulting in Enoch Powell's infamous Rivers of Blood speech.

Being a CUKC citizen was great as long as it meant British citizens going to the former colonies, but became a source of concern when that free movement went in the other direction — increasing numbers of mostly dark people coming into Britain.

Many of Powell's points are quite similar to concerns voiced about EU migration in The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, and The Sun. For example:

“It almost passes belief that at this moment 20 or 30 additional immigrant children are arriving from overseas in Wolverhampton alone every week — and that means 15 or 20 additional families a decade or two hence. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”

But it is also clear that Powell's main concern is that these immigrants have so many rights, that they can vote and have free care under the NHS:

“The Commonwealth immigrant came to Britain as a full citizen, to a country which knew no discrimination between one citizen and another, and he entered instantly into the possession of the rights of every citizen, from the vote to free treatment under the National Health Service.”

Note also, still from Rivers of Blood, Powell's classic victim narrative of the immigrants pushing out the native population. According to him British subjects:

“... found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition, their plans and prospects for the future defeated; at work they found that employers hesitated to apply to the immigrant worker the standards of discipline and competence required of the native-born worker; they began to hear, as time went by, more and more voices which told them that they were now the unwanted.”

All this has echoes in the discourse of EU citizens and their rights.

The British Nationality Act 1981 changed this situation drastically: as a result of it, every citizen of the United Kingdom and colonies became either a British citizen, British Dependent Territories citizen or British Overseas citizen. From then on, Commonwealth citizens could still vote in national elections, but new arrivals from these countries are subject to stringent home office rules, fingerprinting, registration, minimum income requirements, and various other immigration checks.

While people who came to the UK prior to 1981 do not need to meet the new requirement, there are weekly cases of long-term residents in the UK from Jamaica and other countries who have fallen afoul of the immigration rules, and are being deported or at risk of deportation to countries they have often never lived in as adults. This is a fallout of the restriction of rights for Commonwealth citizens, and inevitably we will see similar scenarios unfold with EU citizens who arrived before March 2019. There will be EU citizens who will have lived here lawfully, but do not have the paperwork to prove it.

Xenophobia or common sense?

People reading this might be thinking that restricting free movement is not xenophobic but necessary, given that the UK cannot deal with the pressures of high net migration, so I will briefly consider this objection.

First, the UK is not especially densely populated and most land is not used for housing. Given that EU immigrants (like non-EU immigrants) provide a net benefit, one could simply increase infrastructure to cope with more people, using the EU citizens’ net tax contributions to expand the NHS, schools and other vital public services. Compare net contributing citizens to customers in a store. If more customers are coming in your store, it makes sense to put extra tills and aisles and other forms of infrastructure.

Second, xenophobic talk about foreigners jumping the queue and not knowing their place also occurs in thinly populated countries, such as Australia and Canada (see also Manne, chapter 7.) If it were solely a concern of high population density, one would only find this discourse in highly-populated countries.

Moreover, if the only concern was that there would be too many EU immigrants coming into the country, it does not explain why the UK keeps on trying to impose many restrictions on existing EU immigrants' rights while also saying they want those citizens to stay, see e.g., Theresa May's letter to EU citizens. Her message is this: we want you to stay, but we also want to curtail your rights, and make sure you never forget that we are more entitled than you are, by virtue of our birth. 🔷

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(This piece was first published in The Blog!)

(Cover: Twitter/@Its_DS1969. Banksy's Draw the Raised Bridge, Hull, UK - 27 January 2018.)