Doing the Hokey Cokey: The British abroad mirror the Brexit Divide in all its complexity

Spain cropped photo by johan-mouchet-266784 (Unsplash)In the first of our long read blogs, Karen reflects back on her research with Britons living in Spain, to locate contemporary questions about Britain’s relationship(s) to Europe emerging through Brexit within a longer history of Britain’s ambivalence towards Europe. 

I have been spending time with British people living in Spain for over 25 years and I have long noted the parallels between their lives, dreams, aspirations, and identities and the Brexit divide – or Britain’s hokey cokey-style relationship with Europe. However, it seems that what has been overlooked, in diverse debates, media reports, politicians’ understandings, and popular opinion, is that there has been a seismic shift in terms of a new relationship to Europe, and a new sense of Europeanness in the context of Britishness. Many of our respondents in this project reveal a new cosmopolitanism, a humility combined with pride about Britain, and an openness about other cultures and Britain’s place in the world. We are learning more about this new cosmopolitanism, about how our respondents creatively and dynamically negotiate national and European identities in the context of a changing world, just as Brexit proceeds apace.

The British in Spain as old colonials?

In this blog, I am revisiting a paper I wrote in 2002: ‘Britain in Europe/The British in Spain. Exploring Britain’s changing relationship to the other’. Published in the journal Nations and Nationalism, Vol 8(2): 179-193. You can access it here.

In that paper, based on the research I had first undertaken in the early 1990s but continued through ongoing return visits, I argued that if we see the British migrants in Spain, not so much as an ethnic minority, but as British abroad – and look to British society to help understand them – then we witness all sorts of activities and attitudes that are partly explained by their Britishness. The ambivalence of their relationship as British in the world, as migrants, and in relation to others, mirrors, to some extent, Britain’s own ambivalent and changing relationship to Europe and the world.

It was difficult to ignore, with some of the British I met in those early days of research, the sense of paternalism, benevolence, and superiority that characterised the colonial era, and beyond. This was subtle, and disguised, but I witnessed it in the attitudes towards people hired to do gardening or housework, in the frustrated way they spoke about local politics (as if they were talking about annoying children), in the charities they set up to correct perceived deficiencies in Spanish society – charities for orphaned children and abandoned animals, for example. This sort of behaviour was much more common among the upper middle classes and some ex-military elite. One even told me, in relation to Spanish society as a whole, ‘the Spanish have got a lot of catching up to do’. Another, after a meeting with local representatives of the Partido Popular, told me:

They are so backward in so many ways . . . if only they would learn from us. Some expats have been very important people in their own countries. They could teach these youngsters a thing or two.

For many of these earlier visitors and settlers, Spain meant sun, sea, sand, quaintness, and backwardness; it conjured up images of a vibrant culture, and social norms that were valued but still associated with a certain timelessness. The (implicit) appeal of the quaintness and backwardness that attracted many of these migrants to Spain – as somewhere they could recreate a past life, when things were slower, simpler, safer, and more community minded, and caring – is at the same time a somewhat superior and paternalistic attitude. The argument I often heard, that ‘it’s like Britain was in the 50s’, suggests the Spanish are caught in some sort of time warp.

Many of these migrants took it for granted that their migration (not that they called it that) was a good, it brought growth and prosperity to regions, that had been run-down. They even talked of themselves as having survived the move, being brave pioneers, suggesting that while other people want to make such a move, they are the only ones brave enough to have actually done it. All of these arguments can be found elaborated in more detail in my book, The British on the Costa del Sol, published in 2000.

The British in Spain and the Colonial Critique

But this framing of the British abroad as old colonials, is also tempered with an understanding that only some are like this and/or many try to resist this characterisation and the behaviours associated with it. In the 2002 paper, I also noted that the mirroring of shifts and attitudes in Britain includes also an awareness of the colonial critique, or post-colonialism, and attempts to be self-reflexive or even critical. British in Spain would say ‘we are guests here’ (rarely migrants), ‘we should be respectful of our hosts’. They knew they should try to integrate, and I have always acknowledged that most do try to learn the language. And while many of them have not managed a meaningful integration, they embrace their children’s ability to mix more, and, indeed, many of these children have grown up to have a very different relationship to Spain. We should not forget, as the colonial critique has shown us, even in colonial times there were many stories of acculturation, of mixing, marriages, and general challenges (especially from the young) to the assumed superiority and exploitation.

The British in Spain that I wrote about in the early 2000s had created a Little England (or little Britain). As I said then:

Retired Britons, with leisure time to spare, can be seen spending this time with other Britons in clubs and bars, on the beach or making visits to Gibraltar; working Britons are employed in British establishments, serving British customers. There are British clubs for almost every interest and activity: bowls clubs, a cricket club, an arts centre, a Scottish country dancing club, bridge clubs, a theatre group, Brownie Guides, walking clubs, social clubs, fund-raising groups, and many more. The majority of the members are British. Meanwhile, clubs run by other nationalities, Spanish bars, the local pensioners club, and the Casa de la Cultura (Spanish arts centre and local centre for culture and adult education) see only a minority of British people in the way of members, visitors or customers.  There are even an Anglican church and a British cemetery in the area. There is a British baker shop, and English and Scottish butcher shops, an English grocery store called ‘A Taste of England’, an English-language video shop and a few English book shops. For many British, daily life involves talking to and being with other British people and very little interaction with the Spanish (O’Reilly 2000).

But they created these communities and services to support each other, and to provide for the temporary visitors, that were such a large proportion of the community in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. You can read more about the community-building practices of British (and Swedish) migrants in Spain in a special issue of the Nordic Journal of Migration Research.

The point is that, just as with Britain’s relationship to Europe, there is a constant embracing and pulling back at the same time, a pincer movement perhaps,

While Britons in Spain retain discreteness but feign integration, Britain itself continues to resist (European) acculturation, loss of sovereignty, and to delude itself with a myth of superiority in the face of relative decline and inter-dependence. Reaching out to the outside world is always accompanied by a drawing back from it’(O’Reilly 2002).

The British in Europe: paternalism and cosmopolitanism

Now, amongst the British in Spain in our current research, it is still possible to locate those people, attitudes and activities discussed above, but, as I discuss in this paper about The British on the Costa del Sol Twenty Years On, there is also much more settlement and integration, and more openness and less of a sense of superiority.

However, one could argue that the sense of righteous indignation amongst the British in Spain now, in relation to Brexit, is reminiscent of this sense of superiority and entitlement. There is no doubt that some people are incensed at having to choose where and how they will live, at having to decide between Spain and Britain when it comes to Citizenship, at having their freedom of movement challenged and their futures threatened. Implicit in their frustrations is a sense of privilege:  why are we being asked to choose, why aren’t we allowed to live and to move wherever we want, why is this happening to us?

Those we have spoken to, who admit they did not even think before about whether they were British or European, or took it for granted they were both, are shocked that they are suddenly like other migrants. They usually do not see themselves as migrants and they still see the British government as their paternalistic guardian. They took it for granted they would always be able to go home, to be cared for; they may have run Britain down, but it is their Britain. Those who have to choose Europe without Britain or Britain without Europe are incensed at having to give up what they see as a fundamental right.

So, on the one hand this righteous indignation reveals a continuing sense of Britishness, of superiority, of paternalism that they assumed included themselves in its embrace. But also many people have settled, have made long-term Spanish friends, have integrated in diverse ways from simply having a place and a sense of routine and home, to being married with children who are half Spanish, and being heavily involved in Spanish business, politics, or society. In other words, there are those for whom Spain also now means development, change, dynamism, growth, creativity, ideas, intellect – a country with its place on the 21st century stage.

This applies similarly for many of our respondents across Europe. I will discuss this more in a future blog, but suffice to say here, the British we have met speak many languages, are married to Europeans, live with mixed nationality families, are working in European companies, establishing exciting companies, organisations and campaign groups, have children in local schools, are getting involved in local politics and local community life, and are even learning Sevillana and Canarian folk dance, among other cultural feats.

These people had often embraced otherness, and we were beginning, through them, to see a new relationship to Europe and the rest of the world, a cosmopolitanism, a humility about Britain, an openness about other cultures, a mixing of skills, knowledge, ideas, a dynamism, as well as social mixing (marriages, friendships, associations). And just as this was happening Brexit pulls the rug out!

It seems to me the British abroad mirror this Brexit divide, and this ambivalence in our country in which we face forwards and backwards at the same time. Brexit does feel a bit like the culmination of Britain’s decades long Hokey Cokey in Europe.

Note: I apologise for using Britishness as a shortcut to all sorts of overlapping identities, but I do not have space here to go into the history of the island identities. This is not to deny their relevance. Similarly, I am using hokey cokey as a short-cut to the sense of being in and out at the same time (or consecutively and repetitively), and am overlooking the many debates around the song which have not been resolved to date.


Karen is a Professor of Sociology at Loughborough University. She is also an ethnographer, a wife, mother, and grandmother! Currently she is driven by the wish to raise the public profile of sociology

3 Responses

  1. February 9, 2018

    […] can read more about this in Karen’s recent blog Doing the Hokey Cokey or get in touch if you want a copy of the original journal article we discuss in the […]

  2. March 1, 2018

    […] that has been achieved over time and not to be taken for granted. This is in stark contrast to the righteous indignation that Karen documents as prominent in her conversations with Britons living in Spain, and the […]

  3. March 2, 2018

    […] historically, talked about their lives there. This was also the theme of Karen’s blog, Doing the Hokey Cokey. Our next podcast lands on Friday 23rd February, and will see this theme of Britishness taken up by […]

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