Brexit and the White Working Class

By Joe Sugarman

In the lead-up to England’s historic vote to leave the European Union, Robbie Shilliam, then working in the U.K. and now a professor of political science at the Krieger School, noticed a peculiar pattern. It appeared to him that much of the political focus and media attention surrounding the Brexit debate dealt with the “white working class,” and how globalism and misguided policies had done them wrong. No one was talking about the black working class or the Muslim working class or any other minority group.

“Before the financial crisis of 2008, the political vernacular in Parliament and in the media wasn’t really about class,” says Shilliam. “But this moral claim on the deserving nature of the white working class, which had been left behind and forgotten, was prominent in the debate over Brexit.”

Shilliam, whose research addresses the political and intellectual complicities of colonialism and race in the global order, wanted to place the Brexit vote into a broader historic context. His book, Race and the Undeserving Poor, is the result. The book traces a long swath of British history from the abolition of slavery and poor laws (1780s to 1830s) to eugenics and national insurance (1840s to 1910s) to social conservatism, workfare, and the emergence of the white “underclass” (1970s to 2000s).

Shilliam notes that throughout history, it has been Britain’s elites who have worked to create and maintain the deserving and undeserving labels in order to preserve the economic status quo, usually in response to a crisis. Most recently, this crisis was the global recession and the attempt to manage its effects through austerity policies. “There is a remarkable stickiness to the propensity to racialize the deserving and undeserving poor through all these different eras,” says Shilliam.

Shilliam never thought his native country would still be debating Brexit in the spring of 2019. “Maybe I’ll be proved entirely right or get egg on my face,” he jokes. “Actually, I don’t make any predictions in the book. It’s really just a resource for people to think a bit more historically and self-reflectively about what social justice might look like in a post-Brexit and post-colonial era.”