Architect and critic Ike Ijeh explains why his running for parliament last month had nothing to do with hating foreigners and everything to do with democracy
In the weeks running up to Christmas (typically my favourite time of year) I was called a racist, a bigot, a Nazi, a xenophobe, a nationalist, a Little Englander (whatever that means) and an idiot. No, this was not a planning meeting gone awry but it was some of the everyday invective that I was forced to politely endure while on the campaign trail standing as a Brexit Party candidate during the general election.
It would appear that my candidacy provoked some surprise in sections of the architecture community. Presumably it’s fashionable for architects to support the regressive ‘progressiveness’ of the Labour or Green parties or the electoral extremism of the Liberal Anti-Democrats but indicative of some sort of moral collapse to support a party that actually, shockingly, advocates implementing a democratic vote? It is no secret that as a profession architecture has treated Brexit as complete anathema. That is fine. We are, nominally at least, a democracy and consensus is not compulsory.
I too have spent many an afternoon pondering on how exactly a British architect won the Pompidou commission two years before we joined the European Community
But consent from the losing minority is. And not only has this losing remain minority, enthusiastically populated by architects, spent the last three years refusing to confer consent on a result they disagreed with, but most damagingly, they have constructed the most noxious and grotesque caricature of leave voters as bigoted gargoyles intent on turning Britain into an angry Aryan fortress.
And yet, what exactly is racist about giving an architect from Angola exactly the same rights to work in a UK practice as an architect from Austria? Or is discrimination fine as long Europeans are the ones being favoured? Is Canada a racist country for refusing to establish freedom of movement with the U.S. and Greenland? Is controlling (never cancelling) immigration in a manner similar to that employed by the vast majority of countries outside the EU a racist act?
And what too is racist about pursuing an immigration policy that treats all foreign visitors as equal regardless of where they are from? Despite the smug derision of the liberal elite, the simple truth is that Brexit – best summarised as a periodic realignment of trading arrangements – is no more a symptom of nationalism than was Denmark choosing not to join the euro in 2000.
Arrant nonsense has also been written about how Brexit will threaten UK arts and creativity, an area of obvious concern to architects. I too have spent many an afternoon pondering on how exactly – without EU Directive 2004/38/EC – German-born Handel came to compose his Messiah in Mayfair, how the Liverpudlian Beatles found fame in 1960s Hamburg or how a British architect won the commission for the Paris Pompidou Centre two years before we joined the European Community. I have come to the conclusion that British artistic internationalism is safe.
More credible is the threat leaving the single market potentially poses to construction and procurement. The 168 countries outside the EU might offer clues to how these issues could be resolved and it is difficult for architects to swoon over just-in-time supply chains while preaching about sustainability and ignoring the severe carbon and transportation ramifications just-in-time imposes.
To conclude, there are three principal reasons why I stood for the Brexit Party and none of them, surprisingly, include hatred of foreigners. First, I feel the government’s current negotiated deal is not good enough. Secondly, if architects are serious about improving people’s lives, then I believe more of us should be in Parliament and involved in politics and directly shaping the policies that will impact those lives.
Architects constantly claim we are for the people, yet most architects dismissed the referendum result and pilloried the voters
And thirdly, the main reason is simply because I believe – passionately – in democracy. And because I believe in democracy even more than I believe in Brexit, I have accepted my loss last month and have not called for a second election or lambasted those who voted against me as thick, poor, racist, old, ignorant, uneducated or Northern.
Ultimately Brexit is and always has been about democracy and the people. Architects constantly claim we are for the people. We love talking about ‘public’ realm; we pride ourselves on our efforts engaging with ‘public’ consultation, we constantly fight for ‘public’ housing; we sprinkle our masterplans with ‘public’ space.
And yet, when the majority of the public voted in 2016, most architects dismissed the result and pilloried the voters. The almost universal animosity with which Brexit has been treated by the architecture profession has neatly exposed how many architects treat the people with the same avuncular condescension we might apply to wayward pets or children.
We ‘do’ things to them because we know best, but don’t wish to ask them too many difficult questions for fear they give the wrong answer or force us to engage more closely in societal complications from which we’d prefer to keep a more safe elitist distance. Architects either believe in democracy or we don’t; we cannot champion and silence the public at the same time.
Of course, I acknowledge and regret the disruption Brexit will bring. But all change is disruptive; joining the EC was disruptive but we still persevered. Brexit is not about ostracising Europe; it is about treating the EU with exactly the same level of openness and inclusivity that we treat the rest of the world and not discriminating between the two. With our innate internationalist instincts and Britain’s historic global links, this should be an agenda that architects should be at the forefront of embracing.
Ike Ijeh is a director at London Architecture Works and a freelance architectural critic. He was Brexit Party candidate for the Enfield North constituency in last month’s general election