Muting the ‘Migrant’: Emotional-Political Borders in a Post-Brexit Britain

Roy Coleman & María Ángeles Martínez


Maria is an ESRC awarded PhD student at the School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool. She is from Spain and has been living in Liverpool since 2008. She has a British husband and a two year o son born in Liverpool. She considers herself an adopted Scouser.

Maria’s Diary Thursday 23rd 2016: the UK votes to remain or leave the European Union [EU]. I was tired and decided to call it a night. I woke up at 5am with a bad feeling, grabbed my mobile, and there it was: “Britain has voted to leave the EU”. My heart sank.  My husband and my son were sound asleep next to me, unaware of the rapid train of thoughts and news I was trying to digest, to put in order, to grasp. As a social scientist, I can rationalize the 52%. I can recognize this as consequences of inequality, disempowerment and discontent. I was aware of what could happen after many months of fear mongering, lies, and a politics of “us Vs them”. I know political campaigns such as Brexit are partly about galvanizing emotional regimes: the more simplistic the terms of the regime, the better. It was an emotional Leave vision – unclear on the specifics, low on facts but triumphalist in its populist ‘land of hope and glory’ mantra that promises to give a voice to the ‘forgotten’.

It’s been a long time coming but the UK parliament has finally acknowledged the millions of EU citizens living in the UK (7/07/16). A Labour motion was passed unanimously calling for the UK government to commit to the right of EU Migrants to remain in the UK.  This necessary reassurance will go some way to restrain Tory party excesses and help calm fears amongst EU nationals living in Britain who have suffered the inflaming of violent passions towards them. Indeed, the Leave campaign galvanized and celebrated longstanding morbid symptoms in English political and cultural life. The common refrain of ‘national decline’, ‘lack of control’, ‘loss of authority’ and ‘diminished world status’ pointed to a kind of British melancholia, as Paul Gilroy terms it. Such social melancholia is the basis upon which race and racism helped forge alliances between sections of Britain’s elite and the sections of the ‘disaffected’ population.  This Leave Campaign had postemotional delusion written all over it. But that does not make the passions unleashed any less dangerous. Indeed, the emotional energies articulated in the Campaign expunged any sensibilities and experiences of those non-British adoptees who call this place home.

But right now, weeks after the vote – the voice of the migrant and the asylum seeker in the UK are even more important to listen to is a compassionate political response is to be sustained post-Brexit. Living through scare stories of deportation, repatriation, family and employment uncertainty seems to be an acceptable part of ‘Britain and Britons re-finding their place in Europe’. Jeopardising EU citizenship status normalizes anxiety and insecurity for many. One key effect of the campaign has been to sensitize all to each other’s ‘difference’. The break-up of imperfect unions and alliances heralds dangerous retreats into narcissistic and pugnacious nationalism. Over 2 weeks after the vote and reports of racist attacks are on the rise.

Is rekindling the Far Right, racist and xenophobic sentiments, and a type of politics which resembles that of an early 20th century imperialistic Europe a possibility?  The ability to present unequal and divisive political-economic strategies in national-populist terms has been the forte of Right leaning populist governments – not only in the UK. Today this ability requires manufactured untruths married with manufactured charisma attached to the likes of populist chancers such as Farage and Johnson. This is Caesarism, as Gramsci termed it: the kind of charisma that reflects and reinforces despair, cynicism and embryonic fascism. It also, ultimately, leads to the (self)defeat of a collective politics based on civil rights, compassion and human dignity.

This might be too negative and too early to call. After all is it really going to transpire that the UK Parliament is set to create a new refugee crisis and send 3 million of its European adoptees back across the channel?

To pick Antonio Gramsci’s brains, our current ruling delusions will continue to fuel a politics based on “feeling without knowing”. This applies to Leavers who voted with feelings for ‘freedom’, ‘independence’ and wanting ‘to belong’. What they do not know (yet) are the machinations now at work for the continuation of neoliberal power responsible for the misery of many in their number. For the political class, no doubt, they hope to continue their rule built on “knowing without feeling”; this speaks of their knowledge of economic might but an absence of compassion and feeling for the real hardships wrought by neoliberal policies. ‘Feeling’ for them can only be in postemotional terms.

The Brexit campaign reminds of the deep rooted melancholia that can resurface as a governing tool in the UK. The success of rulers has been to harness a widespread melancholic feeling for a past that did not exist. Out of this comes solidarities based on prejudice, racist enclaving and the condoning of violence towards the ‘migrant-foreigner’ depicted as something “really rather understandable” (to use Margaret Thatcher’s terms referring to immigrant communities in 1979). The emotional turmoil of ‘migrants’ did not matter in the past and are in danger of being muted today as melancholic self-loathing plays a part in mainstream politics.



Published by EmotionalStates

Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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