Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Blog

Brexit and Nostalgia: Who are the Optimists in a Xenophobic World?

Colin Crouch


Andrew Buchan

| 6 mins read

Britain’s new prime minster, Boris Johnson, berates opponents of Brexit for being gloomy pessimists, unwilling to embrace the golden age that automatically awaits the UK when it leaves the European Union.

This is at first sight odd, since a pessimistic nostalgia is often reported to be the prevailing mood among the supporters of Brexit, of Donald Trump, and of the various other xenophobic movements currently on the march in Europe and elsewhere. The paradox can be resolved: xenophobes become optimists after the nation in question has been liberated from its entanglements with foreigners; others are optimists until that point has been reached.

Brexiteers object to being lumped together with xenophobic movements; is their slogan not ‘global Britain’? Is not leaving the EU intended to enable closer relations with the rest of the world, making the UK ‘the Singapore of the Atlantic’? In that case they need to explain why the campaign for Brexit concentrated almost exclusively on reducing immigration, ending the need for co-operation with the country’s near neighbours, and on inciting fear of Turkey acceding to the EU. These were the things shouted from the rooftops; anything about global trade was muttered quietly in the broadsheets.

Intensified globalisation may well be the goal of Johnson and other Brexit leaders, but it has not been the basis of their mass appeal. It is notable that the young and better educated, those to whom any nation has to look for optimism, were the most hostile to Brexit.

In the UK, as in much of the rest of Europe and the US, xenophobic movements have found their strongest support in areas and cities most removed from the dynamic sectors of the post-industrial and high-tech economy, even if their inhabitants are reasonably prosperous.

Philip Manow found that in west Germany the Alternative für Deutschland draws its greatest support among older, secure, socially insured workers in the country’s prosperous, traditional manufacturing sectors; prosperous, but traditional.

In my forthcoming research I have found that across Europe, larger cities with either concentrations of high-tech activities or simply an abundance of economic opportunities have almost always resisted the current resurgence of xenophobic parties far more than their less dynamic surrounding regions. Similar evidence is reported from the US.

Whatever Johnson may say, the public that has been supporting him and similar nationalistic leaders do not see themselves as being at the vanguard of a dynamic new economy. Their prevailing mood has been one of pessimistic nostalgia, the Brexit vote an expression of regret at the passing of a world when things seem to have been better.

This extends beyond the economic. Several surveys have shown that the outlook of those supporting the new movements often, though of course not always, brings together resentment at the growing prominence of ethnic minorities in national life, at the new place in life being secured by many women, at liberal approaches to child-rearing, together with hostility to immigration or to the role of international organisations.

In a study of support for xenophobic parties in six western European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland) in 2012 - before the current xenophobic wave had reached anywhere near its current level - Eefje Steenvoorden and Eelco Harteveld found nostalgia and pessimism to be key concepts in making sense of their survey results. In a study of the Brexit and Trump movements, two Italian scholars, Edoardo Campanella and Marta Dassù found ‘Anglo nostalgia’ to be the best way of understanding what they were observing.

Pessimistic nostalgia is by itself just a rather quiet and passive mood. When it is politicised it rapidly changes character. If the future seems likely to be worse than the past, one can at least try to safeguard what one has preserved from the past, resisting invasion by newcomers of various kinds, demanding their exclusion and the minimisation of contact with them. That is a noisy and active mood, creating resentment, hatred, occasionally violence.

Once pessimistic nostalgics can see their way clear to successful exclusions, they can cheer up and become the optimists, welcoming links with foreigners now that these are certain to be kept at arm’s length, taunting as pessimists those who treasured inclusion and openness and see the liberal world they hoped to create darkening.

But however forward-looking the erstwhile pessimists now seem, their hoped-for future remains anchored in the past. Trump cries ‘make America great again’ [my italics]. Viktor Orbán, the xenophobic leader who has probably devoted most thought to the new ideology, presents maps of Hungary with its pre-World War I boundaries. Johnson and fellow Brexiteers constantly invoke 1940 when Britain stood alone in the Second World War as their template for the post-Brexit UK. Jacob Rees-Mogg, an arch Brexiteer, started his appointment as Leader of the House of Commons by giving his staff instructions on language use, including bringing back the outmoded term ‘esquire’ when writing to male persons without titles, and banning use of the metric system in favour of the old British Imperial system of weights and measures.

It is ‘Back to the future’ and ‘The empire strikes back’ rolled into one. It would be comical, were it not for the menace of hatred that inevitably lies behind demands for exclusion, and for the hopeless nature of an optimism that rejects the outlook of the best and brightest who must make a nation’s future.

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    Colin Crouch

    Colin Crouch is a past editor, and past chair of the board, of The Political Quarterly. His most recent book is: Post-Democracy after the Crises (Polity Press, 2020).

    Articles by Colin Crouch