by Steve Garner, Professor of Critical Race Studies at Birmingham City University

‘We want our country back!’ was a rallying cry for the Leave campaign in the June 2016 referendum. Similar concerns are expressed in Donald Trump’s campaign, ‘Make America Great Again’.

Indeed, 2016 witnessed a renewed focus of Anglo-American politics on specific instrumentalist uses of the concepts of ‘race’, nation and equality. Analyses suggest that ‘immigration’ was a key issue in both the Brexit referendum vote and Donald Trump’s election victory.

However, based on qualitative fieldwork carried out well before 2016, I suggest that some of the overlapping narratives about ‘race’, nation and immigration deployed go back a decade or more. Identifying the assumptions underpinning the place where public understandings of ‘race’, nation and equality are currently located means listening hard to discursive patterns.

These patterns are quite clear; ‘equality’ is a dirty word; racism is a thing of the past; black and minority people are privileged in relation to dis-privileged white UK people.

Commentators have christened this the ‘post-truth’ era, indicating that such discourses have little grounding in statistical analysis.

Based on fieldwork and analysis carried out since 2005, my inaugural public lecture at the end of April has four elements:

  1. Immigration is a key political space in our imaginations: drawing in elements that have nothing to do with immigration, and people who are not immigrants;
  1. The post-truth era was underway before 2016. There are four main frames through which white UK people make sense of ‘immigration’.
  1. The importance of the politics of emotion: post-truth politics clearly doesn’t work by reference to actual observable phenomena, but instead by engagement with ‘emotional circuits’, in which people already have frames in their minds and seek to interpret the social world through those frames, regardless of details.
  1. The national break-up of the UK is already evidenced, not exclusively in the recurrent mismatch of voting patterns and values between Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales) and England, but also in the weakening appeal of Britishness and increasing pull of Englishness among the majority white UK population.

Hopefully we will be able to piece together what ‘We want our country back’ means, and why it makes sense to a sizeable group of English voters.

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