Northern Exposure: Race, Nation and Disaffection in "Ordinary" Towns and Cities after Brexit

Northern Exposure: Race, Nation and Disaffection in “Ordinary” Towns and Cities after Brexit, is a major social science project which will examine the implications of Brexit on race relations, new migrations and Northerners’ sense of place and belonging.

The North of England has played a central role in debates about the causes and consequences of the Brexit referendum, especially in the widespread perception of a divided Britain. The North of England is viewed as a place of simmering racism and xenophobia: pitting White British, older British minority groups, and newer incomers such as asylum seekers or East European workers against each other in deprived and depressed post-industrial locations.

Northern Exposure interrogates these perceptions of the North, while broaching sensitive questions of everyday nationalism, race and racism in largely understudied and marginalised places. The project fills out and enriches the argument that the disaffection expressed by voters, or in tensions seen in particular communities, is linked to the long term post-industrial transformation of the region.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the project will run from February 2019 to May 2021 and will see a team investigate exactly how Brexit impacts upon local communities in the North, amidst growing inequalities and post-industrial decline.

The project will offer a detailed statistical profile of 16 “ordinary” large towns and small cities in the North of England, going back in time. We will then engage in intensive ethnographic work on four localities running from the North West, through West Yorkshire, to the North East-which capture key elements of the post-industrial North in their histories, changing identities, and contemporary struggles: Preston, Kirklees, Wakefield, and Middlesbrough.

Talking with local stakeholders, community organisations, and social work practitioners, the project will build up a clear vision of the everyday concerns that damage positive visions of diversity, community and inclusion. This will lead on to interviews with older long term residents from different origins and backgrounds, gathering personal oral histories and views about the urban, social and political change around them.

Policy makers in the region feel that conventional multiculturalism and anti-racism are not working, yet that a narrow focus on socio-economic solutions will not solve the riddle of “inclusive growth” or address emergent ethnic conflicts. Our research will transmit voices not often heard into local policy formulation. It will feedback residents’ concerns into neighbourhood policing. With our partners, we seek tools for local intervention, identifying mechanisms that lead to community breakdown or community cohesion.

Our work will also lead to a comprehensive study of the state of Northern England in all its diversity as it comes to terms with Brexit. Alongside other academic outputs, we are filming our research and the people we meet, resulting in short online films which portray residents and their lives today, along with a full length documentary for general release.

Further information:


Northern Exposure offers a timely intervention into issues that have risen to the top of the political agenda in the UK. On top of a series of recent policy review and reports, which include among others reports on poverty and declining cities, and reports on community isolation and segregation, the Brexit vote has raised stakes considerably.

There is evidence that inter-ethnic relations have worsened, reflected in an unprecedented rise in hate crime that a UN Rapporteur has linked directly with the UK leaving the European Union. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also stated that leaving the EU will affect anti-discrimination policies. The Government has itself signalled it takes some of these concerns seriously, by announcing a national Race Disparity Audit and White Paper consultation on Integrated Communities.

While there are still uncertainties about the UK leaving the EU, existing community relations will change as freedom of movement of EU residents will end. New immigration policies will be put in place, and the architecture of anti-discrimination policy will change. Brexit will also have a differential impact on varied racial and ethnic communities according to their socio-economic characteristics, their everyday practices, their locations, and their local mix.

We anticipate therefore that beneficiaries of this research will include: (i) different local communities in "left behind" localities; (ii) local authorities in large towns and small cities, especially post-industrial locations in the North of England as well as similar locations across the country; (iii) national authorities such as the Department for Exiting the European Union, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth, the Houses of Commons and Lords, and MPs representing constituencies which share characteristics with those studies; (iv) LAP leaders and governing bodies across the local sector; (v) the media and the general public.

The project will provide quantitative, documentary, ethnographic and oral historical policy-related evidence into how understandings of community, diversity and immigration are transforming local communities in the North, as Brexit unfolds and the UK leaves the European Union.

It also makes a longer-term conceptual contribution to knowledge in the sociology of race, ethnicity and national identity, challenging and qualifying public understandings of these fundamental questions of identity and belonging, as well as generating insights for local, regional and national policy on community cohesion, anti-discrimination, integration, and symptoms of their breakdown, in hate crime and persistent racial disparity.

For (i) local communities and residents it provides them with a voice and a means of speaking to local authorities; for (ii) local authorities it reconnects them with marginalised and deprived communities, helping them to understand the consequences of the changes heralded by Brexit, and better identify challenges and potential responses; for (iii) national authorities, it provides insight into how Brexit is perceived and reframed in so-called "left behind" regions and localities, helping to generate intelligence for evidence-based policy that may address needs of these communities in a timely manner; for (iv) LAP leaders and governing bodies across the local sector, it offers tailored case studies of localities and evidence-based policy recommendations; and (v) in terms of the media and the general public, the research articulates key dimensions of the Brexit and its implications for a multi-racial society, that for the foreseeable future will continue to face population change and immigration in localities struggling with difficult conditions of economic decline, poverty and limited public services.

Publications and outputs

Project website