Leavers and Remainers and a shared passion for Britain’s future

karen_oreillySince the start of the ‘Brexit Brits Abroad’ project in July last year, Karen has made two long field trips to Spain, in October 2017 and January 2018. She has undertaken over 40 interviews, and numerous informal conversations, with over 100 British people living in Spain and representatives of campaign and support groups. Many of these conversations have continued over time through Skype, email and telephone. In the second of her posts reflecting on her second trip, she reflects on how changing feelings about Britain among UK citizens living in Spain.


The common ground between Leave and Remain: reigniting a British identity

During my January field trip, I spoke to people who had voted to Remain and people who had voted to Leave the EU (or, at least, who would have voted that way had they the right to vote). I also spoke to people who were undecided. Through these conversations, it seems that the Leave/Remain split is not always as divisive or clear-cut as mass media, politicians, and ‘common knowledge’ appear to assume.

One thing that was really clear, from everyone I spoke to, is that they care about Britain.

It might seem odd that people who have moved to Spain would vote to leave the European Union (and thereby risk curtailing these rights), but those I spoke to did not do this for selfish or individualistic reasons, as Michaela also reported in her comments for the Local France. As one man said ‘if this makes me worse off for a while then so be it. It’s a price I’m willing to pay’. Their reasons, as with Remainers, usually refer back to the UK, or Britain, and to what they want for the future, for their children or grandchildren.

Talking about Brexit and Britain, whether Leave or Remain, taps into emotional responses around national identity.

  • Robert, for example, while talking passionately about how Brexit has reignited his interest in British politics, said he is anxious: “partly because obviously it affects our situation in the future, but it is only partly that, it is also about identity. I lived in that country (Britain) for 46 years before I moved out here and you can’t just dismiss that…. There is always some part of your identity which is your past existence, and I think to pretend otherwise is a bit strange”.
  • A retired man who was part of a large mixed Focus Group discussion, clearly saw his position as a patriotic one, and said: “for the last 25 years the dictators, Juncker and his crowd, have demoralised the British system”
  • Similarly, Andy, who is in his fifties and lives in rural Spain, argued emphatically: “Twenty economists to one all believe that Brexit was a bad idea and the British economy would be better off if we hadn’t done that vote – twenty to one! I am not an economics expert, but I believe what they say and what they say is that it was ridiculous… You don’t stop caring about your country… But somehow, and I don’t know how this has happened, if voting Leave equals you are (seen as) a patriot, (so) voting Remain means you are not a patriot”.

Andy was implying here that he is indeed patriotic even as he voted to remain, and he shares this with leave voters. It is both the strength of feeling and the underlying patriotism that were so marked in many conversations I had with people. One woman described it as a Brepression: she feels all her British friends, be they Leavers, Remainers, or don’t knows, are depressed about Brexit. This has made me question what I wrote in ‘The British on the Costa del Sol’ (2000), about how British abroad contrast a ‘bad Britain’ that they have escaped in order to live a more fulfilling life in ‘good Spain’. But those were different times. On the one hand, there is more permanence among British in Spain now, more sedimentation (as you can read here). On the other hand, Brexit is very unsettling: even those who are deeply integrated have begun to rethink what home means, where it is for them, and whether they may want to go back at some point.

Leavers beyond the caricatures

With this patriotism and strength of feeling in mind, it becomes more clear why leave voters expressed so much anger and frustration at being stereotyped as uncaring or ignorant. The retired man above went on to say:  “It infuriates me that people insult those people (who voted leave) by thinking that a load of bull-crap on the side of a bus would influence me.  That is an insult to those people and that is somewhat annoying”. I think it is as important to listen to leave voters as remain voters; carefully listening reveals deep-seated reasons that make sense to them, even where they have moved to live in another European country.

  • Kate, for example, who was a trained economist before becoming a teacher in Spain, believes Europe began as ‘a club for rich countries’ that then opened up to other countries in order to exploit them through a forced privatisation agenda: “it is a stupid, childish, pathetic argument of the Milton Friedmanesque bullshit of the ‘80s, the Reagonomics and the Thatcher crap that has put us in the shit hole that we are in now… The market is the king, the market is a cruel and horrible nasty thing… the economic policies of Europe put Spain on its arse”. She went on to give several examples of how people in Britain have suffered as a result of being part of the European Union, and continually affected by the right-wing policies of consecutive governments.
  • Edward, another Leave voter and early-retired, compared the EU to the fall of the Roman Empire: “the similarities between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and of the EU are terrifying, very, very similar, and yes you could apply them to most Western democracies.  I am like Socrates, he wasn’t a fan of democracy, neither am I.  On the other hand, I believe in self-determination and I would have voted for Scotland to have independence, if they wanted it, self-determination I call it and it has been denied.  I also think because of the nature of Britain, with the economic cycles, it’s just the type of people they are, that to be free from the dead hand of bureaucracy, as it is now, bureaucracy gets a force of its own”.
  • Edward’s wife, Sue, went on to talk about how corrupt the EU is, and how in Europe “you have got so many different peoples and cultures, they are all being stamped over and something we are very, very keen on is maintaining Great Britain’s sovereignty and that is something that is easily being lost and we’ve seen the change over the years, haven’t we, how it has altered and it is sad, it is really sad”.
A passion for Britain’s role in the world

To conclude, both Leavers and Remainers, though for very different reasons, speak passionately about Britain’s role in the world, its future, and its people.  While they may have ‘escaped’ Britain for sunnier climes, they do seem to retain a fervent sense of belonging that goes beyond simply worrying about what this all means for themselves. Their passion (and sometimes anger) is not a selfish act but a patriotic one, invoking national identity and national pride.  This is especially interesting, given that so many of them feel let down by their own government and country and does suggest that more work could be done by academics into understanding the relationship between nation and identity.

Author Bio: Karen has been a regular visitor to Spain for research purposes since 1993. She is author of numerous books and papers about migration (especially British emigration), including: The British on the Costa del Sol (2000); Lifestyle Migration (2009, with Michaela Benson), International Migration and Social Theory (2012), and Lifestyle Migration and Colonial Traces in Malaysia and Panama (2018, with Michaela Benson).



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

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