Irish in Britain on Brexit: ‘A delusional belief that the past will save the future’

Barry Ryan in Staffordshire has seen racism overtake arguments about economic inequality

Barry Ryan (44) is a senior lecturer in international relations at Keele University in Staffordshire. Originally from Co Limerick, he moved to the UK in 2008.

I work in the midlands, one of the most economically depressed regions of the country. Looking around me, at the dying towns, the social problems and the ruthless austerity that suffocate this region, it is hard to escape the impression that I am living in a country in decline. Foodbanks are keeping people alive not far from where I live.

As someone who studies politics however, I know the UK is not in decline and that it is one of the most globally connected and competitive economies in the world. I know people enjoying wonderful livelihoods, whose careers are skyrocketing and businesses are profiting. But politics in the UK, as in all countries with great inequality, is shaped by economic extremes.

Over the last eight years I have watched small cranky right wing parties rise to form nationwide institutions capable of changing the destiny of the UK. Insular, crudely patriotic men and women living precarious lives who blame foreigners for the demise of their social environments came to be identified as a political resource. The Labour Party did not, nor could not, support their views. Their arguments were conservative, they looked to the past for hope, to an England culturally homogenous, unified, full of industry. Certain cynical people realised that these voices of xenophobia and insecurity could be transformed into votes.


I watched Brexit arise as this politically unacceptable tide of racism was redirected and provided with a more concrete and respectable enemy: the European Union. People know very little about the EU here in the UK; you never see the flag nor are there signs about the road or the building or the piece of art that it has funded. It is a spectral institution, it has no voice, no presence. The very embodiment of foreign power to a people who do not identify with continental Europe, it is vulnerable to rumour and mistruth. It is easy to attack and it is rarely defended. Even my students, studying global politics, are uninterested in learning about its rationale, its institutions and its politics.

It is well known here that David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party, realised during the last elections that his aspirations to form a majority government were entirely dependent upon attracting the votes of working and lower class white men and women who had been convinced that the EU was the cause of their economic and cultural anxiety. Therefore, in order to harness anti-European forces, he offered a referendum. To gain power Cameron gambled upon the entire future of the country and the future of the EU. By doing so he inadvertently legitimated the reconfigured xenophobia and irrationality that drove the anti-EU movement. It grew in its respectability, and its reactionary opinions have since become ever more entrenched.

The economic inequality from which this referendum was born has in the meantime been forgotten. A weird delusional belief that the past will save the future has taken over the country. This is why I will be voting for the UK to remain in the EU.