The Aftermath of Brexit – Interview with British Romani Writer and Filmmaker Damian Le Bas

An Interview by Lilla Németh

Almost a month passed since the shocking British referendum in which UK citizens voted by a margin of 52% to 48% to withdraw from the EU – yet, the situation is as uncertain as ever.

Apart from the fact that the very existence of the United Kingdom as we know it has been “jeopardised”, as former Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg put it, and the fact that many fear for the future of the European Union as well, a very immediate and tangible problem also arises, one that many people might have not even considered as a possible outcome.

The question surfacing is: what will this referendum and Brexit mean for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups? Such a group is first and second generation Romani immigrants from EU and non-EU countries, as well as Romani Travellers (British Roma) who are UK citizens with a long historical presence, but rely heavily on EU policies to assert their rights, which had already been violated recently.

I asked British Romani writer and filmmaker Damian James Le Bas how he sees the situation.


Lilla Németh: What is the public sentiment like in the UK in the wake of the British referendum?

Damian Le Bas: The prevailing mood is shock. Not many people expected this result, on either side. The night of the referendum, bookmakers (gambling outlets) put the chance of a Brexit vote at less than 15%. So the prevailing sentiment is shock mixed with anxiety and, for some, excitement and exultation in a huge exercise in democratic freedom. But I would say such people are in a minority, even though over 17 million people voted for this result. That is more people than have ever voted for anything in the history of Great Britain.

The question is, what Brexit will mean in practice. I suspect that it will look rather more similar to EU membership than most Leave voters would like: there is too much at stake for Europe as a whole and for Britain for a complete and total “divorce” to occur. But like everyone else, I have no idea how it will actually play out.

L.N.: What is the average Leave voter like?

D.L.B.: It is tempting for journalists to caricature “the average Leave voter”, but I think that it is neither possible nor beneficial to do so. The mixture of motivations for voting Leave was complex. Of course, many voted out of concern about immigration, and certainly some out of outright racism. There has been a spike in racist attacks since the vote, which is very worrying. I hope this is an anomaly and not a sign of things to come.

Leave voters tended to be older, and Remain voters tended to be younger, and to live in financially better off parts of the country. There are exceptions to this, including Scotland, where the Remain vote won by a huge margin.

But none of this tells us much about why such a massive proportion of the electorate voted for this result in a country which has never had a far-right government and which stood alone in opposition to Hitler for the first years of World War II.

“The Oldest Show on the Road” – A Poem Written and Performed by Damien Le Bas. Video: Rural Media.

I am not sure whether the rest of Europe is aware how socially and geographically divided Britain has become in the past decades, which happens to coincide with its increasing immersion in the EU. Deindustrialization – for instance the death of the British coal, steel and shipbuilding industries – has left huge areas and communities without jobs or hope. London seems increasingly out of touch with the lives of these people. They feel that traditional political parties don’t care about them, and that recent growth in prosperity has not come their way, in spite of EU development funding which may have been spent on their area. This has quite obviously been a big factor in the vote.

L.N.: What is your opinion on UKIP? What was the reason behind the success of their campaign?

D.L.B.: UKIP is not and never has been a credible party of government, as shown by their repeated failure to get MPs elected. Even their leader has failed 7 times to win a seat in parliament.

But UKIP has one unbeatable card to play: they are a single issue party which addresses the one issue that our other traditional parties are scared to talk about: immigration.

Politicians’ failure to discuss immigration and its effect on poor communities has particularly impacted on the working class vote. Millions of people who would never vote UKIP in their lives have voted Leave. It is no longer possible for progressives to refuse to talk about immigration. The change has already begun, with left-wing journalists who have never wanted to discuss the issue now begging their politicians to discuss it frankly.

The problem is, I believe we do not have a single politician who has made the argument that immigration is essential to the British economy: that people love the cheap food, services and hotel industry, car washes, restaurants and suchlike which are tied to freedom of movement, whilst simultaneously despising migrant workers. Instead they they simply act like all these would be the case anyway, and either refuse to talk about immigration (usually on the left) or demonise migrants (on the right).

L.N.: In your opinion, will Brexit affect Travellers who were born in the UK?

D.L.B.: Yes. The EU acts as a brake on government attempts to marginalise ethnic Travellers, including my community, the Romani Travellers (who make up the majority of the centuries-old Traveller population of Britain). And the Council of Europe has tried to help fund inter-ethnic dialogue. This will end now.

However, for the moment at least we are still party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which many Travellers rely on in order to continue cultural practices such as living in caravans: the right to family life is often quoted in court judgements.

But we will see how long this lasts. Many conservative politicians see European human rights law as part of the infringement of Europe on the British legal system, and believe they have a mandate to withdraw the UK from the Convention and replace it with a “British Bill of Rights”.

Romedia Foundation’s interview with Damian Le Bas at BUVERO – Media Camp for Romani Women in Nagykőrös, Hungary, 2015.

I believe that this would be a disaster for ethnic Travellers, but I am sorry to say that many of them voted for Leave. There is an old irony in the Traveller vote in the UK, which is that although we are one of the most hated minorities in the country, many Travellers vote for right-wing parties, which they feel represent an older version of Britain in which they were more welcome. They see themselves as an “indigenous” minority who should be immune to the usual xenophobic rhetoric, even though they are usually a prime target for the right. I don’t know what to say about this really, but it is pretty clear that it’s the case. I am a member of the Labour party and voted Remain. But I am probably in a minority in my community.

On the other hand, I would argue that oppressive laws enacted against ethnic Travellers have still been passed while the UK was part of the EU, including the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which almost entirely criminalised nomadism, and the 2015 redefinition of what a “Gypsy” is by the British government. So the EU has not been entirely able to protect us either. Though it is now over 300 years since it was a capital offence to be a Gypsy in the UK (punishable by hanging), so I guess that is progress of a kind.


L.N.: Do you think this decision will affect Roma people who are first or second generation immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe?

D.L.B.: The noises being made at the moment are that Brexit will not affect people who are currently in the UK. We will have to see about this – there are people on the far right suggesting repatriation but I think this is simply too toxic an idea for any of our politicians to tolerate. It would potentially ruin Britain’s standing in the world. In any case, those born in Britain are British citizens and cannot be deported.

I presume that Brexit (if it ends up affecting immigration at all) will mostly affect future immigration controls, not current UK residents. And I can’t see a particular impact on the Central and East European Roma community (which is now quite large, at perhaps a quarter of a million people). British law does not currently possess the mechanisms to single out immigrants based on their race. The only thing that could change this would be if a far-right party is able to improve its electability. And we have no reason to suppose this might happen, based on historical precedent.

L.N.: In your opinion, is this decision an indicator of broader tendencies?

D.L.B.: I think it’s a sign of huge disillusionment with traditional politics in Britain. It may be a sign of such disillusionment across Europe. But we will have to wait and see. There is the possibility that far-right politicians who label themselves as “pragmatists” who “know what needs to be done” to stabilise the country, will emerge and capitalise on this, as they have in Hungary and France. But I also think there is at least a chance that the terrible consequences of Brexit for the British economy will actually increase popular support for the EU in the 27 other member states. This is what Jean-Claude Juncker and his supporters seem to be hoping for: that even though Brexit will weaken the EU in the short term, Britain will be so badly damaged that no other country will ever consider leaving the EU again.

Damian James Le Bas is a Roma filmmaker, a published poet, author and journalist. He studied Theology at Oxford, graduating with the top First in his year in 2006. He used to be the editor of Travellers’ Times, the UK’s only magazine for Romani people and other Travellers.

Together with Charles Newland and Phillip Osborne, Damian runs the nomadic film house Notown Productions. Screenings include BFI (Riley Smith: Portrait of an English Gypsy Tapdancer; Sootenna, Roma Lost), Latitude Contemporary Art Prize (Witchfinder), and Shane Meadows Short Film Competition (The Decision).

Damian is currently working on a monograph on Romani history, which, he hopes, “will be an entirely new geography of Britain, through the eyes of one of its most misunderstood yet perennially intriguing groups.”