In late November 2022, the United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) released its latest census data on ethnicity, religion and national identity. This was a significant event in British politics, as it provided the first comprehensive ethnic mapping of the country since the previous census a decade earlier. This importance was heightened by the contentious debate around migration and asylum that has raged in the UK over 2022, driven by reactions on the right to an increase small boat crossings over the English Channel, and a crisis in the ability of the UK border force to process asylum applications.
The headline figures in the census data showed a drop in the ‘white’ ethnic group from 80.5% in 2011 to 74.4% in 2021 in England and Wales, which appears to have been driven by immigration (REF). Much of the discussion of these figures on the Right focused on the emergence of so-called ‘minority white cities’, or drew dubious connections between the decline of Christianity and the increase in ethnic minority populations. These reactions were important, as they signalled a further increase in anti-immigration politics, which is now even more explicitly framed in terms of racial anxieties and the decline of a white majority. While these kinds of anxieties have been prominent in UK politics over the past decade, what is interesting about the reaction to the census is the prominence of Black and mixed-race conservatives in promoting these narratives in contemporary British politics.
This article will argue the counterintuitive point that increasing diversity due to migration in the UK has led to a corresponding diversity among elites on the right who oppose immigration. While anti-immigration politics still appears to appeal more in areas of lower diversity, Black conservative anti-immigration voices both within the Conservative party and the wider right-wing intellectual ecosystem have seen a remarkable increase since the Brexit referendum of 2016. Thus, the diversification of the right may paradoxically fuel a further shift to the right against diversity and immigration providing cover for a return to more explicitly racialized or indeed racist arguments around immigration. The suggestion then is that what Paul Gilroy called the Black Atlantic (1994), understood as a form of radical countermodernity drawn from the Black diasporic experience, may be increasingly challenged, by a rising Black conservatism which rejuvenates and augments existing socially conservative approaches to race and migration.
The Legacy of Racialization and Empire
The issue of race and migration has been at the heart of the convulsion of British politics over the past 20 years, with arguments from the right criticising the rise of ‘mass migration’ since the 1997 Labour government. While many of these political arguments focus on contrasting an acceleration of migration in the 21st century with levels in post-World War 2 Britain, much of the academic literature has highlighted the continuities in opposition to migration from the colonial era until the present.
Robbie Shilliam argues that throughout the past 200 years the British ruling class has worked through race to create distinctions between ‘deserving’ and ‘underserving’ sections of the working classes. From the 1960s onwards, politicians on the left and right undertook a racialization of the working class and the nation, allowing immigration to be constructed as a threat to the ‘deserving’ sections of the working class (Shilliam 2017). The role of empire and colonialism has also been key to determining the boundaries around race and citizenship in the UK, as for the majority of the 20th century, Britain was not a bounded state but the heart of first an empire and then the Commonwealth. Thus, Gurminder Bhambra argues that British citizenship was created in the 1940s and was only restricted to the United Kingdom in 1981, in a process that required the stripping of rights from former British subjects based on their race or colonial status (Bhambra 2017). This research demonstrates the long history of intertwined debates around race and migration among elites in the UK, as they struggled to re-orient the British state around a post imperial nation.
Immigration, Race and Brexit
Despite this history, British politics in the 2010s became increasingly dominated by debates around the problem of ‘mass migration’ as a recent phenomenon, related to freedom of movement in the European Union (EU), culminating in the 2016 Brexit referendum. In an effort to cater to right-wing anti-immigration sentiments, David Cameron’s government instituted the Hostile Environment during the 2010s, a set of restrictive policies which ultimately led to the Windrush scandal, where many were wrongly detained, deported and denied their rights (Goodfellow 2020). This era was dominated by more traditional white politicians on the right, like future Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who despite his history of using racialized language, refrained from focusing on migration through the lens of race during the campaign. This approach was left to Farage and his UK Independence Party, who invoked the ‘threat’ of Turkish admission to the EU and a rise in immigration from Turkey. Farage’s promotion of a poster, depicting crowds of apparently Middle Eastern people under the slogan ‘Breaking Point’ demonstrated his willingness to signal towards more a more overt linking of race to migration than his Brexiteer allies.
Where racialization became more explicit was in the evocation of the ‘white working class’ as the driving force behind the Brexit vote, a claim that remains contested (Bhambra 2017). In 2019, when the Conservative Party, now led by Boris Johnson, won a landslide victory in a general election, this was solidified by the party’s capture of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ areas in the North of England, which voted Conservative for the first time in generations. These areas were understood as ‘left behind’ white working-class strongholds, committed to defending Brexit and reducing migration as a way to reverse their declining economies. As Shilliam notes, the emergence of the white working class is often presented as being a recent phenomenon, when it is actually ‘an abiding feature of the post-war British economy’. (2017: 155).
Despite COVID-19 dominating politics in the two years following the 2019 election, the Conservative government continued to focus on migration as a way to appeal to a newly identified white working-class constituency. Home Secretary Priti Patel introduced a points-based immigration system, inspired by the Australian model in early 2020. In the aftermath of the Windrush scandal, having an ethnic minority minister to promote hard-line immigration policies provided an important resource for the government. However, these policies proved inadequate to quell criticisms from the right, as reductions in migration from the EU were matched by increases from other parts of the world. At the same time, right-wing media figures, including Nigel Farage, began to campaign on the rising number of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats and the increasing inability of the UK Border Force to house applicants or efficiently process claims. In response, Patel developed an agreement to relocate asylum seekers and migrations to Rwanda for resettlement, effectively suggesting a racialized policy of sending migrants judged as illegitimate back to Africa.
The Rise of Black Conservatives
Whilst racialization has played a key role in migration politics over the last decade, the recent emergence of prominent Black conservatives has helped to further accelerate this relationship. Paul Warmington’s (2015) work has shown that a new group of Black conservative public figures emerged around issues in education during the late 2000s. In one key example, prominent headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh has promoted socially conservative approaches to education, embracing the label of ‘Britain’s strictest headteacher’, arguing against what she sees as a culture of victimhood among Black Youth. This trend has increased and expanded from education broader issues of culture, race and migration in the years since Warmington’s wrote.
In the realm of electoral politics, ethnic minorities have been increasingly visible in the Conservative government. Along with Priti Patel, senior figures like Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng, and now Prime Minister Rishi Sunak are now at the centre of Conservative Patel’s replacement as Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has been particularly vocal on migration. Her vocal support of the Rwanda policy, which she claimed was her ‘dream’ and ‘obsession’ endeared her to the right of the party, as well as has her call for the UK to leave the European convention of Human Rights, and argument that asylum seekers constitute an ‘invasion’. Similarly, minister for International Trade Kemi Badenoch has argued for doing ‘whatever it takes’ to stop small boat crossings, which proved popular among Conservative party members during the 2022 party leadership election.
Among the commentariat, Black television commentators, like Nana Akua, and minor political figures, like David Kurtin, have also taken increasingly aggressive positions against migration. However, the most prominent recent example takes us back to the 2021 census, and the reaction by mixed-race commentator and clergyman Calvin Robinson, who on several media platforms promotes the idea that the data vindicated the politics of Enoch Powell, a conservative politician in the 1970s famous for his explicitly racist remarks and his anti-immigration ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (Shilliam 2021). Robinson’s argument makes a double move, affirming the legitimacy of racist rejections of immigration, whilst attacking critiques that these arguments are racist. He concludes his article on the subject by arguing that ‘diversity means fewer white people, fewer Englishmen, and fewer Christians. There are those who would celebrate that. I would call them the racists’.
These arguments are less surprising in the context of Paul Warmington’s work on Black conservatism in the 2000s and early 2010s. While he argues prominent commentators focused on issues like education and families during this period, he highlights the ways their critiques of liberal politics were highly racialized in their claims about the failures of Black British people (Warmington 2015). The work of commentators like Robinson and politicians like Braverman is an extension of this tendency, performing a double move in decrying the focus on race by anti-racists, whilst affirming the racial anxieties projected onto white majorities. Their perceived external position, outside the white nation, provides a vantage point to offer both validation of its existence and critique of those racialized as non-White. We might call this a veneer of racial objectivity, which allows for the uncritical celebration of racialized nationalism. However inconsistent or objectionable we might find these arguments, it is important to take these politicians and commentators seriously, as their ability to promote racialized rhetoric has the potential to further inflame and polarize debates around migration in the future.
Bhambra, Gurminder (2017). ‘Brexit, Trump, and “Methodological Whiteness”: On the Misrecognition of Race and Class’, The British Journal of Sociology 68(S1): 214–232.
Gilroy, Paul (1995). The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Goodfellow, Maya (2020). Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats, London: Verso.
Shilliam, Robbie (2017). Race and the Undeserving Poor From Abolition to Brexit, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Agenda Publishing.
Shilliam, Robbie (2021). ‘Enoch Powell: Britain’s First Neoliberal Politician”’
New Political Economy 26(2): 239–249.
Warmington, Paul (2015). ‘The Emergence of Black British Social Conservatism’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 38(7): 1152–1168.
About the Author
Farai Chipato is a post-doctoral fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research, University of Duisburg-Essen and a lecturer in Black Geographies at the University of Glasgow. His work focuses on Black and African political thought, international development, and the Anthropocene. His research has been published in the journals Political Geography, Security Dialogue and Global Society. Farai received his PhD in Political Science from Queen Mary University of London.