This is England, or did I inadvertently predict Brexit?

Richard Courtney reflects on the decade since his PhD, and in the light of Brexit and Trump, asks whether the social sciences have forgotten the white English working class.


It was ten years ago that I finished the field work for my PhD in sociology here at Leicester. It was a study of Thurrock in Essex titled: ‘This is England: Class and Ethnicity in Non-Metropolitan Spaces’. A typical Post-Industrial landscape that was neither totally rural, urban or metropolitan. The local area was littered with the disused remnants of its industrial and maritime past, such as the former Bata Factory in East Tilbury.


Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the architecture of consumer capitalism was super-imposed upon this landscape. Lakeside Shopping Centre and the Chafford Hundred housing development provided shopping and housing for commuters into London for work. From the outside, Thurrock could be regarded alongside places like Basildon, Daventry, or Nuneaton – as geographical illustrations of Marc Auge’s non-spaces. However, for the people living in these areas they were their spaces. It was also my space, because I was born and raised there.


I thought that these spaces were inhabited by a people who no longer knew who they were or what their relationship was to London, the UK, and the rest of the world. They exhibited a ‘dual consciousness’ where they used ideas about class at the same time as narratives of ethnicity and whiteness. Rather naively, I thought sociology would explain this. As I completed my PhD and moved into an academic life, I became increasingly interested in public sociology. This seemed to be the principle means by which social science could impact upon society. However, with Brexit, fake news and post-truth, I can’t help but think I failed and, more to the point, that social science has failed.


I felt sociology could expand understanding when it comes to issues of diversity and inclusivity. Thurrock was traditionally a ‘white area’ where diversity existed in the minds of local residents as something that applied to inner cities. Residents routinely used metaphors of hygiene, dirt, and garbage to describe the character of ‘immigrants’. In Thurrock these were often second generation Nigerians who worked in the public sector, IT, and other skilled occupations. However, in the minds of residents they were strangers whose personal intentions and culture was viewed with mistrust.


In 2005-6 by the then most prominent British right wing political party circulated a leaflet entitled: ‘Africans 4 Essex’. Its basic premise was that the new community had been offered a deal by Haringey Council, which meant that they were bought out of their council houses and used the money to move to Thurrock. None of this was true and it took Barking MP Margaret Hodge to demonstrate that it was false. However, many residents I interviewed still believed it, reasoning that everything you read in the media is a lie. Many people’s beliefs were so fixed that no amount of evidence to the contrary was plausible. They were already ‘post-truth’.


The people of Thurrock identified as local, as English, and in many instances ‘white’. At the heart of their lament for the decline of their former social status as ‘the British Working Class’ was a sense of resentment that ‘others’, namely migrants and cosmopolitan liberals had stolen their identity, not to mention their occupations, solidarity and space. They felt left behind, excluded, and that they were treated badly by a metropolitan multi-culturalism. They would claim that if minorities could celebrate their identity then why couldn’t the white English? They showed no understanding as to why something like ‘Empire Day’ wasn’t really something that could be celebrated equally alongside Black History Month.


Locals were not essentially racist or divisive; they just didn’t talk about themselves and others in the ways that social scientists would. However, during the mid-noughties, before Brexit, it was difficult within social science circles to discuss this world view without damning them for everyday racism and locating them in terms of predictable conceptions of class. This made understanding difficult. It’s difficult to empathise with a young woman telling you that they think all Asian people should be packed onto a boat that is then sunk. Does the fact that the young woman left school at 15, had never had a job, had no training or skills, had three children and was teetering into homelessness make a difference to your understanding?


I think that the current political situation is in part an outcome of the social sciences’ inability to impact positively and sensitively upon society over the past 30 years or so. And the reason is because we’ve shied away from confronting the challenging and often harsh realities of normal ordinary white British people – the self-identified ‘silent majority’. There has also been an over reliance on secondary data in much social science research that focussed on social characteristics that had little relevance to these people’s reality – an obvious example is the fact that these people couldn’t identify in the UK Census as English. From the late noughties onwards there were journal articles here and there, but no consistent position or intervention. This meant that post-truth got greater traction in the minds of ordinary people than social science.


In part this was a geographic problem because these people lived in places where little ethnographic research was occurring. Fake news has been rife for years in insecure economic spaces at the rough end of the economy, where ideas about knowledge, evidence, data, and perspective familiar to universities and the public sector simply do not exist. The Brexit result is an eruption of this world into the public sphere, and a widespread sense of a people who have been forgotten.


I’m not saying its social sciences’ fault that this is happened, I’m saying that it happened ‘on our watch’ and we should reflect on this fact. It is therefore our responsibility to engage with it and try to impact on the conditions that push people towards rejecting openness and internationalism. Without social science providing an empirical and conceptual compass for public issues, fake news and post-truth fills that space. We shouldn’t let an embarrassment that public opinion trumped our influence force us to abandon our normative commitments. We need to do more than hold more conferences and seminars, we actually need more engaged ethnographies. This will enable us to re-acquaint ourselves with society, because ultimately ‘Brexit’ shows just how much we’re estranged from it.


I might have been naïve when I was doing my PhD, but current events will not dent my resolve over the enriching role of social science in everyday life.

Share this page:

Share this page:

Richard Courtney

About Richard Courtney

Lecturer in Employment Studies

View more posts by Richard Courtney

Subscribe to Richard Courtney's posts

3 responses to “This is England, or did I inadvertently predict Brexit?”

  1. Rolland Munro

    Very helpful. There was a ‘silencing’ of views that became exposed in the Gordon Brown moment of dismissing the woman who has spoken to him as racist. UKIP was no accident.

    I also think that much social science (I wouldn’t say all) was led by the nose as funding bodies increasingly took on government agendas and steered the search for the evidence they thought they wanted.

  2. Simon Smith

    “Locals were not essentially racist or divisive; they just didn’t talk about themselves and others in the ways that social scientists would. However, during the mid-noughties, before Brexit, it was difficult within social science circles to discuss this world view without damning them for everyday racism and locating them in terms of predictable conceptions of class. This made understanding difficult.”

    There are two issues here it seems:

    1. It was the people who spread the lies about different ethnicities being favoured more than white people who were divisive. People were expressing racist attitudes because of seductive lies spread by unscrupulous people to divide them from others and create strife. Post-truth here appears to be the same old divide and conquer tactic exploited by the elites to defuse any threat to their position from the working class.

    Even if the left wing narrative to the above is removed, you still have something very easy to explain: rumours and lies were being spread by people that caused them to turn to racism rather than find solutions to their economic/social condition (low educational attainment is a constant to all of this). So why was this so difficult to express? Because researchers started to believe them. Irrationality spreads like the plague.

    Just to take one example, there have been persistent myths that newcomers to Britain were being given preferential treatment in social housing. P.7 of this report establishes why that is a myth:

    How could newcomers get preferential treatment anyway, they aren’t eligible. So it isn’t newcomers or immigrants, it’s people who are readily identifiable by the colour of their skin. Which leads, as every thought on this subject inevitably does, to the second issue.

    2. In some cases the lies, with great difficulty and struggle, were overcome. But on many occasions, even when white people could see with their own eyes that the rumours of the far right were lies, they still believed them, as is happening more and more now – that is the real definition of post-truth, when people knowingly believe the lies. This feels more problematic because the white people are now embracing racism… voluntarily? But in that case, what was happening before, were they just unwitting dupes, brainwashed by dark forces?

    There may be an element of mischief here, there usually is, but perhaps they preferred the fantasies because it comforted them. People who migrate across the world to work and not claim government welfare tend to be hardworking and motivated. This embarrassed/emasculated the white British by thrusting their fecklessness and failure in their faces. They therefore chose racism and chose to vote for political parties were authoritarian and openly racist or racist in a veiled way. Don’t forget just how extreme New Labour was on many occasions regarding race and migration, largely in response to intense pressure from the dividers and conquerors par excellence, the tabloid media.

    Only education will end this cycle, but it won’t come from the parties who they vote for, so it creates a vicious degenerating spiral.

    (The only part I didn’t address but which would yield the most interesting study is the ultra-moralistic language reportedly used by the white working class. It invokes concepts of racial purity and the idea that people who don’t have white skin are ‘dirty’ or ‘contaminated’.

    This arises from moral ideas of sanctity. Right wing parties and tabloid newspapers set themselves up as moral guardians despite consistently displaying the most immoral behaviour imaginable. This hypocrisy, the obsessive desire to hide the true motives for actions and the exploitation of a supposedly good concept to bring about evil is more distasteful the more educated you are. The greater your capacity to reflect on things (and. let’s not be squeamish) to experience love, the less susceptible you are to such sustained periods of irrationality, though certainly not immune. Moral language permits people to spy on their neighbours, to judge them, to become suspicious and paranoid and in extreme cases to inflict cruelty in the belief that you have moral right on your side.)

  3. Rana Sinha

    Very brave and perceptive! Thanks. If I may put my two cents in, this issue is extremely important, now, before the walls and passport controls start coming up.

    The fact that the same phenomenon, albeit with regional variations, is discernible in different Western democracies and in USA (a constitutional republic) and even in far-off places like India and Malaysia makes this lack of “engaged ethnographers” more poignant and beggars the question if social science approaches have really been able to access and handle primary data without circumlocution caused mainly by a sheepish fear of slipping in political correctness.

    Now, as this kind of “silent majority” frustration is not being reported from China, Korea or Japan, countries not usually known for being very immigration liberal, multi this or multi that, the frustration of not being able to celebrate and voice their own majority identity seems to be directly linked to societies that have been very open culturally, socially, economically and otherwise.

    Three interesting questions spring up here –
    1. If “engaged ethnographers” would have been able to better tune into these sentiments and give the “silent majority” a voice, would there have been no scope for fake news, post-truth, no fearmongering politicians hijacking sentiments to exploit them blatantly to give us Brexit and border walls?
    2. Is the failure of “engaged ethnographers” due to self-censorship or due to politicians having created a societal mindset that being seen as politically correct is an explicit requirement of modernism where the functioning of the entire liberal, prosperous, global, multi this and multi that society would be jeopardised were the majority not openly ashamed of being “white English”, “countryside Finn”, “Traditional Austrian”, “Hindu Indian living in India” or “Religious White American”?
    3. If the “silent majority” suddenly realises that their identity has become compromised, threatened and meaningless do we notice the same increasing frustrations among minorities in the same societies? If minorities would not report similar frustrations, does it then signal that for “silent majorities” the skills for identity negotiation and management that worked pre-globalisation do not work any more or that minorities have somehow been able to acquire identity management skill upgrades?

Leave a Reply

Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer