Being English/ British/ European and the politics of difference

By: Henry Redwood


To say that it has been a bad couple of weeks to be English (or is it British, or European? I’m not sure anymore…) is an understatement. Violent and racist football supporters in France; racist abuse at home; intolerant and divisive politics in all political parties; “Brexit”; and lastly, losing a football match to a team with more volcanoes than professional footballers. Each of these events has left in its wake a series of finger-pointing and questions over who’s to blame: Roy Hodgson? The working class? The Tories? The press? A complacent left? (Im)migrants and/or refugees? This need for someone, or a collective, to be blamed within society seems to run deep. It was certainly key in the angry protest vote that saw Britain leave the EU. The primary concern within each of these allegations seems to be to find the ‘Other’, upon whom we can unburden our own responsibilities and troubles – the immigrant; the elite; the European bureaucrat; the English -and draw, perhaps, clear lines that strongly delineate what “we are” – and more often what we are not.

However, the ‘blame game’ rests on an unsustainable model, which assumes that clear lines can be drawn which delineate what “we” are – and more often what we are not. The most obvious example here is the notion of “Great Britain”, which has been variously deployed in, often contradicting, ways by different parts of the argument. Underneath each, though, is a conception of a nation – a collective – that remains unchanging; of a set of morals, values, culture etcetera, that is transcendental, frequently constructed by relational difference (we are not European; we are not fascist).

The arbitrariness of this (of course, being arbitrary makes it no less violent) is seen with the difficulty we have in deciding at which point a particular “Great Britain” began. The pretence of unity and solidity of these categories, which was pumped out throughout the referendum ‘debate’, and the confidence that we could ever know what it means to be English, British or European (or all three at once), meant that the debate was conducted from a perspective where we could decide what it meant to be ‘British’ (or even democratic). This decision was made through exclusionary identity politics, rather than considerations on how we might reconfigure these understandings of difference to try to remove the harm caused by arbitrarily signifying Self against theOther’.[1] This is not only directed at those who voted in favour of Brexit; this issue has come up repeatedly in the anti-Brexist arguments since, where Brexiters are labelled as racists, ignorant, idiots, and are consequently de-politicised in the process as their voices are considered irrelevant. This ignores both our (here meaning Remain voters) responsibility, and in these cases our dependency on this ‘Other’ to define us (I am not a Brexiter, I am not racist or fascist), which was perhaps most clearly seen in the celebratory pro-European protest in London on Saturday.[2] This protest summed up this forms of identity politics, and worryingly seemed to recreate the boundaries that de-politicised the voices of Brexiters, reproducing the same political relationships that led to the ostracisation of large sections of the population in the first place; hardly a basis upon which to rebuild the shattered community.

The accusatory, and often angry, politics of the blame game seems to have occupied us elsewhere over the past decades, and perhaps it marks a trend in the new-millennium’s political landscape. At University, and elsewhere, the response to the impact of austerity has frequently been about blame and the fragmenting of larger political ideologies and structures and issues into “bite size” issues. Students are angry at the staff for not providing more contact times; the academic staff resent students for wanting a corporate-inspired ‘transferable skills’ format of education that the University was not designed to deliver, and that they are not trained to deliver.[3] It feels as though something similar has happened in the political realm, where there seems to have been a turn to (possibly thanks to, or as a result of, the digital age) a politics based on fragmented and seemingly isolated issues. A trend most evident in the rise of pressure group politics and organisations like 38 degrees.

Underlying both of these points is a sense that we can distil responsibility – and perhaps importantly with this, a sense of belonging and being – to different individuals and collectives, without considering our shared responsibility and co-dependence. As such, we are failing to explore the culpability of much larger systems that produce these harms and us as recognisable subjects we are not looking at the shared responsibility that we consequently have for the reproduction of that system and the violence that relates to it. Without this understanding, the “immigrant” remains an external entity that we have no obligation to; a burden, rather than an always-already member of our community that we are responsible for.[4] Without this understanding, the Brexit voter remains an ignorant racist, rather than someone who has been subjectivised through the same system that produces others’ (my) privilege; someone silenced for decades whilst a politics was practised that was blind to its violence, and complicit in aggravating inequality.  In both, it is the gap and relation between the Self and the ‘Other’ that needs to be addressed. Not by blaming the ‘Other’, but by reconfiguring the system as a whole. The same system that currently produces the Self and ‘Other’ as different, and as opposing polarities. In a time of rising extremism – islamophobic; homophobic; transphobic; take your pick – such reframing is more important than ever.



Henry Redwood is a third year PhD student in the War Studies department and senior editor at strife. His work engages with critical theory to explore how international courts construct truths and the normative underpinnings these project. Alongside his research Henry has previously worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and a number of (I)NGOs working in Rwanda. Twitter: @hred44






[1] See Martha Minow, Making all the difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American law (Cornell University Press, 1991)

[2] For an excellent insight into Brexiters see here


[4] For an wonderful article on migrant identities and borders see, Francis Saunders, ‘Where on Earth Are You?’, 38:5 (2016), pages 7-12


Share this

Copyright © 2019 Strife Blog. All Rights Reserved.

Designed by Kris Chan