Dynamics of Loss
Consequences of Feeling Ignored by the Powerful and Attitudes Towards Out-Groups
By Yasemin Uluşahin (University of St. Andrews)
Is prejudice against the “other” inevitable in the face of economic and social deprivation? This seems to be a common perception among social scientists studying the rise of national populism. We often see arguments built around a direct relationship between the increasing rates of immigration and the rise of such movements (e.g., Goodwin & Eatwell, 2018; Kaufmann, 2018). As the low-skilled, less-well educated white males with blue-collar jobs feel that they are losing their place as the bedrock of society, the sense of betrayal they feel from the out-of-tune-politicians that are more concerned with the welfare of immigrants, who pose a danger to their way of life, deepens (Grossman, 2018; Williams, 2017). Therefore, it is argued that as long as immigration to Western countries continues, so will the appeal of national populist movements, but is this really the case? I conducted face-to-face interviews (N=27) with predominantly working-class people living in Scotland to question this notion of inevitability and offer an alternative perspective on how prejudice can be used as a tool of mobilization by politicians.
In all this, the Brexit referendum is usually given as the go to example of this reactionary process. Many people will recall the image of Farage, posing in front of a billboard, showing immigrants lining up to get into the UK — and, as we all know, the rest is history. However, a second look at the referendum results reveals a stark difference between England (53.4% Leave) and Scotland (38% Leave). Why should this be? One who has the same outlook as the researchers mentioned above might argue this divergence is caused by either a difference in the rates of immigration, or the economic wealth of the two regions. However, a comparison between North of England and Scotland which, together, experienced the impacts of the deindustrialization period of the 80’s (Hudson,1986) and have similar rates of immigration (Blake, 2018) weakens these arguments.
Then what could have made the people of these regions vote so differently? I argue that the one key distinction between the two is the availability of an alternative explanation for loss provided by the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland, which is known for seeking independence from the rest of UK and for its pro-immigration stance. The high percentage of support Scottish Independence gets from the demographic which voted for Brexit in England (Mann & Fenton, 2017) gives validity to this argument. This distinct voice in Scotland leads us to ask whether the way people make sense of loss can be moderated by the availability of explanations. Is it possible that the anti-immigrant position is not actually an unmediated result of direct experience, but rather something that is a function of leadership and political mobilisation?
All participants I interviewed for this research agreed that the economic prospects of the people, as well as the sense of community in society, have been declining. The thematic analysis (Braun & Clark, 2013) I conducted brought me to the conclusion that there is a shared sense of feeling ignored by the establishment elite at the core of the predicament the participants situate the UK in. The Westminster politicians were seen to be in it for themselves, untrustworthy, ineffective and not of the people. This position is best reflected in the following quote:
“I just, it breaks my heart to see the country in this state and it is as a result at this moment and time of untrustworthy politicians out for their own good. I mean, someone said before “The only honest person that walked into parliament in the last 400 years was Guy Fawkes and he tried to blow it up.”” (P2)
This feeling of being ignored manifested itself differently in the attitudes towards Scottish independence, the EU and immigration, depending on the participants’ voting behaviour in the referendums. All participants expressed a desire to take back control for their groups, though from different objects. Participants who voted to leave the EU (and who were against Independence) saw Brexit along these lines:
“Some of the legislation they’ve tried to bring in has obviously been the cause of the discontent and the vote that went against for Britain leaving the E.U.” (P2)
There was a consensus around the idea that the EU parliament was just another layer of distant bureaucracy; an easy way for politicians to make a living from the public’s taxes.
Their attitudes around immigration were also related to the feeling of being ignored by the people who run the country. The three main themes that came up when participants talked about immigration were: (1) immigration with the condition of contributing; (2) immigrants as a burden on the British welfare system; (3) a need to attend to British people’s problems before accepting immigration:
“We need to look after our own house. There are people living on the street, people sleeping rough, there is people having to go to foodbanks this thing and (…) there is no point in handing over a pound to you when you know that pound less is going to affect your family.” (P7)
On the other hand, those who voted for Scottish independence and (were against Brexit) generally believed Scottish politicians (especially SNP members) to be the opposite of almost everything they held true about Westminster. For them, Scottish politicians listen to and work for their constituents. As one puts it:
“I think the Scottish National Party, their principle reason to exist is to look after the people of Scotland.” (P20)
Instead, they point to Westminster as the source of their problems. Most of these participants’ see the EU referendum results as the last straw that proved they need independence, as, once again, the Westminster government went against the Scottish people’s will.
The three themes that came up when people who voted for independence talked about immigration were: (1) Scotland’s need for immigrants; (2) Scotland having a friendly, welcoming nature; (3) Scotland receiving a different kind of immigrants than England. When asked what makes the immigrants in Scotland different from the ones in England, participants say that the impression they get from the media and the people they know who live South of the border is that the immigration there is more disturbing, but their experiences with immigrants in Scotland are generally good.
“But I know from family living down near Manchester, (…), they see some groups who live in one area, and a lot of them don’t work and just get their benefits and things like that and a lot of the crime but we don’t, we don’t suffer from anything like that at all.” (P23)
Overall, the SNP supporters who participated in the study have a more positive attitude towards immigration than the ones who support Brexit. How can people who experience similar realities react so differently to it? In the south of the border, throughout the Brexit campaign, the only political actors who addressed the concerns of low-skilled less-well educated white males with blue-collar jobs were the likes of Nigel Farage. The case in Scotland shows us that the availability of an admissible alternative explanation to loss can drastically alter the reaction. The outcome of this study is compatible with the mobilization approach to prejudice, which refutes the idea that prejudice against the members of other groups is an inevitable outcome of human cognition (Reicher, 2007). The difference between the two groups’ view on immigration is instead more compatible with the idea that leadership is a key dimension in the formation of our understanding about out-groups (Haslam, Reicher & Platow, 2011). In other words, animosity towards out-groups is not an essential part of human nature. Creating a political movement which is welcoming to outsiders is just as possible when political actors speak to the experiences of the people.
About the Author
Yasemin Uluşahin is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Her research interests include the construction of social categories, effective leadership and intergroup relations.
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