12. Race and the (EU) Referendum

On 5th July, graffiti was written on a health centre in Torquay that said ‘EU Rats Go Home Now’. This is one of 73 similar incidents reported in the news in the first two weeks after the referendum. The source was taken from the Institute of Race Relations, which describes the page as “an overview of racially motivated attacks and other incidents of harassment that have taken place since the Brexit result, which indicate the types of attacks taking place across the UK. But of course, this account is in no way exhaustive.”


Graffiti behind a war memorial in Portsmouth

The dust refuses to settle following Britain’s unexpected decision to leave the EU around a month ago. Half the country scratch their heads to figure out why and the other half – so it appears – got what they wanted. But what did they want?

I’m not saying that the Brexit leaders (now largely running the government) and voters are eugenicists i.e. wishing to take control of evolution by breeding an ethnically pure British master race. However, eugenicists in mid-twentieth century Britain did give stark warnings that restrictions on immigration were essential for the survival of Britain as a great nation, a belief shared by far-right elements of British politics today i.e. UKIP, Britain First et al.

In its 1950 Statement of Objects, the British Eugenics Society discussed immigration and its impact on the national gene pool: “Race mixture is a subject which excites strong feelings. Seemingly bad results are produced by the unstable environment of children who are exposed to contrasting cultural traditions and to hostile forces of prejudice; also by the fact that racially mixed marriages are not always contracted by the best representatives of either race.” Even the Bishop of Birmingham, E.W. Barnes, a lifelong eugenicist and moral pillar of the community warned of “the problem of undesirable immigration ” urging for a limit to be put on “the number of members of other races who come here [to Britain].”  Barnes’ opinions on racial differences and immigration were not met with any notable controversy. Would they be today in certain circles?

After the Second World War, the 1948 British Nationality Act had made it easier for citizens from the Commonwealth to come to Britain and begin a new life. However, public racial discrimination was not made illegal until the 1965 Race Relations Act. If racial tensions were building in Britain after 1945, they manifested themselves with the widespread race riots in East London and Notting Hill in the 1950s, in which minority populations were the targets of violent attacks. These became more widespread with the rise of groups such as the white-supremacist National Front from the 1970s. In the current climate, there is little preventing these views resurfacing in what historians may later term the ‘Age of Extremism’. Did they ever really disappear?

While the economic and political implications are not entirely clear (though many may disagree here), Brexit has in an instant tarnished Britain’s image as a progressive democracy. Of course, this image was rose tinted and of course, not all those who ‘voted out’ hold prejudiced beliefs concerning other cultures. There are numerous deplorable and brutal regimes worldwide that make post-Brexit Britain look pretty good by comparison. But maybe, ‘turning our backs’ on the European Union and applying inevitable restrictions on immigration – and various other similar and likely measures – will reinforce the bigoted beliefs of ‘Great’ Britain’s racists and xenophobes. Moreover, those in the closet on such issues may emerge now seemingly justified in their beliefs and those undecided will go with the general opinion (the 52%) – Britain is stronger as an independent entity: Britain should be put ‘First’.


‘Post-Brexit Racism’, Institute of Race Relations (7/7/2016) [http://www.irr.org.uk/news/post-brexit-racism/].

John Solomons, Race and Racism in Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003);

Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration into Britain (London: Little Brown, 2003);

Richard C. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: From Oswald Mosley’s Black shirts to the National Front (London: I.B. Taurus, 1998).

Carlos P. Blacker, Statement of Objects (London: Eugenics Society, 1950), 4.

Ernest W. Barnes, ‘The Mixing of Races and Social Decay,’ The Eugenics Review, 41, 1 (April, 1949), 11-16.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s