How Brexit Could Destroy the U.K. Publishing Industry

Proposed immigration policies aren't just xenophobic—they also threaten the country's creative and cultural life

Photo by CCAC North Library

In his poignant and strikingly insightful novel of 1956, The Lonely Londoners, Samuel Selvon shapes his narrative through the eyes of Caribbean migrants (now commonly referred to as the Windrush generation) upon their arrival to London post-World War II. His Trinidadian characters, having been sold myths of a utopian society—the “motherland”—in which the streets are “paved with gold,” are greeted with a brutal and hostile reception in the capital they now call home. 

The narrator perfectly encapsulates the level of ostracism faced by the migrants, describing the alienation which ensues as a result of British refusal to accept or even tolerate a culture unique to their own. Britain, the narrator writes, is a place divided into “little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones.’’ In just one quote, Selvon manages to voice an anti-multiculturalism rhetoric that is, regrettably, as pertinent now as it was then.

Often scapegoated by both media and political demonization, migrants bear the brunt of a manipulative and antagonistic agenda. As the U.K. is burdened with rising destitution and public service strains, a false narrative has been perpetuated to direct anger towards some of the most stigmatized in society as opposed to those accountable for austerity policies. 

Britain’s systemic racism, its colonial past, and its inflated sense of patriotic pride are all symptoms of a nation haunted by xenophobic ideology.

There is an inextricable link between Brexit and anti-immigration ideology. The demographic of Brexiteers reveals that 81% of people who viewed multiculturalism as a force for ill (and 81% of those who considered immigration in the same light) voted for Brexit. As observed in Hope Not Hate’s “State of Hate 2019” report: “Many who voted to leave the EU on the basis that it would offer greater control over British borders also expected numbers of migrants, not just those from the EU, to return to their countries of origin once the decision had been made to leave the EU—with BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] people often confused with migrants.”

This resurgence of a nationalistic identity and the coinciding bigotry surrounding cultural diversity point to a truth many will vehemently deny: that Britain’s systemic racism, its colonial past, and its inflated sense of patriotic pride are all symptoms of a nation haunted by and ingrained with xenophobic ideology. This ideology has a host of ramifications, from disenfranchisement of immigrants to hate crimes. Less discussed, though, are the more intangible effects on Britain’s culture—like the way that Brexit could undermine British literature and other creative fields.

Brexit and Britain’s subsequent immigration policy under the authority of Priti Patel—the new Home Secretary renowned for her concerning past voting record—may result in a blow to the U.K.’s creative industries, as we are set to lose some of the best talent the world has to offer, including writers.

Postcolonial literature such as Samuel Selvon’s has, among much else, evoked a wider understanding of the specific struggles faced by minorities and simultaneously the universal attributes shared. Without the talent and contribution of migrant writers who challenge cultural hegemony (i.e. the dominant class), our creative industries—specifically publishing—fail to represent an increasingly diverse audience.

Post-Brexit immigration policy presents an unwelcoming, complex process for both prospective international employees and employers alike. The skills-based system that the Home Office intends to strengthen will ironically fail to attract the “best and brightest” talent while annual salary requirements continue to dominate the U.K. visa system. 

In a briefing on Brexit, the Society of Authors argues against the visa salary requirements of £30,000 for long-term migrant workers and £35,000 for indefinite leave to remain: “Authors in the UK earn an average of just £10,500 per year. The proposed threshold therefore does not reflect the ‘skills’ of writers or the cultural sector at large. Salary level is not an appropriate measure of skill or wider contribution to the UK’s social and economic life.” This emphasis on salary failing to represent skill highlights the necessity of reviewing the visa routes and the failure of immigration policy to consider vast cultural benefits—benefits that far exceed financial input. Reducing migrants to their salary not only diminishes their talent but also insults British authors who fall significantly below the warped perception of what it is to be “skilled.” 

Reducing migrants to their salary not only diminishes their talent but also insults British authors.

The Creative Industries Federation similarly challenges immigration policy restrictions and the dismissal of “low-skilled workers,” arguing that many creative leaders “often begin their careers in a freelance capacity while doing casual or low-skilled work to support themselves.” Such “low-skilled” roles can be essential for the likes of freelancers to support themselves as they pursue creative careers. 

However, regardless of economic benefits, migrants add value that cannot be measured by figures on a wage slip. Research conducted by Spread the Word illustrates the vital impact of migrant literature on social integration, suggesting that, ‘Fiction with origins from a diverse community drives understanding and wider cohesion within society’. Multiculturalism brings levels of creativity to our writing industry that cannot be surpassed; with diverse experiences comes a wealth of innovative perspective. 

Without narratives that challenge or differ from the hegemonic experience, post-Brexit literature in the U.K. may be notably deficient. As Mairi Kidd writes in an article on migrant literature for Amnesty: “Unless we have books in which a range of people write their ‘normal’, we don’t have diversity, and the big risk is we don’t have authenticity either.” Literature ought to represent the myriad cultures it addresses. 

For an example of how this can look when done successfully, we can look at Berlin, which has long been a creative center of Europe due in large part to encouraging diversity. Welcoming and embracing migrants from all walks of life—whether that be the more privileged expat or those seeking refuge—Berlin’s creative scene embodies the boundless benefits of coexisting cultures. CUCULA, the Refugees Company for Crafts and Design, is just one example of the remarkable efforts made by Berlin’s creative industries to both include and actively recognize the talent of migrants. Organizations such as CUCULA are the reason why the globalization of the city has been deemed “intrinsic to its cultural explosion,” with Kam Dhillon writing in 2017 that its “local economy owes a lot to a buzz engineered entirely by the diversity of its creative class.” With cities such as Berlin reaping the benefits of diversified industries, London’s creative scene seems set to appear archaic in comparison. 

Without narratives that challenge or differ from the hegemonic experience, post-Brexit literature in the U.K. may be notably deficient.

European migrants applying for British citizenship are now discovering the brutal process that non-EU/EEA individuals face and fears have been voiced surrounding the consequences a strained relationship with Europe may have on publishing. The EU account for 36% of all U.K. book exports, a crucial component in the success and outreach of our literature. 

As the Society of Authors briefing warns, “Should the current prohibitive visa system be applied to EU nationals, it is certain that European authors and other artists will be deterred from visiting the UK, leading to a significant drain of talent at our literary and cultural festivals.” 

What is to prevent Europe from reciprocating such hostility? U.K. authors may fall victim to the repercussions of an acrimonious divorce, seeing limitations introduced for travel throughout Europe—something vital for both translators and author research. 

If we wish to inspire future generations to embrace and value creative work, we must preserve the attributes that have historically seen the U.K. upheld as a cultural hub of talent. This means continuing to produce literature rich in diverse voices. We must not regress to the not-too-distant past and allow a rebirth of that familiar British literary canon which privileges the exclusionary narrative of white, middle-class, cisgender individuals.  

Our publishing industry both craves and is nurtured by the exceptional talent of those creatives who subvert the dominant narrative. If we wish to keep our place at the table, we must exterminate the current epidemic of vermin spreading through the veins of the nation and maintain that our country is strictly no place for xenophobic ideology. 

Holly Barrow is a political correspondant for the Immigration Advice Service, a team of lawyers offering support for immigrants in the U.K.

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