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Racial prejudice in Britain rises with unemployment

When I was a relatively junior academic, one of the things I was interested in was how labour market prejudice is influenced by the state of the economic cycle. This was a period when Australia was undergoing a deep recession (early 1990s) and it was clear that hostility to immigrants had risen during this period. I was interested to see whether this was related. The interest goes back to my postgraduate days when I was studying labour economics and we considered labour market discrimination in some detail. Then, it was clear from the literature, that employers who used racial profiling to screen job candidates would lose out if the labour market was strong, but could indulge their negative views about different racial groups without loss in times of recession. But we didn’t do much work

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When I was a relatively junior academic, one of the things I was interested in was how labour market prejudice is influenced by the state of the economic cycle. This was a period when Australia was undergoing a deep recession (early 1990s) and it was clear that hostility to immigrants had risen during this period. I was interested to see whether this was related. The interest goes back to my postgraduate days when I was studying labour economics and we considered labour market discrimination in some detail. Then, it was clear from the literature, that employers who used racial profiling to screen job candidates would lose out if the labour market was strong, but could indulge their negative views about different racial groups without loss in times of recession. But we didn’t do much work on supply-side attitudes – that is, what do other workers think? In more recent times, I have done detailed research projects with mental health professionals studying the best way to provide job opportunities for young people with episodic illnesses. The research revealed that one of the problems in placing these workers in conventional workplaces is the prejudice that other workers displayed towards them. We worked on ways to attenuate that resistance. So I have had a long record of studying and being interested in these matters. In this blog post, I consider whether prejudice is counter-cyclical. In the UK, for example, the British Social Attitudes survey found that in 2014, around a third of British people were racially prejudiced and this ratio spiked during the GFC. Clearly, there are many factors contributing to this rather distasteful result, but if austerity is exacerbating the underlying factors, then we have another reason to oppose it. This research also bears on the Brexit debate.

Language seems to go to more extreme lengths in this social media world.

I saw a Tweet from a sitting Labour Party MEP on June 14, 2019 where she claimed that the decision taken by the majority of British voters to leave the European Union was, in fact, a “right wing fascist coup”.

The Labour MEP represented North-West England where the Leave vote was strong. So who was she in fact representing?

That seemed to be where the Remain gang had gone as they sensed their own campaign to reverse the majority decision was faltering.

Racial prejudice in Britain rises with unemployment

And who can forget the claim by writer Ian McEwan, who told a conference of Remainers in London in May 2017, that the Brexit vote was a reflection of (Source):

A gang of angry old men, irritable even in victory, are shaping the future of the country against the inclinations of its youth … By 2019 the country could be in a receptive mood: 2.5 million over-18-year-olds, freshly franchised and mostly remainers; 1.5 million oldsters, mostly Brexiters, freshly in their graves …

He had a few months earlier told a Spanish audience that “the decision to hold a referendum on Brexit as reminiscent of Nazi Germany” (Source).

Not the sort of language that endears one to older voters, especially those who chose, freely, under the rules that all political parties in Britain said they agreed with, which would produce an outcome that they would honour.

Remember Nick Cohen, another UK Guardian propagandist, wrote in his article (June 18, 2016) – Take you country back from those who seek to destroy it – on the eve of the Referendum, that:

It is as if the sewers have burst. The Leave campaign has captured the worst of England and channelled it into a know-nothing movement of loud mouths and closed minds.

He didn’t mention all the lying economic forecasts that the Remain campaign use in their attempt to win the Referendum.

But think about that language.

And then wonder why Labour lost so many seats in the Leave majority constituencies.

In the 1838 Charles Dicken’s novel – Nicholas Nickleby – we meet a politican named Mr Gregsbury (p.184):

The time had been, when this burst of enthusiasm would have been cheered to the very echo; but now, the deputation received it with chilling coldness. The general impression seemed to be, that as an explanation of Mr. Gregsbury’s political conduct, it did not enter quite enough into detail; and one gentleman in the rear did not scruple to remark aloud, that, for his purpose, it savoured rather too much of a ‘gammon’ tendency.

The meaning of that term—gammon,’ said Mr. Gregsbury, ‘is unknown to me. If it means that I grow a little too fervid, or perhaps even hyperbolical, in extolling my native land, I admit the full justice of the remark. I am proud of this free and happy country. My form dilates, my eye glistens, my breast heaves, my heart swells, my bosom burns, when I call to mind her greatness and her glory.

The term – Gammon – resurfaced in the UK more recently to describe “to describe middle-aged or older men on the political right or who supported Brexit, who are usually, but not exclusively, white.”

These men are ignorance and have ‘flushed faces’.

The Urban Dictionary entry – says the term refers to:

… Brexit-voting, europhobic, middle-aged white male, whose meat-faced complexion suggests they are perilously close to a stroke.

And “Brexit is a gammonite phenomenon born out of europhobia and an overconsumption of tabloid induced euromyths.”

The UK Guardian (May 14, 2018) decided to introduce humour – Is it offensive to call ruddy-faced middle-aged Tories ‘gammons’? – as part of its relentless and failed campaign to stop the majority vote from occurring.

So that becomes the way the Remain Left dismisses the people who voted to Leave.

That’s right – they are right-wing, fascist males who are fat. Make fun of their “porcine fingers” etc

We are not like them are we? We are progressives. Phew.

And the social media heroes who are quick to virtue signal whenever they can and freely accuse people, they do not even know and who are using their skills to further the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) education process, of being variously, fascist, ignorant, racist and transphobic, with some of them thinking it is clever to #MMT to their Tweets as if that carries weight.

By falsely accusing people of these crimes they actually demean the genuine issue they claim to care about.

This lot also think it is racist to think a nation should have a population policy.

Well think about Australia. We might seem like a big land mass but only small areas are really capable of supporting population due to the extreme (and worsening) aridity of the landscape.

The terrible bushfires are a reflection of that state. Several towns in regional Australia have run out of water.

Our major cities are choking with people and traffic.

A policy where anyone could come here anytime and settle would be an ecological disaster, which would not help the new arrivals nor the existing population.

Yet the social media gang are out there one minute typing forth about GND and then, as if they had forgotten that narrative, accusing others who think about the population impacts on ecology as being racist.

Lost the plot comes to mind.

Which brings me to the racist allegations, which were rife after the 2016 Referendum.

It is very easy to consider any discussion about immigration is racially motivated. And in many cases it undoubtedly is.

But there are many valid issues that have to be addressed, which are not based on any concepts of racial superiority.

Are progressives really happy if capital exploits wage differentials between nations to bring in a whole new workforce that undermines wage levels and employment quality in their nations?

More on that another day.

But the Remain position was particularly poisonous in this regard.

Remember that Marxist guru Paul Mason claiming in his UK Guardian article (June 12, 2017) – Jeremy Corbyn has won the first battle in a long way against the ruling elite – that the Leave areas that supported (before the latest election) Labour MPs were places:

… where working class xenophobia is entrenched, indicate this will be a long, cultural war.

And again, in his May 27, 2019 article – Corbynism is now in crisis: the only way forward is to oppose Brexit – he told his readers that:

To renew Labour’s electoral alliance with progressive young voters, the salaried working class of the big cities and progressive working-class voters in the ex-industrial towns, the party needs to unite around the strategy of remain and reform in Europe. It needs to tell voters honestly: it’s time to scrap Brexit and rebuild Britain instead …

Labour’s narrative has to be built around resistance to Brexit as a project of the racist and xenophobic right, and a story of communities revived by hope and solidarity.


The Leave voters were dumb, racist idiots and the “salaried” workers in the “big cities” are the true progressives, so the dumb idiots have to rally around, listen to the progressives and join in the solidarity movement.

That is, abandon their xenophobia and be like us – enlightened, cosmopolitan (at least up to the EU borders and then we don’t care if people drown on beaches) etc.

What a way to approach an election strategy.

If the Brexit process became dominated by the Tories and won the election for them, it was because the Labour Party reneged on its promise and abandoned the Leave constituencies.

And never forget that the majority of Labour MPs came from Leave constituencies.

Racism and the economic cycle

All of that was in the back of my mind when I started a statistical exploration of the British Social Attitudes Survey which goes back to 1983.

It provides a very detailed dataset and I will report more about it when I have crunched some numbers and run some regressions.

What I am exploring is the impact of the economic cycle on attitudes of the British people towards each other, which allows us to examine the racial issues in a statistical sense.

When asked the question: “How would you describe yourself … prejudiced OR not prejudiced against people of other races?” the following graph shows the responses:

Racial prejudice in Britain rises with unemployment

This graph is taken from the Report published by the National Centre Social Research – Racial prejudice in Britain today (published September 2017).

The Report says that:

In the 30 years between 1983 when BSA was founded and 2013 when we last asked this question on BSA, the proportion of the public who described themselves as either ‘very’ or ‘a little’ racially prejudiced varied between a quarter and over a third of the population. It has never fallen below 25%.

Given that racial prejudice is not generally perceived as a positive characteristic, there is good reason to assume that the actual proportion of the British public who are racially prejudiced may be higher.

Most significantly, when it comes to racial prejudice, we are not seeing the clear trend towards social ‘liberalisation’ that is so marked in other areas, particularly attitudes to same sex relationships.

Okay, so we have a problem.

Does that proportion vary with the economic cycle?

In other words, when times are good, is that venal sentiment moderated?

You get a clue by seeing the spike in 2010 in the lower series and the decline in the upper series of the graph.

The proportion who were prejudiced went up sharply in 2010 as the economy descended into recession and unemployment rose.

The next graph which I compiled from the data and combined it with Labour Force data on unemployment rates gives a hint of this effect. The sample is from 1983 to 2013.

The red dotted line is a simple linear regression, which (simplistically) supports the view that the proportion of those exhibiting racial prejudice rises when the unemployment rate increases.

Racial prejudice in Britain rises with unemployment

Now as an econometrician, I certainly don’t draw conclusions based on a cross-plot of 20 observations. But the graphs are suggestive that there might be counter-cyclicality in the prejudice data.

The point is that, while it is impossible to really disentangle factors in any clear way, it is plausible that the rising proportion of those exhibiting racist views is really just a manifestation of the uncertainty brought on by unemployment and it is that insecurity that is the driver.

And while education can address the former, dealing with unemployment is much easier for governments.

The problem is that the British government dealt with it in the wrong way by imposing austerity and making it worse, therefore, creating a heightened sense of insecurity in affected communities, which the rising prejudice proportion was picking up.

I will have more to say about this when I have examined the data more scientifically.

But I can report some work has already been done in this regard by David W. Johnston (a health economist at Monash University) and Grace Lordan (a behavioural economist at the LSE) – Racial prejudice and labour market penalties during economic downturns (published in the European Economic Review, Vol. 84, May 2016, pp. 57-75).

The article is behind a library paywall but they summarised the results in an LSE blog post – Prejudice during economic downturns: recessions can disproportionately penalise minority individuals.

They found that:

1. “prejudice among native-born whites increases with the unemployment rate. The effect is mainly driven by large increases in prejudice expressed by highly educated, middle-aged men in full-time employment.”

This is very interesting and I will seek to verify it.

It casts doubt on the claims made by the Remainers that the Leave vote in the Labour constituencies was some uneducated expression of racism among the communities that had been left behind by globalisation.

Here we have the beneficiaries of globalisation exhibiting these trends.

2. “For women, racial prejudice is also most strongly countercyclical for the highly educated that are in full-time employment and aged between 35 and 64.”

Again, highly educated in full-time employment.

3. “these individuals are more likely to be managers and bosses and to have political power within organisations, this may translate into worse labour market outcomes for non-whites during periods of high unemployment.”

4. “while all groups are worse off, non-whites suffer more than whites during recessionary periods in terms of both earnings and employment.”

5. “black workers suffer larger recession wage penalties than other non-white workers.”

Their overall conclusion is that:

… during recessions there are relatively more white workers who report being racially prejudiced, and that existing racial inequalities in the labour market widen. Given that non-whites continue to experience significant inequalities in health, housing and schooling quality, we conclude that policy-makers must be mindful of how recessions can disproportionately penalise minority individuals, and should develop policies to avoid these harmful effects.


While these conclusions are not definitive and cannot tell us very much about the Brexit vote, they do dispel some of the more acrid allegations about uneducated racists falling for a right-wing fascist plot by voting Leave.

More on this topic when I know more.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 BIll Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Bill Mitchell
Bill Mitchell is a Professor in Economics and Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. He is also a professional musician and plays guitar with the Melbourne Reggae-Dub band – Pressure Drop. The band was popular around the live music scene in Melbourne in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The band reformed in late 2010.

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