What of Race Equality on the Brexit Archipelago?

By Nasar Meer, University of Edinburgh

Since the EU referendum result, the UK has recorded a spike in racially motivated incidents. Sociologists have rightly considered whether this forms a pattern of activity related to the referendum, or reflects a wider trajectory with other underlying dynamics. This is necessary and valuable work, but what remains overlooked is the prospective status of race equality apparatus as a matter of public policy.  Since we are only just coming to terms with what Jo Shaw calls the 'archipelago of contradictions' raised by Brexit, this oversight is one amongst many.  Archipelagos of course can be found isolated in water neighbouring a large land mass.  Borrowing from Shaw, we might figuratively use the designation to grasp some of the policy challenges and possible contradictions of the UK as a 'Brexit Archipelago'.

In this landscape, it is paramount not to lose sight of the fact that race equality is also a question of public administration, and civil and criminal law often forged through hard won anti-racist struggles. What has been amassed here is a body of instruments overseen by the judiciary and intermediate organisations, and which theoretically protects both citizens and non-citizens.  We might divide this legislation into three kinds:

(a) that which was created in the UK

(b) that which flows from membership of the European Union

(c) that which is a combination of the two

The key question is to what extent withdrawal from the EU revises a, b, or c?  My reading is that it will be difficult – although not impossible - for a post-Brexit administration to unpick the domestication of race equality components of the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999), especially since the UK was already compliant with race equality provisions (and indeed these came about at an EU level precisely because of the UK's tested approach).  For example, the Equality Act 2010 is not merely about being compliant with EU directives, but reflects an endogenous trajectory in incorporating the existing race equality provisions. 

This means that the sunk costs are likely to be sufficiently 'sticky' regardless of what James Maddison termed the 'mischief of faction'.  Again, this should not be taken to imply that Brexit will not diminish race equality in the UK.  In terms of the politics, if the 'policy image' of race equality comes to be associated with an EU imposition, rather than an endogenous creation, it becomes much more contested by those seeking to uncouple as much as they can from the EU.  Put in other terms, if race equality becomes part of the 'collateral rhetoric' of Brexit, rather than a longstanding – though unsettled and incomplete – UK development, then the symbolic politics of this would do great harm. 

Equally, in the area of trade agreements, for example, there may well be economic incentives to reduce equality protections that would bear either a direct or indirect discriminatory outcome for BAME groups.  Trading off race equality in the name of efficiency and competitiveness is a very real concern, but to some extent this would mark an accelerated roll back on commitments already bearing a precarious status.  For example, the Coalition Government (2010–15) significantly undermined features of the Equality Act 2010 in the name of deregulation and competitiveness. 

The point being that UK governments already have the capacity to roll back from race equality commitments, and have shown the political will to do so, independent of other developments. As such my view is that the status of existing settlements are subject to their own dynamics too, in a way that cannot be explained by Brexit alone. 

If nothing else, Brexit is a reminder that anti-racism is an unsettled, incomplete and on-going pursuit. It requires sustained mobilisation through actors, institutions and ideas, now as much as ever.