Time to clear Brexit’s poisonous air

At the end of the day, this is the spoilt post-Empire British Right throwing a hissy fit in its search for power, identity and markets


The Brexit campaign has been buried under half-truths and misguided, uninformed speculation. Photo: Reuters
The Brexit campaign has been buried under half-truths and misguided, uninformed speculation. Photo: Reuters

Fed up with the interminable on-again off-again tango on a free trade agreement between India and the European Union (EU), I once grumpily asked a British trade minister at the start of an interview exactly what the point of it all was. “Why don’t the UK and India quit dragging on with the European Union and just sign a bilateral UK-India agreement?”

The minister informed me sombrely that the EU charter committed member-states to the principle of one for all and all for one. Everyone negotiates on everyone else’s behalf.

I was wrong to ask that question—at that moment, years before Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise of a Brexit vote, it would have put me in the leavers’ camp. Now, ministers and ex-ministers are openly citing trade with India and China once again in the campaign trail for the 23 June referendum in Britain on whether the UK should grit its teeth and stay in the EU or whether it should just wave Europe goodbye and ride into the sunset.

I’m afraid the air has turned far too poisonous to take this matter lightly. Jo Cox, an energetic, young and talented member of the British Parliament, has been killed on Britain’s streets by a nationalist, while across the pond, Donald Trump continues to whip up anti-immigrant passion among his supporters, sparking violent clashes on US streets. Is there a link between what is happening in the US in the run-up to the presidential election and the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain? Of course there is. We’d be blind not to see it.

Unfortunately, the Brexit campaign has been buried under half-truths and misguided, uninformed speculation. Cameron’s cabinet minister Priti Patel, a prominent Indian-origin “leaver”, has been telling South Asian-origin voters that leaving will be good for the curry industry—the thousands of Bangladeshi-owned Indian takeaways and restaurants that dot the UK. It will be easier to hire chefs of Indian curries, she said. And there won’t be any nasty Eurocrats to stop the export of Indian mangoes into Europe because of problems with fruit flies.

The truth of the matter is that under a points-based immigration system, the UK can turn the tap on or off on chefs or any other professionals from India as and when it sees the need. It has nothing at all to do with the European Union. Similarly, the British public will be loath to dig into mangoes—from India, Pakistan or Peru—with fruit flies in them. EU food safety standards are among the strictest in the world and the UK has not only benefited from them, it has got used to them.

The other campaigners for Brexit claim leaving will help anchor British foreign and trade policy with the Commonwealth—the group of 50-odd countries that were once colonies of imperial Britain. No one has cited imperialism yet in this debate. Well, nearly no one—here’s former London mayor Boris Johnson writing in the Financial Times:

“We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen, and with a much smaller domestic population and a relatively tiny Civil Service….

“We are the European, if not the world, leaders in so many sectors of the 21st-century economy; not just financial services, but business services, the media, biosciences, universities, the arts, technology of all kinds (of the 40 EU technology companies worth more than $1 billion, 17 are British); and we still have a dizzyingly fertile manufacturing sector. Now is the time to spearhead the success of those products and services not just in Europe, but in growth markets beyond. This is a moment to be brave, to reach out—not to hug the skirts of Nurse in Brussels, and refer all decisions to someone else.”

Describing British factories as “dizzyingly fertile” isn’t just a case of mixing up a farming metaphor with manufacturing—it will make every Brit, even pro-leavers, choke over their pint of bitter.

The fact is that Britain leaving Europe will drag down the world economy at the worst possible time (we are talking here of negligible economic growth in developed countries, a post-recession scenario marked by joblessness and slowing demand that has inhibited exports from developing countries, including India).

More importantly, it has to be acknowledged that the move to leave the EU is primarily driven by anti-immigrant sentiment. And this is aimed at Asians and Blacks. For, until an Australian starts to speak—with what the English actor and writer Stephen Fry calls the Australian inquisitive intonation—there is absolutely nothing to tell them apart from the English.

Ditto most Europeans.

They mix in with the White population—who is the host and who the guest is immaterial.

The briefest of looks at the history of immigration in Britain shows that the modern anti-immigrant campaign began not with fellow-Europeans (although anti-Semitism runs deep) but with Asians and Black Caribbeans, including Gujaratis and Punjabis fleeing racial discrimination in Uganda.

In recent months, Eurosceptics have trained this same racist gun at refugees from Syria. Although Britain has taken far fewer of them than many other EU countries, a vote for Brexit will not have the slightest impact on Britain’s responsibilities to accept refugees fleeing conflict and persecution.

That then is the Right wing. Two arguments from the Left of the Eurosceptic flank are: a) cheap European labour is driving down wages, b) immigrants are diverting scarce resources of the welfare state from natives to foreigners. But this is just plain scare-mongering posing as an economic argument.

According to an analysis, Brexit and the impact on immigration, published by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, EU immigrants are “more educated, younger, more likely to be in work and less likely to claim benefits than the UK-born”.

About 44% have some form of higher education, compared with only 23% of the UK-born. About one-third of EU immigrants live in London, compared with only 11% of the UK-born.

What then is happening here? It’s a very old story, unfortunately: when your own governments pay no attention to skilling or education, when workers are left with little negotiating power, when spending cuts are seen as the solution to an economy in decline, then those with a divisive agenda find it easy to muscle their way into the debate by targeting the Other—it matters little who the Other is.

Brexit is a debate driven by the hard right United Kingdom Independence Party and the Tory Right and it is primarily anti-immigrant in sentiment. This is important to understand. Although the rhetoric from the right is anti-European immigration, the roots of it lie in anti-non-European immigration.

Why is it happening now? Because a post-recession economy, declining domestic economic growth and the rise of China and India are fertile grounds for the British services sector to try and seek out newer lucrative markets without the encumbrance of one-for-all political compromises with powerful European rivals, primarily Germany and France.

Brexit has little to do with India and China. There will be a negative impact either way on both the countries, no matter what the pro-leavers says.

India, China and their post-colonial compatriots Brazil, South Africa and others should make their position clear—the UK should stay within the EU.

At the end of the day, this is the spoilt post-Empire British Right throwing a hissy fit in its search for power, identity and markets.

Let this be the Empire’s last tantrum.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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