Don’t forget, and face the shadow: what has Eurovision got to do with remembering the dead?

Late last year, some colleagues who were organising an international conference on memorialising the dead at my university asked me if I could contribute a talk about some of my research. Being in between two projects, I didn’t know what to offer them, until: Eurovision, I thought. I can talk about Eurovision.

Pointing the telescopes of queer politics, international relations or the history of nationalism at Eurovision has helped me explain things like why people get so bothered about ‘bloc voting’, what makes Eurovision political even though the rules say it isn’t, how Eurovision’s idea of ‘Europe’ tried to accommodate the financial crisis, how Eurovision and LGBTQ rights got entwined with each other, how they got even more linked together after Conchita Wurst won, how countries have used Eurovision to portray themselves as multicultural nations, how queerness and nationhood can work together at Eurovision in ways it might be harder for them to do elsewhere, and, most recently, the shadows of European colonialism that hang over celebrating ‘Europe’ in an annual song contest. Surely there must be something to say about remembering the dead?

The past couple of Eurovisions had included a French song commemorating the dead of the World Wars, Armenia’s entry marking the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, and the winning Ukrainian song in 2016 which narrated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 with a heavily implied message about Russia’s invasion of Crimea. That would be more than enough. I wrote them up an abstract of the talk.

Then a song remembering the victims of urban terrorism won the Italian final, and France chose an entry retelling the rescue of a newborn refugee girl from the Mediterranean, where thousands of other refugees from Africa and the Middle East have met their preventable deaths.

What does Eurovision have to do with remembering the dead? In 2018, possibly, more than ever.

‘Performing’ national and European identity

Eurovision is a tradition, celebration, and a party; it’s also an occasion with a particular structure, which influences what viewers expect to see and how they make sense of the performances they watch. Each three-minute song, chosen by a national broadcaster and created by a team of musicians, songwriters and designers who might or might not come from the country they’re representing (that’s up to each broadcaster to decide), symbolically represents the whole of its nation when it’s offered up for a Eurovision audience, or put in front of what we could call a ‘Eurovision gaze’.

Each country’s votes, too, come through on screen as one national opinion: in fact, Eurovision compresses institutions and people into the image of ‘the nation’ voting, and ‘the nation’ taking action. Eurovision entries aren’t just competing on behalf of the nation, like in an Olympics or a World Cup, they’re literally ‘performing’ national identity (a phrase that Judith Butler first used almost thirty years ago to describe the everyday signals everybody in society sends about their gender).

(In fact, we could say athletes in an Olympics or players in a World Cup are performing national identity as well, forming or playing against spectators’ expectations of what a Russian or Jamaican runner will be like, or how ‘the Germans’ and ‘the Brazilians’ each play football…)

Eurovision entries perform national identity in terms of showing what national musical cultures are like, choosing how much national musical tradition or how much accomplishment in globally popular styles of music to display, choosing how to show off a national language or a singer’s fluency in global English, and even selecting what to represent as national tradition (more than one national Eurovision selection has ended up as a proxy face-off between two hotly-contested interpretations of what national cultural identity should be).

Eurovision entries quite literally ‘perform’ the nation – and that’s part of the spectacle viewers expect.

In the same way, producers, journalists and viewers all project transnational political narratives on to Eurovision too. In the early 1990s and again in the early 2000s, Eurovision seemed to symbolise the course of post-Cold-War European enlargement: broadcasters from the first ex-Warsaw-Pact countries started competing for the first time in 1993, as did three successor states of Yugoslavia, the only state socialist country that had taken part in Eurovision (in fact, keen to show how Soviet it wasn’t, Yugoslavia had been competing ever since 1961).

In 2004, the year of the EU’s first and largest expansion into ‘eastern Europe’ (plus Cyprus and Malta), Eurovision went through its own enlargement by adding a semi-final, meaning every broadcaster (symbolically, every country) that wanted to participate could send a song to Eurovision every year. Wins for Estonia, Latvia and Turkey in 2001-3 had added Tallinn, Riga and Istanbul to Eurovision’s map of host cities: Ruslana’s victory for Ukraine in 2004 kept up the cycle, with the small unanticipated matter of an Orange Revolution before Kyiv hosted in 2005.

Even though Eurovision isn’t organised by the EU or any other European political institution (the EBU is independent), viewers make sense of it through the lens of political developments – the reason ‘Europe-Russia’ relations get an added bite at Eurovision, where the contest’s strong LGBTQ connections run up against the ideology of state homophobia, biphobia and transphobia that Putin has chosen to stand for (and whose fiercest advocates in Russia don’t even want Eurovision broadcast there).

Eurovision organisers still insist – it’s written into the rules – that Eurovision is not a political event, and entries with political messages are not allowed. But what counts as ‘political’ at Eurovision?

It’s simple to say entries can’t promote political leaders or parties, though one or two have tried (including the disqualified Georgian entry from 2009 after the Russian-Georgian war, ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’). Beyond that, we hit one of the biggest questions in cultural politics: what is political and what isn’t, and who has or claims the power to decide?

Is it political, for instance, to sing about protecting the environment or stopping nuclear war, which have both been uncontroversial themes for Eurovision songs, yet are also subjects of political protest? Is it political to bring a rainbow flag? Is it political to sing about a particular war in a nation’s history, on a broadcast that will also go out to nations it fought against? And we can even ask, if we’re thinking about commemoration: is it political to remember the dead?

Thinking that through starts to reveal what kinds of memorialisation get framed as political in European memory cultures and what don’t, and what kinds of memorialisation potentially can’t be memorialised in a space like Eurovision at all.

Coming home: personal tributes at Eurovision

A lot more remembering the dead goes on at Eurovision than people who don’t watch Eurovision would probably think. Indeed, as the contest’s own history has lengthened, one form of memorialisation has been paying tribute to famous Eurovision performers who have died: it’ll be surprising if the hosts of the grand final don’t commemorate the Swiss singer Lys Assia, who won the first Eurovision in 1956 and died this year aged 94. (At one point this winter, fans were fearing the contest could even be overshadowed by the loss of last year’s seriously ill winner, Salvador Sobral, who’s now recovering from a successful heart transplant.)

Another form is when contestants use Eurovision for their own personal commemorations, remembering a family member or loved one who has died in a way that a hundred million viewers will see. (Germany’s entry this year, Michael Schulte’s ‘You Let Me Walk Alone’, is inspired by Schulte’s complex feelings about his father’s death.) of his father.

Intimate backstories like these (if viewers know them) give a performance authenticity, arguably popular music stardom’s most valuable currency, and all the more so in a setting as competitive as Eurovision – even though, since the early 2000s, talent-show producers have turned personal grief into emotive plotlines for contestants so often that the dead or dying family member has also become a reality TV cliché.

In 2011, even the story of how Iceland’s song got to Eurovision was an act of memorialisation: the singer Sjonni Brink, about to compete in the national final Söngvakeppnin with his song ‘Coming Home’, died of a stroke in January, when the Söngvakeppnin heats were already under way. Six of his musician friends undertook to perform for him instead, and won.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apc_qJf3nws

Even as Brink had written it, ‘Coming Home’ was about a man who couldn’t wait to get home and see his lover to tell them all the things he wants to say, because no-one knows when their time’s going to run out; after his death, they became even more poignant, crying out to be interpreted as a tribute to the band’s close friend who had passed away.

But Eurovision has also been a space for collective memorialisation – and that’s where the politics really come in.

Don’t deny: facing the shadow of genocide and the World Wars

Commemorating the dead in a way that’s significant to a collective community is often about national commemorations, but could also be the imagined European and transnational public – or even the international queer public, remembering those they’ve collectively lost to HIV and AIDS. (Austria’s entry in 2007 obliquely commemorated the AIDS crisis by looking to the future as the official song of that year’s Vienna Life Ball.)

Collective remembering, linked to political communities, is where we’d expect more controversy over the politics of commemoration, and even whether a theme is appropriate for Eurovision at all – as two contrasting examples from 2015 show.

2015, when Eurovision was held in Vienna, marked the centenary of the Armenian Genocide and was continuing to witness the string of First World War centenary commemorations that would stretch all the way from 2014 to 2018 – or longer in nations where conflict didn’t come to a clean end with the Armistice.

An extensive Armenian public diplomacy initiative during 2015, involving celebrities of Armenian descent like Kim Kardashian, was campaigning for international public awareness of the genocide and for foreign governments to pass declarations recognising it as genocide, in a context where the Turkish state still operates a policy of denial. Armenia’s Eurovision entry commemorated it as well.

Genealogy, the group chosen to sing the song, united five singers from the Armenian diaspora in different continents with a sixth (Inga Arshakyan, one-half of the Armenian entry in 2010) who still lived in Armenia – even the group’s composition was a message of persistence and survival, drawing attention to why the Armenian people had been scattered around the world.

Originally, Genealogy’s song was called ‘Don’t Deny’. Their video, released in March, evoked the beginning of the 20th century and the theme of family in the performers’ outfits, its aesthetics of antique photography, and the pins with pictures of their grandparents that the singers wore. The song’s title, the group’s name, the lyrics’ themes, the video’s image, and the history behind them all combined to frame the song as commemorating the Armenian Genocide: would this break the rules against political messages at Eurovision? even though there’s no political content in the song’s words themselves. The ethnonational reading is almost unavoidable and has been very knowingly created. Did this break the rules against political messages at Eurovision?

Four days after the video appeared online, the songwriters announced a title change to ‘Face The Shadow’ (another image from the lyrics), though the chorus continued to begin ‘Don’t deny.’

This was Eurovision’s most controversial collective commemoration in the ‘modern’ era, at least at the time – but, deep into what the historian Catriona Pennell has called the ‘centenary moment’, it was far from the only one.

Hundreds if not thousands of local, national and international public memory projects in 2014-18 have aimed at commemorating and reinterpreting what the public remember about that conflict and its unprecedented scale of battlefield death, which made wartime bereavement a mass, shared, national experience: WW1 commemoration has found its way to Eurovision too.

In 2014, for instance, Malta’s Firelight had used the video for their song (also called ‘Coming Home’), to remind viewers across Europe that Maltese soldiers and prisoners of war had been involved in WW1, and their Eurovision performance had projected a floor of red poppies across the digital stage.

France’s entry in 2015 was Lisa Angell’s ‘N’oubliez pas’ – or ‘Don’t forget’, alongside Genealogy’s ‘Don’t deny’. ‘N’oubliez pas’ commemorated war and its effects on the human landscape, of France and/or Europe. Angell sings in the voice of a woman remembering her village that has been left in ashes, ‘swept away by history … erased from maps and memories, when they arrived, hidden behind their weapons’ (‘balayé par l’histoire … effacée des cartes et des mémoires, quand ils sont arrives, cachés derrière leurs armes’).

This is a village wiped off the map by mass warfare, in a year when centenary commemorations would have made the Great War come to mind for many viewers as the answer to what happened there and when. In fact, the song’s video had drawn its commemoration towards the Second World War with flashes of the American Cemetery in Normandy, blending the World Wars into one historical experience; the stage performance let it be read much more straightforwardly as WW1.

The song’s producers used the vast LED screen behind Angell to project the backdrop of an entire burned-out village behind her, then to show the village’s houses rebuilding themselves, and finally to surround her with an entire digital regiment of ghostly military drummers – circumventing Eurovision’s rule against having no more than six performers on stage.

Why was this highly symbolic, highly emotive, highly historicised presentation, with essentially the same narrative trajectory as ‘Face The Shadow’, not swept up in the same arguments about whether it was too political? Not because of its own content, I’d suggest, but because of the wider contexts around them: the memory of the Armenian Genocide is contested in international relations, but the process of Western European integration after WW2 – where nations seemed to publicly put WW1 behind them as a war that had been equally devastating on both sides – has produced an international political consensus about the meanings of the Western Front.

But what would happen if the themes and images of ‘N’oubliez pas’ were applied to a contemporary conflict, as they could equally have been? Eurovision would find out a year later, when Ukraine (which hadn’t participated in 2015, and picked its 2014 song before the Russian invasion of Crimea) made its first song selection since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began.

‘1944’ by Jamala, whose own heritage is Crimean Tatar, went on to win Eurovision 2016. The very title would have suggested, to listeners with even the slightest knowledge of  WW2 on the Eastern Front, that it would draw parallels between Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 and Russia’s behaviour towards Ukraine in 2014. Its first lines described strangers who ‘come to your house, they kill you all and say “We’re not guilty”’, in a context where it was important for Ukrainian public diplomacy to persuade foreign publics and governments that Russia was the aggressor in Crimea.

The first verse could just as easily have been about – and therefore was effectively about – Russian relativism and obfuscation over the violence in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and the lengths the Russian state had gone to not to seem responsible.

Making it known in interviews that her own grandparents had been among Stalin’s Tatar deportees until Gorbachev allowed the Tatars back to Crimea, and that they had only been able to speak on Skype sinxe 2014, Jamala brought her own embodied authenticity to the performance – not just as a speaker of Tatar (the language of the chorus) but a descendant of victims of forced deportation, which Tatars have campaigned to have recognised as genocide themselves.

Just as Genealogy had appealed for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, ‘1944’ allusively appealed to the audience to share its emotional narrative about Tatars’ and Ukrainians’ suffering in the past and present; it didn’t describe anything Lisa Angell hadn’t, except the killers who then say ‘We’re not guilty’. Musically, its wailing breaks gave its singer much more opportunity to express what viewers would hear as raw emotion – but the EBU would have been in a very difficult position if it had banned ‘1944’, given the precedents from the previous year.

Collective memorialisations like Genealogy’s, Angell’s or Jamala’s were particularly visible in 2014-16, but aren’t a new phenomenon at Eurovision: in 1976, Greece famously dedicated its entry ‘Panagia mou, Panagia mou‘ (‘Virgin Mary, Virgin Mary’) to commemorating Greek victims of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and Croatian and Bosnian TV both used their country’s first Eurovision entries as sovereign states in 1993 to draw viewers’ attention to the ongoing war in Croatia and the siege of Sarajevo.

The interactive experience of watching today’s Eurovisions and commenting on them on social media at the same time might make it easier for this form of Eurovision diplomacy to spread its messages – but Eurovision as a contest was giving collective memorialisation a platform well before 2014. Nevertheless, this is a moment where many Eurovision delegations have been realising that Eurovision can be a platform for public diplomacy through memorialisation of the dead – or at least some dead.

Mercy, mercy: whose lives and deaths can Eurovision remember?

Whose deaths are chosen to be memorialised – and by whom – are themselves political questions, which come down ultimately to whose lives society considers worth grieving or not… and these go on in the shadow of histories of racism, which are ultimately about who is and isn’t going to be considered human. Isn’t this kind of political theory a long way from anything to do with Eurovision?

Especially when two of this year’s finalist songs are acts of memorialisation concerning current political issues in Europe which are entangled with struggles over multiculturalism, it might be closer than it looks.

The French song ‘Mercy’, by Madame Monsieur, is named after the refugee girl born on a Medecins Sans Frontieres boat in the Mediterranean. If we’re talking about Eurovision songs not being allowed to be political, MSF is one of the most politically outspoken humanitarian organisations in Europe by design, including on the question of rescuing refugees at sea. MSF’s name and logo are nowhere near the song’s presentation, and wouldn’t be allowed to be, but the whole entry is framed by its organisational values and its work.

Like one of Stockholm’s semi-final interval acts, ‘The Grey People‘, it starts to confront the reality that Eurovision is celebrating ‘Europe’ at the same time thousands of refugees are risking death to cross the borders that the European Union has fortified against them. It ends, like ‘The Grey People’, with an uplifting image of new life (reinforced when French journalists found Mercy in a refugee camp in Sicily earlier this year).

Meanwhile, the Italian song ‘Non mi avete fatto niente’ (‘You haven’t done anything to me’) by Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Moro offers a narrative of resilience against urban terrorism. The many sites of terrorist attacks they name in the verses include Cairo, Barcelona, a concert in France we probably understand to be the Bataclan, London, and Nice: placing one site in the Middle East might partly acknowledge (without completely subverting) the narrow boundaries of the ‘#PrayForParis’ style of hashtag memorialisation which often elicits sympathy for attacks in Western Europe, North America and Israel but not for the much more frequent attacks in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan than European cities even now. Presenting a list of sites without Oslo or Utøya, meanwhile, restricts the list to sites of Islamist not white nationalist terrorism even if the lyricist had only thought they were choosing cities that had suffered attacks in the same couple of years.

The video depicts sites of grassroots and official commemoration including street shrines and war cemeteries, opening out into a utopian hope that humans will stop hating and killing each other, with subtitles in fifteen languages (including Chinese, Turkish and Arabic) adding to the cosmopolitan effect.

In fact, both videos make their appeals to a cosmopolitan and racially diverse public, with their multiracial crowds assembling at iconic places which add up into a map of an imagined transnational community, just like the opening videos of Eurovision finals themselves often do. The songs contrast each other, maybe, when it comes to the question of who speaks for the dead. The French song is written in the first person, as Mercy, who is ‘all the children the sea has taken’ (‘tous les enfants que la mer a pris’) -significantly, its agent of death is the sea, while the visa regimes and border security practices which meant the children had to cross the sea that way, and the policies that made governments insist on them, are so immutable they’re outside the story altogether. Its first-person voice does leave a white woman in the position of singing in the voice of a young black girl, and some viewers will question whether she ends up speaking over the girl she is professing to speak for.

Meta and Moro may be closer to their subject matter, as inhabitants of cities like the ones that have witnessed recent attacks, and more to the point as working musicians, aware that concert halls and stadiums have been favoured targets for ISIS-inspired and white nationalist terrorism. The last thing a musician might want to call to mind on an arena stage, you’d think, might be the Bataclan; even as a spectator, dwell on the concert attacks for more than a split second and the fantasy of Eurovision falls apart.

The presence of one vast group of dead, however, goes unmentioned amid the celebration of Portuguese navigation, maritime heritage and crossing cultures across the sea that has given Eurovision 2018 its slogan ‘All Aboard!’: the millions of enslaved Africans forced on to European ships between the 15th and the 19th century, in a trade that Portuguese navigators expanded at a very early stage. No Eurovision has ever been held in a site more closely connected to the history of the Atlantic slave trade (London probably comes nearest), and Lisbon has been confronting its own history of complicity in enslavement this year after residents voted to build the city’s first public monument acknowledging the slave trade at the end of 2017.

Indeed, the biggest silence of all might not even be around the memory of the slave trade but the memory of the connection between enslaved Africans and the refugees who have died reaching Europe today. The history of racism, which dates back to the discourses with which white Europeans legitimised the capture and enslavement of other human beings, lies underneath the racism and xenophobia that encourages EU governments to tighten the external border yet further and minimise the numbers of refugees who can settle in the EU.

Perhaps the dead who cannot be remembered at Eurovision are those whose histories would make the logic of its shared fantasy collapse: that Europe isn’t the place where politics can be set aside like the celebration invites us to temporarily imagine it can be.

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Where did it all go wrong? The Windrush myth after London 2012

This post originally appeared at Imperial and Global Forum on 25 April 2018.

Six years ago, in 2012, the dramatised arrival of the ‘Windrush Generation’ provided many British viewers with one of the most moving moments in the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. The dozens of black Londoners and the giant model of the Empire Windrush, which had docked at Tilbury in June 1948, entering the stadium during the ceremony’s historical pageant stood for the hundreds of thousands of black Britons who had migrated from the Caribbean to Britain, which was then still their imperial metropole, between 1948 and 1962.

The moment when the ‘Windrush Generation’ joined the pageant’s chaotic whirl of characters drawn from modern British social and cultural history symbolised, for millions of its viewers (if not those people of colour with more reason to be suspicious of British promises), a Britain finally inclusive enough to have made the post-Windrush black presence as integral a part of its national story as Remembrance or Brunel. Today, however, members of this same symbolic generation have been threatened with deportation – and some have already been deported – because they have been unable to prove their immigration status despite living in Britain for more than fifty years. The Daily Mirror’s Brian Reade was far from alone in wondering where it had all gone wrong since 2012.

What kind of British government would deport the children of the Empire Windrush? Not the openly fascist regime that the National Front took to the streets for in the 1970s, or that Alan Moore imagined taking control of a near-future Britain in his 1988 comic V for Vendetta (written at the height of the Thatcher years). Rather, as most of the British public only realised after the revelations of the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman connecting dozens of individual stories into a chilling pattern, the answer lies with the Conservative government of Theresa May.

Suddenly, in mid-April, public sympathy mobilised in support of the ‘Windrush Generation’ alongside an eviscerating parliamentary intervention from David Lammy MP, who has taken up the cases of dozens of black Britons who have lost jobs, been refused medical treatment or even been deported. Lammy’s challenge in parliament (and ongoing pressure through Twitter) would force the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to admit that the government’s actions have been ‘appalling’ in forcing potentially thousands of Windrush-era citizens to prove their right to reside in Britain all over again by requiring evidence none ever anticipated they would have to provide.

On 23 April, Rudd promised to help the Windrush generation ‘acquire’ citizenship by waiving application fees and test requirements, though Lammy continued to emphasise that their citizenship had been ‘taken away by your [Rudd’s] government, not something that your government is now choosing to grant them.’

Much of the white British public had not appreciated the harsh realities that black families had seen hitting their elder relatives for months until the plight of the ‘Windrush Generation’ became national news. The policy of extending border immigration controls into everyday life, which government officials themselves termed the ‘Hostile Environment‘, has caused dire consequences for this historic and symbolic group of citizens. Members of the Windrush Generation have lost their jobs because they could not show a UK passport; they have been charged thousands of pounds for NHS care under rules targeting ‘health tourism’; and some have even been detained awaiting deportation to countries they have not visited for fifty years. An unknown number of people, the immigration minister Caroline Nokes suggested last week, have even been ‘deported in error’.

The crisis has even been linked to at least one death. The mother of Dexter Bristol, a Londoner born in Grenada who died suddenly last month aged 57, blamed government racism and the ‘hostile environment’ policy for the stress her son suffered after losing his job and access to benefits: ‘My son is British. We didn’t come here illegally… No one expected this country to turn into what it is now.’

Why has public sympathy mobilised so quickly around this group when thousands of others, including younger migrants from the Caribbean, have been caught up by these regulations ever since Britain’s ‘everyday borders‘ started to tighten? Largely because the Windrush Generation is already a national myth that the British public had been invited to rejoice in celebrating – never more spectacularly than at London 2012.

Yet if the Home Office’s attack on the Windrush Generation feels like a shocking and disorienting reversal, this is because the ceremony’s triumphant story about Windrush was not even what the whole country believed in 2012 – rather, the difference between 2012 and 2018 is a matter of which narrative has had more power to be heard.

By 2012, Windrush had already been worked into many versions of Britain’s national myth – part of a liberal, ‘post-racial’ UK public commemorative culture, a mythic voyage at the beginning of a story about tolerance and progress where Britain’s colonisation of the Caribbean and its enslavement of the Windrush Generation’s ancestors could be absolved.

This progress, one must remember, had been hard-won. Black activists had had to campaign for years for Windrush to be taught in schools and marked by local councils, before public institutions began to take it up. Arguably, Windrush commemoration gained momentum after the 1999 Macpherson Report, which had popularised the phrase ‘institutional racism’ to describe police inaction after the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993; museum and heritage professionals’ own anti-racist engagement combined with the impact of Labour equalities legislation to make institutions keen to show they were serving a diverse community by marking Windrush as the turning point (or, more problematically, the beginning) of black history in Britain. Even though in 2012 commemorating Windrush might have seemed like consensus, when black history campaigns first gained pace in the 1980s it had been a radical demand.

Commemorating Windrush as part of Britain’s national narrative meant telling a story about Britain where black Britons belonged on the same terms as white Britons – a story about a Britain which was comfortable with having a Commonwealth not an Empire, and had moved on from the racism the Windrush Generation had endured when they were young.

Remembering how Britishness had supposedly become multicultural and racism had supposedly been defeated, by celebrating Windrush, participants were invited to join in the happy feeling of how far ‘we’ had come.

The London 2012 opening ceremony was a pageant of history-from-below that imagined a nation made up of its oppressed groups as well as its elites: groups like the workers of the Industrial Revolution, like the suffragettes, and like the Windrush Generation. The ‘mosaic history’ Danny Boyle, with scriptwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, depicted through the ceremony, alongside celebrations of children’s literature, the NHS and a modern-minded Queen, readily lent itself to liberal readings. The arts critic Charlotte Higgins, for instance, wrote of Boyle’s ceremony the next day that it was an ‘impassioned poem of praise to the country he [and ‘we’] would most like to believe in.’

The heritage of this mode of representation was demonstrably left-wing, dating back to leftist traditions of ‘radical patriotism’ (including pageants) from between the World Wars, and to the socialist principles that inspired historians like Raphael Samuel to suggest the heritage of ‘ordinary people’ could be a leftist way of linking the public with the national past.

Indeed, one thread even links Samuel’s vision of the nation directly to Boyce: Samuel edited a three-volume collection on Patriotism: the Making and Unmaking of British National Identity in 1989, assembling suppressed and everyday heritage into a national past, and a young Boyce contributed a chapter on the I-Spy books while researching his English PhD.

In 2012, the BBC’s broadcast of a ceremony tugging quirky cultural heartstrings to a cheering stadium made it feel as if the whole country was celebrating the spectacle of a creative, confident and multicultural nation too. And yet, it wasn’t; the story of London 2012 was already being contested on the night itself, when Conservative MP Aidan Burley tweeted that it had been ‘leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones.’

Where public narratives are concerned, the contrast between 2012 and 2018 is not so much ‘Where did it go so wrong?’ as ‘Which narratives had the strongest platform then and now?’

And narratives about Windrush do relate directly to the fact that the Home Office has deported black Britons who came to the UK with British passports before their islands became independent, because national identity itself is a story about who belongs. Or rather, national identity is a story about who belongs unconditionally on the land inside the nation’s borders, and whom the hosts might graciously extend the right to stay.

The Windrush Generation who came to Britain, and the children they have had there, spent decades hearing racists like Enoch Powell and the National Front openly call for them to be repatriated. The slogan of sending black and Asian Britons ‘back home’, to the Caribbean or South Asia, implied that they had no right to belong safely ‘at home’ in Britain at all.

The very members of this symbolic generation who listened with dread as young people to the possible consequences of Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, had to relive the experience a few weeks ago when BBC Radio 4 had Powell’s words read in their entirety by a star actor: a broadcast that the journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and many other British people of colour argued only normalised Powell’s rhetoric, empowered the far right, and represented a ‘particularly jarring… resurrection’ just as the Home Office was ‘unceremoniously booting out’ some of the very people who had arrived on the Windrush or the ships that followed.

Today, when many of the Windrush Generation have retired – and some might have looked back and thought they were living in a better country than the Britain they had known in their youth – tens of thousands of them now find they cannot prove their citizenship to the degree that ‘hostile environment’ policies require. After all, why would they have needed to before, outside dystopian nightmares? Not only has that nightmare become a reality; it might also grow more chilling yet with the news that, as long ago as 2010, the Border Force destroyed thousands of the very landing cards that could have proved when they arrived in the UK.

Their situation has moved the British public so much more than other inhumane deportations because of the power of the Windrush myth itself.

Aidan Burley, tweeting in 2012, had wanted to turn the clock back on multiculturalism. So did the UK Independence Party, on the ever larger platform the BBC gave it after the 2014 European Parliament elections; so did many of the voices backing Brexit. In 2012, the idea that that progress could be thrown into reverse, and Britain in a few years’ time could become ‘more racist’ not less, was very far from most people’s minds apart from those who longed to make it happen.

Yet visa rules for non-EU citizens became even tighter than New Labour had made them; Brexit stripped 3 million EU citizens of freedom of movement rights they had never had to think that they would lose; and Caribbean-born elders are facing now what Powell and the National Front threatened them with in their youth. The threat to deport the Windrush Generation does not just disturb the myth of multicultural Britain that grew between the 1990s and 2012 – it has torn it up, and some have watched the reversal of the myth with glee.

Why were Bosniaks treated more favourably than today’s Muslim refugees?: on differing narratives of identity, religion and security

This post originally appeared at the LSE EUROPP: European Politics and Policy blog.

In 1992, when 1,000 Bosnian refugees were housed aboard an adapted container ship in Copenhagen while the Danish government decided their asylum applications, 12-year-old Vladimir Tomić could not have known either that he would grow up to make an acclaimed documentary about the protracted wait to begin his life in Denmark or that 25 years later the arrival of refugees from the even more extensive conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa would become one of the most divisive issues in European politics.

Tomić’s Flotel Europa, based on refugees’ own video tapes from the ship, documents a moment in European refugee history that now serves as a comparison, contrast and example for experts debating whether and how more than a million Syrians and other refugees can be integrated into European societies.

 

A recent study by the Centre for European Policy Studies, rating the integration of Bosnian refugees in Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden as successful, attributes the success to host countries opening up their labour markets to them – sooner or later – and to the high levels of education with which most Bosnians arrived.

Today’s refugee crisis, in contrast, is much more than a socio-economic policy challenge: in the eyes of the transnational populist far right which has moved its arguments about Islam as a threat to European culture into the political centre (the culmination of a process that started well before 9/11), Muslim refugees are so unable to culturally integrate into European cities that their resettlement would endanger Europeans’ public safety, secularity and democracy itself.

If European perceptions about the integration of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, the majority Muslim, were so different from today, this is not just a matter of labour market policies – but also of how the politics of European racism and Islamophobia have categorised each group of refugees.

Indeed, the very nature of ‘temporary protection’ measures extended to Bosnian refugees like Tomić when they fled to Western European countries independently or through organised resettlement programmes shows the extent of European welcome in the 1990s should not be overstated. Germany, in particular, was keen for its 320,000 Bosnians (the largest number accepted by any European Union member state) to return home as soon as Bosnia-Herzegovina could be declared ‘safe’ again; the British government haggled for months before receiving a much smaller quota of 2,500.

Western European governments had already tightened their asylum policies in the 1980s, undoing the relatively relaxed attitude they had shown to individual political defectors during the Cold War, in recognition that refugees were now arriving in larger numbers and from crisis zones in the Global South which could be expected to lead even more people to migrate. Khalid Koser and Richard Black obliquely noted in 1999 the fear that these migrants might have been ‘the harbingers of mass North–South migration in the face of uneven economic development’ (p. 525): in other words, Lucy Mayblin suggests, asylum rules tightened as soon as the typical asylum-seeker came from somewhere Europe had colonised and was non-white.

Popular imaginations of near-future disaster in the 1990s pictured vast waves of impoverished African, Middle Eastern and South Asian migrants – racial ‘others’ to the traditional whiteness of Europe, and targets of a pervasive cultural racism – clamouring to flee to Europe in order to escape savage conflict and environmental catastrophe; indeed, the very language of ‘waves’ of refugees and ‘savage’ conflicts fed into alarmist visions of the ‘coming anarchy’. ‘Fortress Europe’ policies, the antecedents of today’s FRONTEX and militarised EU borders on land and sea, were the result.

Bosnian Muslim refugees faced the anxiety and disempowerment of life in abeyance while they waited to find out whether they would be allowed to start new lives in their home countries – or whether they wanted to – but very rarely had to contend with the blanket Islamophobia that stigmatises every Muslim refugee as a potential terrorist today.

The reasons why Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks (a term that became much more widespread in the 1990s), were not subject to the same suspicion as Middle Eastern Muslim refugees today depend on how narratives of identity, religion and security inside and outside Bosnia have combined then and now.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, news images of Palestinian hijackers and Libyan and Iranian state-sponsored terrorists, mediated further by the stereotyped terrorist villains of Reagan- and post-Reagan-era Hollywood, had mapped the security threat of Islam on to brown, male, vigorous bodies of ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance, and more specifically on to ‘Arabs’ (no matter that Iranian ethnic identity is not Arab at all).

These Islamophobic representations catch today’s refugees in their net but exempted Bosnians. Light-skinned Bosnians wearing Western clothes were not ‘visibly Muslim’ in European symbolic politics, even when they were Muslim by religion and ethnic heritage, and did not resemble the stock figure of the Islamic fundamentalist and militant.

Bosnians themselves strongly distanced their form of Islam from the image of the Arab terrorist: the Yugoslavia they remembered was no rogue state, but a modern and diplomatically successful European country. The fundamentalist had been an ‘other’ of the 1980s in Yugoslavia as well, and indeed became an imaginary devil in the propaganda of Radovan Karadžić’s Serb Democratic Party, which sought to convince Serbs they were at risk of genocide by painting Bosniak nationalists as a second Taliban.

Many Bosniaks from middle-class urban backgrounds viewed religious practice in general as an outdated countryside tradition, within the politics of cosmopolitanism and secularity under Yugoslav state socialism. Those who did actively participate in religious customs believed perhaps even more strongly that Bosnia had been the cradle of a different kind of Islam, with an admixture of European culture and Bosnian tolerance that separated it utterly from the radical Islam of the Middle East.

By the time most of Bosnia’s 1.2 million refugees were fleeing, hundreds of thousands of Croats and Serbs had already been displaced by ethnopolitical conflict in Croatia, many arriving in Western Europe (though more ending up in Serbia or other regions of Croatia, depending on their ethnic identity). Bosnian Muslim refugees could easily fit into the same category as Croats as subjects of public sympathy and victims of Milošević’s aggression.

The second large group of Muslim refugees from the Yugoslav region – many of the Roma and Albanians who fled Kosovo (though Albanian ethnic identity accommodated Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy at the same time) – also largely escaped the framing of Islamist terrorism (again thrown against them by Serbian propaganda) when they arrived in western Europe in 1998–9.

This is not to say that Kosovars escaped xenophobia and racism. In Britain, at least, their resettlement was much more controversial than Bosnians’, and the arrival of 24,000 Kosovars came at the same time as a tabloid panic about ‘bogus asylum seekers’ that primarily targeted Romani nationals of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

The anti-Roma prejudice, or antiziganism, directed against these migrants and refugees carried over towards Kosovars. Some were Roma themselves, while many others had an ethnically ambiguous appearance that semi-racialised them as ‘other’ to more of an extent than the smaller number of Bosnians in Britain had been in 1992–5. The ‘racialisation’ of east European migrants in Britain as targets of xenophobic prejudice, which would intensify after the British government opened its labour market immediately to citizens of the new EU member states in 2004, began with the confluence of refugees from antiziganism in east-central Europe with those from the Kosovo War.

The Muslim refugees arriving in Europe now, in contrast, are from the very parts of the world which, since the waning of fears of nuclear destruction at the end of the Cold War, have represented the most immediate threat to European security in the geopolitics of racism and Islamophobia: the Middle East, Africa, Iran and Afghanistan.

They enter a political and social climate where, within the wider European economic and constitutional crisis, tabloid and far-right discourse has pushed back against the very category of refugee. Remarks like those of the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović in September 2015 that ‘[w]e know that […] there are also people with forged Syrian passports, who are not real refugees, but have other aims in entering the EU’ exemplify a fear that refugee and terrorist are in practice indistinguishable – a myth which, when a very few terrorists (like two perpetrators of the November 2015 Paris attacks) have indeed entered the EU by claiming refugee status on forged passports, affects how more than a million people are perceived.

The imagination of Muslim refugees in general as a security threat, therefore as an existential risk to European life-as-we-know-it who cannot be allowed to settle in any European city, gained extra force after the Paris attacks – ‘Paris changes everything,’ said the Bavarian finance minister Markus Soeder in calling on Angela Merkel to reverse Germany’s large-scale resettlement of refugees. The implication that Christians and Muslims cannot coexist in European cities suits the polarising purposes of ISIS as well as the far right.

It became more emotive yet after the mass sexual violence on New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne, strengthening forms of nationalism that operate as masculine or liberal-feminist performances of power by turning away refugees and policing borders in order to protect white European women and their freedoms from Muslim men.

Indeed, while European media represented Bosnian and Kosovar refugees as multi-generational groups dominated by women and children, plus smaller numbers of old men, the most widespread images of today’s Muslim refugees – in photographs such as the UK Independence Party’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, unveiled during the Brexit referendum hours before a neo-Nazi sympathiser shot the MP Jo Cox – are of men as an undifferentiated mass.

The different patterns of migration during the Yugoslav wars and today, with more families resettled together from Bosnia and Kosovo and more men in the current crisis travelling ahead on the dangerous crossing into the EU to make arrangements for their relatives to join them, are the missing context behind these different representations: but so too is how ideas of race, nationality and religion have intersected to imply that integrating Middle Eastern, North African and central Asian Muslims should inherently be more difficult than welcoming white European Bosnians 25 years before.

Opening the roundtable: teaching the Yugoslav wars two decades on, in polarised times

These comments are adapted from my opening remarks at the ‘Teaching the Yugoslav Wars Two Decades On’ roundtable at the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies convention today, alongside Fedja Burić, Dragana Cvetanović, Tomislav Longinović, Christian Nielsen and Sunnie Rucker-Chang – thanks to them all and to everybody who contributed their own impressions from the audience.

I originally organised this roundtable and another session with the same title at this year’s International Studies Association conference after writing my introduction to The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and having to think through what I wanted to be able to do in my teaching, what I wanted others to be able to do, and how the contexts have changed since I was an undergraduate and postgraduate in London 8-15 years ago.

It’s a different chronological context and, as has become even sharper since Yugoslav Wars came out, a different political context.

Originally I was going to talk at the roundtable about what it means to teach about the Yugoslav wars in Britain, in the mid 2010s, to students who at Hull are nearly all white and British, and nearly all of what they encounter about Yugoslavia or its successor states in their general lives will have been premised on the idea that Yugoslavia was ‘somewhere else’. 

That Yugoslavia on one hand, and Britain on the other, are part of separate spaces which have been defined by very different historical and political legacies; that Britain is at the centre of how things can be expected to be, and the Yugoslav region was outside that or lagging behind that. 

I’ve always wanted to de-centre that in my own work, probably before I could even put into words that that was what I wanted to do.

In the days before the Brexit referendum and even more so after it, hearing accounts of racist and xenophobic violence and harassment increasing, I had a crisis of confidence. I’m someone whose teaching ought to have contributed to people being able to intervene in the kinds of cycles of polarisation and exaggeration that have been ramped up throughout the campaign. I and dozens of other people teach about the break-up of Yugoslavia and how the mainstream media moved an open politics of ethnic entitlement and resentment into the political centre, where it didn’t have to be.

Does any of it matter? Has anyone stepped back from looking at a UKIP poster or a Labour ‘controls on immigration’ pledge and thought differently about its messages because of the things we do when we teach 20th-century history and international politics? I think so, and I want to think so. But how does anyone know? 

We strive to equip students to see across perspectives they might not have considered; to equip them for acts of everyday resistance to authoritarianism and hatred, and for recognising when there is a call for them; to equip them to account for violent historical legacies without succumbing to ascriptions of collective guilt, and to live in a society where others may have more knowledge than them of the effects those legacies have had.

British public culture exhibits the ‘never again’ reflex in its abstract, every Holocaust Memorial Day, which in Britain annually takes in Srebrenica alongside the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide; and yet the process of the break-up of Yugoslavia from ‘crisis that still feels like business as usual’, to something like the outbreak of full scale war and ethnic cleansing in 1991 in Croatia or 1992 in Bosnia, towards something of the scale of Srebrenica in 1995, is so poorly understood. 

In 2014 I was asked to contribute to a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Hull Guildhall with a talk about the Bosnian Genocide. Rather than mobilising a sense that ‘we’ have to prevent mass violence and genocide ‘there’, I wanted to leave the audience with the question of: if this is how it seemed for Muslims in Visegrad, or for Srdjan Aleksić (the young Serb man in Trebinje who intervened in an act of ethnicised violence by fellow Serbs and saved the victim’s life at the cost of his own), what would the equivalent be for you, for us, here? And when would you know that you were starting to recognise it?

This is part of why I felt a resigned, saddened, but not shocked kind of alarm as the Brexit vote came closer, when I heard that a far right extremist had assassinated an MP, Jo Cox, who had called for Britain to accept more refugees (I thought at once of Josip Reihl-Kir, the moderate police chief of Osijek assassinated in July 1991 who had tried to de escalate violence when that was not in the interest of extremists on either side).

As the US vote came closer, it felt like no coincidence that people like Aleksandar Hemon or Charles Simic were among the first white writers in the US to warn that Trump was not a joke and to warn of what else can become possible very quickly once so racist, xenophobic and violent a register of political speech starts to be normalised. (Another, Sarah Kendzior, is an anthropologist of political repression in Uzbekistan.) 

Knowing historically that 1990 was a turning point for the origins of the Yugoslav wars, but then reading Croatian newspapers from the beginning of 1990 which were not on anything like the crisis footing that they would be, brought home to me as a white English student how fast everyday life could fragment and be turned into something else – the pace of the ‘destruction of alternatives’. 

Understanding that and understanding that Yugoslavia is not some inherently different place from Britain, has left me with part of my back brain that goes: don’t think that authoritarianism or violence can’t happen here.(I’ve written elsewhere about how that intersects with my identity/experience as queer.)

I didn’t live through the Yugoslav wars in any way that affected me, I don’t feel the echoes of the break up in the visceral way that my friends and colleagues do who did, but my window for what can happen in a crisis is closer I think to many of us here than perhaps to many of my colleagues and students in my own department.  

What else then can we achieve by teaching about the Yugoslav wars, as well as educating students about what happened ‘in that part of the world’, because it is about so much more than that? What do we want students to appreciate – what do we want students to be able to see or do differently?

We can teach the skills the public need to be an informed and critical citizen of a democracy; and through what and how we teach, perhaps we can pass on to our students enough of that early warning system that we ourselves have so that they might intervene where they might not have done, so that they might speak out or educate others where they might not have done, so that at least some of the things our early warning system catches might not come to pass.
And as I said at the end of the roundtable: let’s get on and do it.

Brexit has echoes of the breakup of Yugoslavia

This post originally appeared at the LSE EUROPP: European Politics and Policy blog on 5 July 2016.

Even before the results of the United Kingdom’s referendum on European Union membership, the tone of the campaigns, the polarisation of public attitudes and the uncertainty over the country’s constitutional future had all started to recall another European crisis, two and a half decades ago: the break-up of Yugoslavia and the international community’s failure to prevent a bitter constitutional crisis escalating into war.

Jacques Poos’s comment that ‘this is the hour of Europe’, when he flew into Yugoslavia as chair of the European Community’s foreign affairs council on 29 June 1991 to mediate between the Yugoslav prime minister and the presidents of seceding Slovenia and Croatia, not only proved hollow but also symbolised, as Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Croatian Serb militia offensives against Croatian towns escalated, an emptiness of ‘Europeanness’ at the very moment the EC had looked towards a future as today’s EU. (Poos’s remark gave its name to Josip Glaurdić’s exhaustive diplomatic history of the break-up.)

Yet for several years the Yugoslav public had already been feeling a sense of spiralling, interlocking crises over the balance of power between different republics and nations inside the federation. Slobodan Milošević’s moves to recentralise the federation on terms most favourable to Serbs, addressing Serbs as victims of persecution as he did so, interacted with Slovenian demands for fiscal and political autonomy with such implications for Croatia and its border regions (where Serbs were concentrated), and threatening knock-on effects for Bosnia-Herzegovina, that by June 1991 the ‘Yugoslav public’ was already an extremely fragmented – yet not defunct – idea.

People who lived through the Yugoslav wars – like Kemal Pervanić, who survived the Omarska concentration camp after the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) took control of his home town in 1992 and now lives in Britain, or Feđa Burić, a Bosnian historian weighing up the dangers of referendums – draw parallels between Yugoslavia and Britain as multi-national, deeply unequal societies which would unsettle anyone who believed the causes of conflict in Yugoslavia were unique to the Balkan region. ‘These terrible things don’t happen to some strange people – they happen to people like ourselves,’ Pervanić said in a Thomson Reuters Foundation video published on 28 June.

The break-up of Yugoslavia took the public through a downward spiral of collapsing expectations, each dragging people into a new sphere of uncertainty and fear: from the Yugoslav system being more successful than its capitalist and Warsaw Pact neighbours, to the reverse; from it being unthinkable that the union of republics would break up, to it seeming inevitable that it would; from living an everyday working life to seeing your standard of living and the whole economy collapse beyond repair; from Communism being the ideology you learned at school, to an entire system of political power and property ownership falling apart; from moving normally around your town, to fearing for your safety on the streets, based on what others read as your ethnicity.

Even if these were ill-founded – historians still debate whether or not Yugoslavia had too many long-term weaknesses to be viable when it was unified in 1918 – they were part of people’s common sense, until they could not be.

When I teach courses about the break-up of Yugoslavia and the social contexts behind the 1990s wars, British students start seeing their own society differently.

The issues at stake for Britain and its constituent entities have many resonances with, and important differences from, Yugoslavia – but perhaps the most troubling parallels come from how politicians and the media brought Yugoslavia to the point of collapse and co-operated to intensify fear and hatred once Slovenian and Croatian secession was inevitable.

Recursive secession

Scotland’s likelihood of leaving the UK if Britain leaves the EU, because the larger country is seceding from something that the smaller country inside does not want to leave, is an example of what political scientists call ‘recursive secession’. In Yugoslavia, Croatian independence under a nationalist government was unacceptable to the Croatian Serb militias, supported by Milošević, who started taking control of Serb-majority municipalities in Krajina in August 1990. If Croatia seceded, the SDS threatened to secede in turn.

Structurally, though, Scotland as the Scottish National Party (SNP) currently imagines it is the Slovenia of the piece: the small northern republic, keen to prosper within ‘Europe’ and struggling against political shifts in the larger country that will prevent it doing so. Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts to negotiate independently with European leaders strongly resemble how the Slovenian and Croatian presidents, Milan Kučan and Franjo Tuđman, started sounding out international support – finding their strongest allies in Germany and Austria – for their plans to secede after Slovenia held an independence referendum on 23 December 1990.

Kučan, indeed, recently drew qualified comparisons between Brexit and Slovenian independence, comparing the Leave campaign to the self-interest of Milošević and his supporters.

Croatia, in this mapping, would be the Northern Ireland. The prospect that Milošević would support his Croatian Serb allies in opposing independence and undermining Serbs in other parties who co-operated with the Croatian government made independence much more complex and risky for Croatia than Slovenia, which had no settled Serb minority.

Despite the intense nationalism of Tuđman’s government, and its indifference to how Croatian Serbs perceived Tuđman’s ambivalence towards the legacy of Croatian collaboration with fascism during the Second World War, public and political resolve for independence in Croatia was lower than in Slovenia even in spring 1991. The Borovo Selo massacre on 2 May, when Serb insurgents killed 12 Croatian police officers in Eastern Slavonia, tipped the balance. 93.2 per cent of voters in Croatia – not counting Krajina, where Serbs boycotted the vote – voted for independence in a referendum on 19 May 1991. SDS in Krajina had declared autonomy in September 1990 and claimed republic status in December 1991, after six months of open war.

Like Croatia did in 1991, but along different lines, Northern Ireland has a recent history of ethnopolitical conflict, and independence would risk instability and political violence on the mainland as well as Northern Ireland itself.

But there are important differences between the two sets of secessions – including how few voters in England seem to have appreciated the impact that Brexit would have on Northern Ireland, the UK/Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement, and the effect of fearing a return to the violence of the 1970s–90s, compared to how keenly aware other Yugoslavs were in 1989–91 of the potential for violence in Croatia.

The most immediate is that neither Holyrood nor Stormont are militarising their police and equipping army reserves ready for confrontation with the armed forces of the larger state, as Slovenia and Croatia both did in spring 1991 – leading to Slovenia’s ten-day war against the JNA and Croatia’s much longer conflict with JNA and Krajina forces.

And, structurally, Scotland can hardly signify Slovenia and the Serb Democratic Party at the same time.

Asymmetric confederation

What makes Brexit a constitutional as well as a political crisis is that results in two of the UK’s ‘four nations’ (England and Wales) showed a majority to Leave, and results in the other two (Scotland and Northern Ireland) were a majority Remain. Westminster rejected the SNP’s demand for a ‘quadruple lock’ on the referendum (so that Leave could not succeed without majorities in all four nations) in June 2015.

Scottish and Northern Irish voters who feel that they are being taken out of the EU against their wishes have a sense of territorial democratic autonomy to draw on which is not available to English and Welsh voters who feel the same way – except by building territorial–political identities around cities like London, Oxford and Bristol with Remain majorities.

After 175,000 internet users signed a petition for London to declare independence, the city’s new mayor Sadiq Khan said on 28 June that ‘As much as I might like the idea of a London city state, I’m not seriously talking about independence today – I am not planning to install border points on the M25!’. He did demand new powers over business, housing, transport, health, policing and tax, and has been negotiating with Sturgeon and the chief minister of Gibraltar (where 96 per cent voted Remain) about their ‘shared interests’ in remaining in the EU.

Proposals for some UK territories to Remain while others Leave, but for the UK to stay together as a state, arguably have partial precedents such as the relationship between Denmark and Greenland or Spain and the Canary Islands – though still skip over the problem of residents of England and Wales who would still want and need to exercise the individual rights, especially freedom of movement, they had taken for granted as part of the EU.

They echo the plans to reform Yugoslavia as an asymmetric confederation, proposed by Slovenia and Croatia in October 1990, where each Yugoslav republic would have its own defence and foreign policies and the right to apply for EC membership individually. The presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia offered another ‘asymmetric federation’ proposal in February 1991.

Scholars debate why the confederation plan failed or whether it was even intended to succeed (Glaurdić makes the case that Milošević sabotaged it; Dejan Jović argues it was only ever a tactical move); but this is the level of complexity with which the UK constitution would have to be re-negotiated in order to balance the democratic majorities from Scotland and Northern Ireland with the total majority vote across the UK.

Constitutionally, however, the UK ‘four nations’ and the Yugoslav republics are different kinds of entity. The status of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland dates back to ‘Acts of Union’ with the Crown from 1536, 1603 and 1800, with subsequent amendments including the partition of Ireland in 1921 and the devolutions of 1998. England, the largest nation and the equivalent to Serbia in a rough UK/Yugoslav parallel, has no separate constitutional status, and it is UKIP rather than Labour which has led calls for an English parliament.

The Yugoslav republics, established as Tito’s Partisans gained control of territory during the Second World War and confirmed by the 1946 constitution, had all officially exercised national self-determination in forming the federation and ostensibly had the right to secede – though whether this right applied to republics or to ethno-national groups (whose demographic boundaries did not coincide with the republics) was the very constitutional issue behind conflict in Croatia in 1990–1.

How quickly public support for independence can flip

Nicola Sturgeon’s immediate commitment that ‘the option of a second referendum [on Scottish independence] must be on the table’ after the referendum results rested on an SNP manifesto commitment in the May 2016 elections that the Scottish Parliament should be able to hold another referendum if there were ‘a significant and material change in circumstances […] such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will’.

While the change in the Scottish public mood isn’t so overwhelming for Sturgeon to actually call the referendum straight away, the closeness of the UK-wide result adds to the perception that the national Leave majority is too small to take such a drastic step.

So, even more damningly, does the feeling among Remain supporters that all the Leave campaign’s promises were based on misinformation – from the promise of taking back national sovereignty when the next prime minister is likely to be unelected, to the quoted £350 million per week that Britain could save by leaving the EU, to statements that Turkey was on the brink of joining the EU and, with its large Muslim population acquiring EU freedom of movement, posing a national security risk to the UK. (The Leave campaign subsequently wiped its website.)

And so does the revelation that neither the Leave campaign or Westminster had a plan for actually managing and negotiating Brexit, leading to a situation where the all-important Article 50 notification (which would trigger Brexit after two years) might not even be made.

Remain supporters, in Scotland and elsewhere, do not just feel outvoted – they feel betrayed, and afraid (as Leave voters will if Westminster never activates Article 50). Scottish voters have an outlet for those sentiments in the SNP.

The shock of the result and its aftermath does not in itself evoke the same kind of visceral terror as the Borovo Selo massacre – though the fear created by escalating racist violence on UK streets has its own similarities to the early stages of ethnopolitical conflict.

But majorities tip from supporting autonomy towards the riskier choice of independence when it becomes clear that the nation has no prospect at all of achieving what voters see as its self-determination within the structure of a larger country – and the referendum crisis may have brought Scotland to that point.

By the time Slovenian and Croatian voters were deciding between autonomy and independence, political activity in Yugoslavia was centred almost entirely on the separate republics, with the multi-party elections of 1990 all taking place at different times. By the time the Yugoslav prime minister formed his own Yugoslavia-wide party in July 1990, aiming to offer an alternative to Milošević’s authoritarian vision for the federation, Slovenia and Croatia had voted already, with nationalist parties winning in both.

Building political alliances across, as well as within, autonomous national units will be essential for UK political movements that seek to hold the country together.

‘Europe’ as a symbol of hope – about to be betrayed?

While the UK referendum was directly about the European Union, Slovenia’s and Croatia’s independence referendums might as well have been. Slovenian liberals aspired to join Europe culturally and politically, even (or in some eyes especially) if it meant leaving the ‘Balkan’ remainder of Yugoslavia behind. Kučan reformed the Slovenian League of Communists into a social democratic party under the slogan ‘Europe Now!’

In the early stages of the war in Croatia, the Croatian government as well as many of the public looked to the EC to intervene, force Milošević to accept Croatian independence and end the occupation of Krajina. ‘We want to share the European dream, we want democracy and peace,’ Tomislav Ivčić sang in an English-language song, written as war intensified in August 1991, which Croatian Television hoped would serve as a promotional video for the Croatian cause abroad.

 

A few months later, the hopes Croats had invested in Europe would be dashed as the JNA and paramilitaries overran Vukovar in November 1991 and the Croatian government accepted a ceasefire in January 1992 which left one third of its territory under occupation – just as SDS in Bosnia-Herzegovina was about to declare a sovereign ‘Republika Srpska’ to prevent Bosnia seceding too.

Bosnians who had hoped in 1990 that the Krajina conflict would not affect Bosnia would share Croatians’ disenchantment with ‘Europe’, and suffer an even more devastating war, as the EC failed to prevent SDS militias and the JNA killing and expelling non-Serbs in municipalities they controlled, encircling other towns and nearly partitioning the capital, Sarajevo.

Violence on the scale of the war in Croatia or Bosnia is not imminently threatening the United Kingdom. But scenes of young people appealing directly to ‘Europe’, like the March for Europe on 2 July or the demonstration in London that interrupted a live Channel 4 News broadcast on 28 June, recall independence rallies in Slovenia or, even more so, peace rallies in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina where other young people begged leaders not to let them down.

Politicians get emotional as ‘normal’ politics fall apart

Scenes from the European Parliament on 28 June – with the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker asking the UKIP leader Nigel Farage why he was still there, Farage goading MEPs (‘You all laughed at me… well, I have to say, you’re not laughing now’) and the SNP’s Alyn Smith, after demanding the EU respect Scotland’s vote to remain, receiving a standing ovation for his concluding ‘Scotland did not let you down… please, I beg you, do not let Scotland down!’ – were so far outside the usual frame of EU parliamentary politics that they immediately became items of viral news.

The spectacle came from the contrast between speakers’ emotions and what viewers probably expect to be the dispassionate nature of a European Parliament chamber (much more so than the unruly, ‘braying’ sound of UK Prime Minister’s Questions). The feelings Juncker, Farage, Smith and others displayed hinted at longer-standing resentments over questions of sovereignty and independence which were suddenly on public view.

Notable, too, was the invisibility of the United Kingdom, as opposed to its individual nations, in Smith’s direct appeal to European lawmakers.

All of these seem to be signals that the boundaries of ‘normality’ in UK/EU politics have shifted in a very short space of time, driven by people who are still coming to terms with it.

People who remember scenes from televised Yugoslav Party congresses and parliaments in 1988–92, or indeed news footage from the period in 1990–1 when the European Community still appeared to be able to influence the outcome in Yugoslavia, might see several parallels – from the unprecedented emotion with which politicians talk to each other, to the fact that, the euro crisis apart, the break-up of Yugoslavia was the last overnight geopolitical crisis where the EC/EU as an institution played a major role.

In the UK as in Yugoslavia, however, the media have been implicated in producing the crisis for much longer, in ways that might parallel the course of events that made it even become conceivable in the late 1980s that Yugoslavia could imminently break apart.

Media spectacle can make centres out of extremes

Only a few years ago, UK media treated UKIP and Farage as marginal parties rather than part of the core of political options (where Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats belonged), giving them and the Green Party broadly similar coverage.

Ofcom and the BBC awarded UKIP ‘major party’ status in England and Wales for the 2014 European elections after it made significant local election gains in 2013–14, and confirmed UKIP, but not the Greens, as a ‘major party’ for general elections in 2015.

‘Major party’ status entitles parties to an extra party political broadcast and is also likely to influence news editors charged with maintaining political balance in reporting election campaigns. Themes and images in tabloid media, especially on immigration and on the disenfranchisement of England, harmonise with UKIP campaigns more directly than any mass newspaper or television channel amplifies Green campaigns when their policies fall to the left of Labour.

UKIP ‘managed to define the discourse around migration’ in the 2015 election, Laleh Khalili writes, even though the party itself only gained one seat.

Farage’s confrontational and triumphalist tone as a speaker appeals to UKIP supporters as a sign he will take on the Westminster and Brussels elite on behalf of England but strikes many on the Left experience as bullying and unpleasant, most of all in his post-referendum victory speech when he praised ‘the dawn breaking on an independent United Kingdom […] without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired’ only a week after the shooting of Jo Cox. Although his own background is in City trading, and for years Labour and Conservative politicians had already been politicising immigration, his discourse stands out from established members of the political elite.

In a parallel way, Slobodan Milošević used populist language and a promise to reverse the disenfranchisement of a nation through constitutional change to present himself to Serbs as a political outsider, leading the so-called ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’, even though he had risen through the ranks of the Serbian Communist Party and previously headed a major Yugoslav bank. (Charles Simić, writing in December, likened Milošević’s political communication to Donald Trump.)

Non-Serbs, especially Albanians in Kosovo, Croats and Bosnians – as well as Serbs struggling for more rather than less democracy in Yugoslavia – feared Milošević as a figure who would legitimise and incite ethnopolitical violence by Serbs. (One of Milošević’s first acts of aggression, in March 1989, was to revoke Kosovo’s autonomy as a province of Serbia, repress Albanians’ political and cultural rights, and introduce martial law.)

Serbian media helped to create the myth of Milošević as a combative, anti-elitist defender of Serbs when TV Belgrade repeated clips of his comment, made while visiting Kosovo Serb protestors in April 1987, that ‘Nobody is allowed to beat you!’ (referring to their allegations of being beaten by Kosovo police).

Farage’s and Milošević’s programmes resemble each other in that both address disenfranchised members of majority nations (a white English public or the Serbs) as groups who are marginalised, victimised and under siege, using language of crisis and threat. For Farage, the threat is of floods or swarms of immigration, putting Britain under social and cultural strain, which EU rules supposedly prevent Britain from reining in.

Earlier on the day of Jo Cox’s death, Farage had posed in front of a poster reading ‘Breaking point: the EU has failed us all – we must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders’. The image was of a column of refugees, mostly Middle Eastern, on the Slovenian/Croatian border in the summer of 2015.

Both Serbs in 1988 and residents of deindustrialised England in 2016 faced serious economic disadvantages, of recent onset, that Yugoslavia or Westminster had not addressed. (Even for Serbs, living standards would fall yet further under Milošević except for those in positions to benefit from corruption, war profiteering or organised crime.)

Yet ethnic minorities, EU migrants, LGBT people, disabled people threatened by further austerity, and left-wing activists in the UK fear the consequences of a UKIP-driven government in the UK in ways which are not identical to, but have some parallels with, the fears of non-Serbs in the early stages of Milošević consolidating power through the Yugoslav federal system.

One major difference between the media of 1988–91 and the media of 2016, however, is how and where the public see tide-turning audiovisual moments and in what ways the media fragment their audiences.

Fragmented media help interpretations of the crisis diverge

In Yugoslavia, people saw incidents like Milošević’s remark to Kosovo Serb protestors or the pictures from Borovo Selo at home on broadcast evening news. Today, moments like the European Parliament speeches or the news about Jo Cox reach us throughout the day, on workplace computers and mobile devices, at different times.

Which moments, narratives and interpretations even reach us are conditioned by how we structure our own social media and what network algorithms then choose to show us, in a more finer-grained way than different newspapers have always framed reality in different ways for their readerships.

Late 1980s Yugoslavia did not have such individualised media fragmentation but, with all republics’ broadcasters controlled by their republics’ Communist parties (and some programming shared between republics), its broadcast infrastructure still meant that viewers in different republics formed divergent, directly opposed understandings of what the Yugoslav crisis even was, unless they consciously sought alternative sources of information. After the 1990 elections, Slovenia and Croatia could follow Milošević’s lead in using television as a vehicle for their own political and historical narratives.

Different publics in Yugoslavia knew less and less about how the crisis was seen elsewhere in the country. Within an escalating cycle of ethno-political fear, increasingly, they did not want to, until ethno-national identity became the predominant frame of reference in public.

The Yugoslav crisis happened, and the Brexit crisis has happened, at dizzying speed, leaving the public trying to piece together ‘instant histories’ from media, their own experiences and their friends and neighbours. Digital media might intensify polarising tendencies even further, if people see less and less outside their online as well as offline ‘filter bubble’.

They might deterritorialise the polarisation which in Yugoslavia occurred on a territorial, ethno-national basis; in England, at least, the two hardening ‘sides’ are spread throughout the country, with more or less concentrated majorities or minorities in certain areas. Within as well as between nations, the public end up with substantially different ‘instant histories’ and act on them in different ways.

But digital media also give more access to alternative perspectives than print media and analogue broadcasting ever made possible – an advantage on which campaigns based on solidarity across difference will need to capitalise.

Ethnic and racist violence shapes how collective identities form

The most frightening, immediate effect of the referendum campaign and result in the UK has been what is publicly perceived as, and is highly likely to be, a dramatic increase in racist abuse and violence.

Jo Cox’s assassination on 16 June by a man linked to neo-Nazi terrorism shocked the public – including her fellow Labour MPs, now embroiled in a contest over the future and existence of their party – because it marked a form of political violence that UK residents not already under threat by the far right usually suppose not to exist in Britain.

During the referendum campaign, far-right groups circulated propaganda about Muslim refugees as terrorist infiltrators and sexual predators – playing on the attacks in Paris, Brussels and Cologne – that harmonised horribly with the mainstream Leave campaign’s public statements about immigration and Turkish membership of the EU. (Compare how caricatures of Albanian Muslims as rapists circulated in late 1980s Serbia, adding their undertones to Milošević’s claims that Serbs were being persecuted in Kosovo.)

Cox resembled the moderate police chief of Osijek, Josip Riehl-Kir, in her potential to interpret the crisis in an alternate way to the political consensus. Cox had written, days before her death, in defence of EU membership and free movement of people, and campaigned for Britain to resettle more Syrian refugees. Reihl-Kir had tried to defuse ethnicised Serb/Croat tensions in Slavonia in spring 1991, in marked contrast to Serb militants’ antagonism towards Croatian police elsewhere on the emerging front line, until his assassination by a Croat ex-policeman that July.

A report on Islamophobic hate crime by Tell MAMA, which Cox would have launched on 30 June, had already found a 300 per cent increase in offline crimes against Muslims in 2015 compared to the previous year, with spikes after the attacks in Paris. Muslims were most likely to be attacked in shops, on streets or on public transport, and when wearing Islamic dress.

Accounts of on-street attacks, threatening letters, school and workplace bullying, and racist slurs have spiralled since the very day of the referendum result – with police recording a 57 per cent increase in reported hate crimes compared to corresponding days last year, the National Police Council calculating that hate crime reports have increased fivefold since the referendum, and a Facebook group organised to collect first-hand accounts of racist violence, Worrying Signs, becoming overwhelmed.

Ethnic minorities, Muslims, East Europeans (already targets of cultural racism in UK tabloids) and white people with foreign accents have all reported abuse and attacks – giving the impression of violence that is both escalating and widening the range of people meant to be intimidated.

Public concern about a sudden ‘surge’ in xenophobia, Akwugo Emejulu writes, conceals years of ‘everyday and institutionalised racism and violence’ that people have experienced in Britain and which they have often been disbelieved when they describe. Race, and who has been more or less likely to feel the effects of racism, is the deepest-rooted dimension of the divergence of ‘scripts’ that different members of the public now have for making sense of the crisis.

Acts of ethnicised and racialised violence, even between one person and another, have collective effects. Before open war broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and beyond areas that were occupied or became front lines, people who belonged – or were just finding out that they belonged – to ethnic, political and sexual minorities suffered intimidation that was supposed to reverberate into the consciousness of others who shared the same identity.

The difference between Britain and Yugoslavia is not the underlying dynamic of collective violence and intimidation so much as the different balances of histories and power behind the violence. War broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina after sustained campaigns of intimidating ethnic others, undermining social and political alternatives, and equipping future armies and paramilitary groups on a mass scale.

The identities drawn into conflict with each other in Yugoslavia were ethno-national, all based on a link between ethnicity and sovereignty over territory that had to be proved or broken to determine which state the land should belong to.

Racist violence in England is based on a narrative of white English sovereignty in which Britain can never be ‘home’ to immigrants or to any Black or Asian Britons at all – a country which, Kehinde Andrews writes, ‘was always happy to exploit the dark skinned subject, but never comfortable living with them.’ The global historical legacies of British imperialism and the legacies of Serbian national expansionism are not identical, and too direct a comparison between Yugoslavia and Britain would erase the reckoning with colonial history that Britain, in the aftermath of Brexit, needs urgently to undertake.

Uncertainty and insecurity harden social divisions

The scripts about belonging that EU citizens living in the UK thought they had – though their scripts were already inflected by race, language and religion – have been whipped away since the beginning of the referendum campaign.

Without their own say in the referendum (unless they were Irish), 3.3m citizens of other EU states have had to watch British politicians and the public overturn plans they had made for their long-term future and expose them to at least two years of uncertainty over whether they can continue living in the UK on equal terms. Some arrived in schools and workplaces the morning after the referendum to be told by classmates and workmates they were going to be sent home.

Their uncertainty has only built further as David Cameron and Theresa May (now a front-runner for Conservative leadership) have refused to guarantee that EU citizens already living in the UK would retain their current residence rights after Brexit and a UKIP peer, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, encouraged the government to use uncertainty over EU migrants’ status to ‘retaliate’ if necessary in negotiations with the EU.

EU citizens’ prominence in arguments about immigration at this moment does not alter how seriously the political consensus to present immigration as a source of scarcity and tension has already affected non-EU citizens, or the violence that the EU will continue to inflict at its borders and through detention centres unless it significantly alters its own migration policy. Yet since Westminster not Brussels already controlled UK immigration policy, Brexit would change neither of those things except to the extent that non-EU citizens would have greater chances of obtaining UK visas – yet migrants from the Global South could anticipate visa requirements as restrictive as they are now.

Even many UK citizens who voted Remain have had their political identities, and their very senses of self, affected by the willingness of the Leave campaign to manipulate EU citizens’ uncertainty: with shock that they never predicted such indifference; with dread that extremism they had already predicted is coming closer to the centre of power; with grief and disbelief that the other side voted the way that it did.

How do you comprehend that so many people in the country you are supposed to share values with could vote with such indifference to 3 million others’ status and wellbeing – or, when stakes were so high, might not have been bothered to vote at all?

This is the beginning, but only the beginning, of how new political identities emerge and ‘other sides’ form.

The social bonds that broke down, and were deliberately broken down, before and during the Yugoslav wars included many ‘former neighbours’, close friends who found it impossible to understand the other’s perception of events when they themselves were experiencing so much horror.

Britain is nowhere even close to experiencing the levels of violence that divided Vukovar or Sarajevo, and the forces impelling polarisation are differently configured. In coming days and months, movements seeking to build coalitions for change will nevertheless have to appeal to mixtures of Remainers, Leavers and voters who did not use their vote, building solidarities which hardened political boundaries – though grown out of comprehensible, fearful emotions – could impede.

Here, polarisation can work both ways: projecting symbolic value judgments on to whole cities, such as Sunderland which highly visibly announced a Leave majority early in televised coverage of the results, ‘misses complex stories of racism and resistance’ that could help to build a broader consensus against austerity and racism than the Remain campaign was able to mobilise, or even commit to, in June 2016.

People are demanding alternatives nobody is offering

Public participation around both the Leave and Remain positions has revealed demands for social and political alternatives that no large political option currently has on offer.

No politician with a UK-wide remit began their post-referendum remarks with the kind of messages to EU citizens that Nicola Sturgeon or Sadiq Khan addressed to their electorates in Scotland and London.

No Leave voter who believed that a Britain outside the EU could afford to revitalise its economy and public services has been offered anything other than a politics of fear and ethnicised entitlement, or guarantees that the fruits of any prosperity Britain did achieve would go towards repairing their own marginalisation.

The loudest voices that members of the English and Welsh public determined not to be taken out of the EU against their will can identify with in their calls for an alternative to Article 50 negotiations are only able to offer another way out to a different British nation, unless Sturgeon can win substantial concessions affecting England and Wales in Scotland’s negotiations with the UK.

The pro-EU rallies since the referendum in cities that voted Remain are not direct equivalents of the Sarajevo peace rallies – and no Euromaidan.

But Yugoslavia in 1990 and 1991 contained a strong civic upswell of support for democratisation and peace within a still-Yugoslav framework which some alternative political parties channelled yet no leader with sufficient power was prepared to adopt. Instead, bases for political solidarity outside the nationalist consensus were systematically intimidated and undermined.

Britain’s history is distinct from Yugoslavia’s, despite the surface parallels that attend the potential break-up of a multi-national state in contemporary Europe. Yet perhaps the most important insight from the break-up of Yugoslavia is that it was not inevitable, nor pre-determined by long-term ethnic tensions, for the constitutional collapse of the country to descend into war; the history of the Yugoslav wars, whether in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo reveals detailed evidence of violence deliberately perpetrated and alternatives suppressed. Interrupting comparable processes in Britain, within a different set of social and political contexts, will be essential in building a more democratic and just society whether the UK’s future is as one country or more.

Tell me why this world is a mess: a demoralised nationalism researcher goes to the polling station

The way back from my polling station leads past a pub which coincidentally or not, last night on the eve of the EU referendum, was playing ‘Stay Another Day’ by East 17 out of its beer garden as loud as a soundtrack while I was walking home.

Any brief irrational comfort that might have given me about how the vote will go seeped out again when all on its own my first-thing-in-the-morning brain picked (we don’t do subtle here) Amy McDonald/’Don’t Tell Me That It’s Over’ as today’s morning earworm and so that’s basically where we are.

Though the summer-in-the-middle-of-uni, nothing’s-really-final-yet atmosphere you get from the average Amy McDonald song (or at least both the ones that come round on shuffle every so often – I’m not sure I could tell the rest apart from KT Tunstall) might get at why I’ve found it so difficult to write from my own perspective about the effect that the referendum is having on national identity – as opposed to sharing the writing of people who have a lot more immediately at stake from the result than I do, which has been the main way for my online self to make sense of the how-the-hell-did-it-even-get-to-this-point feel of the whole campaign.

If taste and identity and self are all linked together, which of course they are, then the first time I felt like I was developing tastes and interests autonomously rather than in reaction to others was all happening inside a container shaped like ‘Europe’, between GCSEs and the first year or two of university, between about 1998 and 2001.

‘Europe’ was a frame of reference and of course I belonged in it: European histories that went beyond and around and between the few big country-stories you’d encounter in school History, even at ours; access to the imaginative possibilities of different literatures beyond what someone had bothered to translate, and maybe one day I could; drilling down into the national pop musics I caught glimpses of through the Eurovision Song Contest; the everyday pan-Europeanness of the range of names on my school register; understanding that the past wasn’t just a matter of similar things happening in different countries at the same time but a set of international, transnational ideological struggles. 

Mixed, at the time, with a disidentification from ‘Britishness’ which now that I think about it was probably a disidentification from a straight, coupled-up national community where I didn’t seem to have a mapped-out place.

(There was a queer dimension to identifying *with* Europe, as well, now I think about *that*; the space where I started being able to recognise ‘women who looked like me’, whatever that meant, was the result of all sorts of mobilities and cultural exchanges between Britain and Italy Spain Greece Germany France Hungary Croatia Portugal; I was queer and European before I had any sense of being queer and British.)

It would have been unimaginable at the turn of the millennium, at least for me, to think that Britain would even be voting on leaving the EU, let alone coming this close to actually choosing it, less than twenty years later.

But then a lot of other things unimaginable at the turn of the millennium have mostly happened too.

The other thing that’s demoralised me so much about the referendum campaign – moving from he personal to the public – isn’t even the extent of open racism or xenophobia that finds an ever larger platform in the media’s need for 50/50 ‘balance’ in a two-question referendum; it’s the much larger groundswell of indifference it feels like it must have revealed in order for a Leave campaign with the premises it has to even be polling this well.

Yet it’s the premises of the Leave and Remain campaigns together that have put UK residents with EU passports in a position where, even before any result goes through, they’ve been left feeling as if they need to prove their economic net worth to the British nation or be held responsible for the consequences of scarcity politics that are a result of UK government decisions, more than EU decisions. 

Both campaigns have acquiesced in presenting immigration as in itself causing shortages and social tension, and in casting non-UK passport holders as an economic burden to society – which even when you refute it is still where the conversation is. 

A referendum which according to some readings was only even called so that the prime minister could score an internal point within his own party has left 3 million people with the political atmosphere being flipped around them in a matter of months – from never questioning your freedom of movement rights, to wondering whether your job will depend on a work permit, whether the government will impose an income test you won’t pass, whether you’ll need to go through a naturalisation process you never expected to need in order to carry on with the same life that you’d planned. 

In the meantime, depending on UK citizens to decide your future for you, and having to rely on vague assurances that in the event of a Leave vote ‘it’ll probably be OK’ for EU citizens already living here – when you’ve seen friends and co-workers from outside the EU being hammered over the last few years with restrictions that they never imagined when they committed to moving to the UK either.

The UK political consensus was already around reducing immigrants’ lives to a budget line of value, but the tone of these referendum campaigns has suddenly demonstrated to even more people that their belonging to the nation is conditional and how quickly it can be taken away.

In a different kind of way I’m aware that EU workers’ rights laws give me an extra layer of insulation between me and the homophobe who wants to cause a moral panic around how someone like me shouldn’t be in charge of young people’s welfare in a university. 

(Last night’s other image from my walk home: Jo Cox’s photo added to the flowers, tributes and candles from the vigil for Orlando last week, still in front of the Hull Cenotaph.)

They’re imperfect laws and they don’t do anything to change the fact that the same European institution polices its borders so tightly it would rather see thousands of people drown at sea than allow them to board flights and settle legally in the states that constitute it. They still have a psychological effect which over time has encouraged me to be more innovative in my teaching and research, more open and supportive with colleagues and students, than I might have been. 

Replace that with an extra nagging anxiety, multiply that by the number of people who gain some sense of security from this or any other part of EU workers’ rights – and I can’t imagine that a UK government like the current one would ‘take back control’ in order to extend those further – and you have another dimension of the anxiety that the protracted uncertainty after a Leave vote would cause. But at least I have a one fifty-millionth or so of a say in the outcome.

I’m as apprehensive of a low turnout as I am of a Leave result itself because of what it feels like it would reveal about the public’s level of empathy. With so much at stake for people who haven’t had a vote, how could you not use yours if you had one?

And I’m someone whose teaching ought to have contributed to people being able to intervene in the kinds of cycles of polarisation and exaggeration that have been ramped up throughout the campaign. I and dozens of other people teach about the break-up of Yugoslavia and how the mainstream media moved an open politics of ethnic entitlement and resentment into the political centre, where it didn’t have to be.

Does any of it matter? Has anyone stepped back from looking at a UKIP poster or a Labour ‘controls on immigration’ pledge because of the things we do when we teach 20th-century history and international politics? I think so, and I want to think so, but how does anyone know?

Even if the result turns out to be Remain, which the latest polls seemed to suggest after all, the campaigns have caused a rip in the social fabric that will take serious work to repair.

Where do we start tomorrow?

What does ‘political’ mean at Eurovision, and can the contest ever steer clear of it?

This post originally appeared at The Conversation on 11 May 2016.

The ticket agency for Eurovision 2016 caused alarm at the end of April when it published its first “flag policy”. It restricted regional flags, sounded ambivalent about EU and rainbow flags, and even compared eight very different territories to Islamic State – all to protect Eurovision’s “non-political nature”.

Organisers relaxed the flags policy a week later, but the question remains: can a contest where countries compete against each other ever be non-political?

Strictly speaking, broadcasters, not countries, compete in Eurovision. Its organiser is the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an association of public service broadcasters founded in 1950 to relay radio and television signals across Europe.

But more people imagine what “Europe” might mean through watching Eurovision than might ever take part in EU public outreach. (How Australia features in this imagination is debatable.) And Eurovision certainly produces the impression of a competition between countries. Joe Woolford and Jake Shakeshaft are billed on screen as representing “the United Kingdom”, not “the BBC” – and Eurovision voting is famously divided up by country too.

Eurovision shorthand always mentions “countries” doing things, even though these are actions by specific organisations and people, not whole nations. This makes Eurovision a platform where states can promote narratives about national identity to more than 100m viewers – whether it’s showing off a national language, displaying a distinctive national music style, or tying in with national tourism campaigns.

But what if participants comment on politics?

A political ban

Although Eurovision rules ban “lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature”, someone still has to determine what “political” means. At its strictest, there would be no songs about war or peace, history, the environment or nuclear disarmament – to say nothing of Eurovision 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, where almost everything referenced freedom, eastern Europe, walls or peace. This obviously isn’t the case. But bans do occur.

In the 2000s the EBU twice objected to references to active political leaders. Ukraine’s host entry in 2005 had to remove lyrics naming the post-Orange Revolution president, and Georgia withdrew its 2009 entry (after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war) when organisers challenged the double meaning of “We Don’t Wanna Put In”.

Other cases were more ambiguous: was it accidental that Ukrainian Verka Serduchka’s “Dancing, Lasha Tumbai” sounded like “Russia, goodbye”? Was it non-political for a Portuguese group during the financial crisis to pastiche ideological music from Portugal’s revolutionary mid-1970s? Where does satire end and politics begin?

And at a time of European centenaries, there’s commemoration. All commemorations involve political choices. What gets remembered, and what if dominant interpretations of events clash between nations – or if commemorating the past also implies commentary on the present?

In 2015, Armenia’s centenary genocide recognition campaign, which extended to Eurovision, did not have to contend with Turkish state refusal to recognise the genocide (Turkey has not participated in Eurovision since 2012 over issues with the voting system). The song’s title did change from “Don’t Deny” – but the performance still communicated Armenian national resilience and continuity. (Meanwhile, the 2015 French entry used digital backdrops to depict the devastation of World War I.)

This year sees the first Ukrainian entry chosen since Russia annexed Crimea. The song, “1944”, commemorates Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia during World War II. Beyond individual songs, the whole Eurovision project involves representing the meanings and boundaries of “Europe”. These are political ideas.

Come together?

Choosing the 2016 slogan “Come Together”, producers acknowledged the sensitivities of “throw[ing] Europe’s biggest party, while the togetherness you celebrate is being put to the test”. Thousands of refugees have died en route to Europe as border controls intensify.

Producers acknowledged the refugee crisis in the first semi-final through a dance performance honouring the struggles of refugees’ journeys. Refugees face the risks they do because of migration policies that have political origins, but clearly the producers considered this performance a social or humanitarian gesture rather than a “political” one.

Meanwhile, Eurovision’s history of LGBT fandom and visibility makes it a focus of international LGBT politics – with western European media as well as homophobic Russian politicians framing a moral struggle between “Europe” and “Russia” over LGBT rights. This was only amplified by Conchita Wurst winning in 2014 so soon after Russia hosted the Winter Olympics.

In these wider contexts, it becomes clear that Eurovision can hardly steer clear of politics. Eurovision is in a similar position to cult TV shows with vibrant fandoms (such as The 100, which dismayed fans by dramatically ending a relationship between two queer women). Producers plan what to depict; fans create their own celebrations within the space the show or Eurovision arena gives them. But producers depend on fans’ enthusiasm and creative practices (online or live) to drive interest in the show.

The “flag policy” controversy showed this tension at work. The first “flag policy” had stated “rainbow flags and the European Union flag will be tolerated” as long as they were not going to be used as a “tool to make a political statement”. An updated policy published that weekend removed this ambivalent language, but still seemed to exclude regional flags or the wider range of pride flags. Organisers implied that national flags or the rainbow flags still covered these identities, but many fans do not want these identities subsumed into a larger category.

Welsh and Sami fans had active media outlets following up the flag story, and were pleased to see the EBU later relax its policy. It also proposed “a more tolerant approach to other flags as long as the audience respects the non-political nature” of the show. But without any well-equipped organisation pushing the EBU on pride flags, Eurovision organisers haven’t as yet offered trans or bisexual flags recognition.

Eurovision’s priorities, “non-political” or not, are evidently those of countries and governments, not social movements outside the state. But fans, media and viewers often understand “politics” more widely. Eurovision’s organisers would be wise to embrace this.