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A free-rider that is too cool for school: Brexit Britain is anything but Great

by Maria do Mar Pereira
June 21st, 2016


Any social scientist will tell you that “Britishness” and “British culture” are extremely hard, even impossible, to define. But in the EU referendum campaign, many people are passionately attempting to capture the essence of what it means to be British, now and in the future.

As a Portuguese sociologist who has worked in UK universities for over 10 years and has recently given birth to a half-British citizen (just one of over one million Erasmus babies), I have been entranced by this debate about national identity. I grew up fascinated by British culture: the British boy bands and indie bands that filled my teenage bedroom in Lisbon, the Roald Dahl and J. K. Rowling books that shaped my childhood imagination, the heady excitement of visiting British cities filled with people, clothing and food from all over the world and from all sorts of cool sub-cultures. I know, of course, that rising anti-immigrant sentiment – in political discourse, the media and everyday life – has profoundly transformed that culture in recent years (although the same boy bands are still going strong). And yet, I certainly did not expect the decidedly uninspiring, dispiriting and disturbing vision of Britishness that has been constructed in, and become legitimated through, the EU referendum campaign.

Britishness is, we are told over and over again by the Leave campaign, a separate and superior entity. “They are not like us, their culture is different – why should I feel any connection to other European countries?”, as if the British Royal Family didn’t descend from Germans, French, Spanish, Dutch, etc. (and many non-Europeans as well), as if tea wasn’t made popular in the UK by Catarina de Bragança, a Portuguese princess who married Charles II, as if Roald Dahl wasn’t born to Norwegian parents, and J.K. Rowling didn’t get inspiration for names and places in the Harry Potter series from aspects of Portuguese life, a country where she lived for several years while writing the books. “We don’t need Europe; we have some of the world’s top universities and one of the best national health systems” – as if the hundreds of thousands of EU nationals who work in the NHS and in UK universities play no role at all in making them so good (we do play a central role; I have a “Most Inspirational Teaching of the Year” Award in one such university to prove it).

This emerging Britishness is inward- and backward-looking, insular and parochial – “Let’s make Britain great again”, they say. Britain is, after all, (or so it seems) too cool for school: too great to comply with supra-national legislation (which, of course, it has helped to shape), and so needs its own rules and laws; so important that it has the right to pronounce on, and intervene in, other countries’ affairs, but should not have to put up with foreign input or constraint. In this account of Britishness and Britain’s role in the world, Britain appears as a proud free-rider. Other countries desire British products, pounds and people desperately, we are told; therefore, Britain can leverage its unparalleled global attractiveness to demand access to the common market without having to accept some of the conditions of the free market (such as free movement) or being expected to make financial contributions. This free-riding might once be seen as arrogant, unethical and shameful. After all, the staggering sense of entitlement and self-importance that drives such free-riding seems at odds with the self-deprecation that is so often described as an aspect of British culture, identity and humour. But in this emerging vision of Britishness, free-riding is framed as a perfectly reasonable, eminently respectable way of relating to other countries, and the kind of role in the world that Britain should aspire to. Other European countries figure in this vision as Britain’s playground (places to get suntanned in, to eat food from, to play against in football, to mock in jokes, comedy, advertising or Eurovision) or at best as a profit source (places to sell products to and make money from); they do not figure as partners, as peers or as places that Britain and the British are intrinsically connected to, and that Britain and the British can continue to learn from.

What this emerging vision of Britishness does is create a form of national identity based on a relation of hierarchy and antagonism with other countries and people, rather than one of solidarity, collaboration and peace. This is a form of national identity that does not allow us to think of different countries as intertwined communities that have influenced and shaped each other, and can thrive together; it is a zero-sum game where a country can only thrive if it fends for itself, over and against others, and puts itself first. History and sociology offer us ample and indisputable evidence that this vision of identity and relationship with others cannot deliver peace, respect, cooperation – it never has, and certainly will not do so in these already tense and tragic times. What this ‘my country first’ vision of identity and relationship with others does, instead, is heighten fear, normalise prejudice and promote violence, as the tragic killing of Jo Cox demonstrates.

Such feelings are latent in all countries and have surfaced in Britain and elsewhere at many points in history. It was precisely because they had such devastating effects in the UK and throughout Europe in the 20th century that the EU was created, and that so much work has been done in education and policy to promote visions of national identity that favour cooperation, rather than antagonism, and peace rather than violence. This campaign has brought those latent feelings of fear and belittling of others to the surface on a large scale. It has framed such feelings not just as legitimate and admirable, but also as appropriate drivers for incredibly significant political decisions. To allow such feelings to shape our debates, decisions and identities is to open a can of extremely dangerous and ultimately uncontrollable worms. The new vision of Britishness that will emerge from the can of worms that is a Leave win will be many things… but it will most certainly not be Great.