“I assumed it was a collective wind-up when almost every Asian I met said to me that they would be voting for Brexit.” Such was Robert Peston’s reaction when confronted in Leicester by a number of ethnic minority voters planning to vote Leave. In fact, ethnic minorities voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the EU, but this obscures significant differences between and within minority groups.
Using Understanding Society’s early-release data we can gain a better understanding of attitudes toward EU membership among ethnic groups. White British were the most pro-Leave, followed by those of Indian background who were almost twice as likely to support Leave as other minority groups. There were much higher levels of support for Remain amongst Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Black Caribbean and Black African groups – on average a quarter being more pro-Leave than Remain.
Research by Martin, Sobolewska et al. also found also found that controlling for party preference did not affect these differences between ethnic minority groups. Moreover, the White British respondents in the survey who said their ethnic identity was important to who they are were more likely to be pro-Leave, whereas this had no significant effect for members of the other ethnic groups.
This analysis draws on primary research based on focus groups and interviews with Remain and Leave voters of white and ethnic minority background. The qualitative analysis revealed several complex factors interacting with ethnicity to influence voting patterns.
BAME Remainer motivations
The motivations of those ethnic minority voters who backed Remain were broadly in line with the population as a whole. Support for Remain was strongest amongst younger ethnic minority voters with degrees and in more professional occupations; Remainers also tended to be female and British-born. Though some were ambivalent towards the EU, ethnic minority Remain voters were more likely to be positive about Britain being part of the EU, and to have had more positive contact with EU migrants.
They also placed greater emphasis on rights and environmental regulation than did Leave voters, and less on national identity and sovereignty, associating post-war peace in Europe with the EU as an institution. Ethnic minority Remain voters were also more likely to be pro-immigration, and in favour of freedom of movement.
One factor that differentiated ethnic minority Remain voters from their white equivalents was the strength of their reaction to what they saw as the xenophobic and anti-immigrant tone of the Leave campaigns. In this sense, a Remain vote was more a vote against Leave than an endorsement of the EU. Many saw the referendum as unleashing a backlash against diversity that was directed against non-whites.
This is consistent with the Runnymede Trust’s report, This is Still About Us, which found that ethnic minorities – even when British-born – felt they were the targets of the immigration debate.
Slogans such as ‘take back control’ and ‘make Britain great again’ were less appealing to ethnic minority Remain voters, who associated them with nostalgia for empire and a longing for a ‘pre-immigration white era’ on the part of the Leave campaign. Even the emphasis on sovereignty was interpreted by some as a cipher for postcolonial nostalgia.
Although fewer BAME people voted Leave, among this group the referendum acted as an outlet for strongly-held grievances. These voters felt Britain was being controlled by the EU.
In particular, they were concerned about the EU overriding UK law and imposing ‘unnecessary’ red tape, while free movement was thought to undermine the UK’s ability to govern its borders.
Ethnic minority Leave voters were more likely to be male, older, and foreign born. They were also less likely to have taken advantage of the ability to travel to, live or work in EU countries.
Some ethnic minority Leavers felt other member states were more racist or Islamophobic, and that minority rights were better protected in Britain. Some female Muslim Leave voters more concerned by the hijab and burkini bans put in place in some member states than they were reassured by EU attempts to promote gender equality.
The ethnic minority Leave participants in this study raised concerns about immigration, particularly Eastern European, which they felt increased pressures on public services and strained community relations. There was also resentment concerning the apparent ease with which European migrants could enter the UK, but also get work and access benefits.
For some, this stood in stark contrast to the situation of immigrants from the Commonwealth, not least when it came to the right to bring spouses or staff from non-EU countries. As such, the referendum revealed tensions between longer-settled BAME groups and newer Eastern European arrivals.
Europe was conceived of by some as a ‘white Fortress’, permitting white immigration while obstructing the entry of non-whites. Some respondents saw evidence of this in the EU’s response to the refugee crisis.
There was also criticism of specific EU policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy, which were seen as disadvantaging developing countries in Africa and Asia. Leaving the EU, it was felt, would increase trade and migration between the UK and the Commonwealth.
The referendum has had significant implications for Britain’s ethnic minorities. The rise in hate crimes following the referendum led many of the respondents in this study to feel their place in British society was being questioned. Some ethnic minority Leave voters said they regretted voting the way they did as a result of the increase in racial violence.
BAME support for Brexit has been interpreted as contrary to their interests, and this qualitative research demonstrates a heterogeneity in attitudes toward EU membership which transcend traditional party lines.