Confused about identity politics? Here’s how identity should help resolve Brexit and a divided country

In the war Brexit has waged on ordered and clear thinking, “identity politics” has become a particularly common target. Journalists and politicians ascribe all manner of Brexit causes and effects to group-based political action. Robert Shrimsley from the Financial Times has described debates between Leavers and Remainers as identity politics. The Belfast Telegraph has used the term to discuss Irish and Northern Irish identity. Meanwhile, researchers from LSE have discussed the European identities of British ex-pats.

In the Brexit age, “identity politics” can seem pretty confusing for students in the UK. Identity politics have never easy to define. But the mudslinging of Britain’s Brexit debates has muddled its meaning even further. Critiques of identity activism, meanwhile, depend almost entirely on confusion around what it is. Progressives must define the scope and strategy of identity politics. That’s the most powerful way to defend it as a means in the pursuit of justice.

Is “Englishness” identity politics?

By far, the most common assertions of Brexit identity politics fall into two categories. On the one hand, we know that those who identified strongly with “Englishness” overwhelmingly voted to Leave. A study for The Political Quarterly suggested that such “Englishness” represents the tip of a “white identity politics” iceberg. Richard Reeves at the Brookings Institution, moreover, argued that Brexit was something “narrow” and “backward-looking. Similarly, a University of Manchester study suggested it was caused by voters’ xenophobia and racism. For towns or universities that supported remain, this kind of aggressive identity seems like an unhealthy addition to our politics.

On the other hand, the journalist Ben Cobley has suggested that Brexiteers themselves feel “demonised by an identity politics that calls them “racist” and “xenophobic”. Others argue that identity activism divides Britain into smaller and smaller segments. Identities based on race, sexuality and other social labels leads us to mistrusts ideas of national pride. This led to a denigration of nationalist movements like Vote Leave. Does politicizing identity divide us until we vilify unity?

I think not. I believe Brexit prevailed on an anti-immigrant undercurrent. But I don’t think it’s fair to critique identity politics based on that fact. I think we should defend identity politics, and I want to offer two arguments to cut through our Brexit confusions.

Identity politics isn’t about enfranchising the powerful or causing division

In its simplest form, identity politics brings members of marginalized communities together to advocate for social and political change. The adhesive binding these communities together is a shared experience of oppression or discrimination. Progressive identity politics is about distributing power more equitably.

Based on that, let’s be clear about what can’t count as identity activism. Empowering groups who’re already powerful can’t be equated to liberation struggles. Male opponents of International Women’s Day don’t practice identity politics. Nor do proponents of “Straight Pride” events. They’re born into our most widely emancipated communities but practice the politics of greed when they call for even more attention.

Second, we need to remember the importance of difference when we imagine identity politics. Critics of identity activism often mourn the loss of “commonality” or a sense of “society as a whole”. They accuse identity politics of fracturing society and causing conflict and division. But what they’re really suggesting is that progressives over-emphasize difference. That we could just as easily pursue justice through a “group transcending” politics “framed in the language of national unity and equal opportunity”.

Identity politics should highlight differences in needs

So anyone who thinks identity politics cause divisions misses the point. There’s nothing wrong with commonality. Clearly, noticing what we share with our fellow citizens promotes empathy that helps build communities large and small. But the purpose of identity politics is to point out differences. We cannot transcend our group identities because they’re based on different experiences of discrimination. For example, if we ignore difference and focus exclusively on equal opportunity we might suggest that making sure everyone has equal access to stairs means that a building is fair. But what about someone in a wheelchair? Building ramps for wheelchair access acknowledges that differences must be noticed for justice to be done.

Identity politics will continue to attracting criticism from across the political spectrum long after Britain leaves – or doesn’t leave – the EU. But in this moment of acute political confusion, progressives owe it to ourselves to be clear about our brand of activism. Identity politics need not facilitate the politics of greed or bigotry. And we shouldn’t accept descriptions of identity politics’s divisiveness. We can avoid demonising our opponents without abandoning the idea that we’re all different.

Jack Chellman studied Media, Power and Public Affairs at Royal Holloway and is currently a Marshall Scholar at University of Cambridge.

Photo credit: Wikimedia, public domain.

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