Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Britain’s identity politics

London is an island. Over there, in Little England, each community knows its place and wants others to know theirs

In the lead-up to the referendum about whether the UK should remain in the European Union or leave it, Priti Patel, a minister in David Cameron’s cabinet, played a prominent role in the “leave" campaign. There were photographs of her at a Hindu temple where she appealed to her co-religionists to vote leave. According to a poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft, about 30% of Hindus voted to leave (as did 52% of Sikhs).

During the campaign, Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) had claimed that once the UK left the EU, it would be far easier for it to improve ties with the Commonwealth as the UK would no longer be restricted by EU policies.

Many immigrant communities not from Europe understood that to mean that UK might widen its doors for their cousins to visit, perhaps even stay.

The “leave" team had made many outlandish promises from which it backtracked within hours of winning the vote, and nobody should have taken its claims seriously.

The flag-bearers of that campaign have all gone: Farage has stepped down as the UKIP leader. Over at the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson has fallen on his sword after he found that his Sancho Panza, justice secretary Michael Gove, had betrayed him; Gove himself did poorly on the ballot among Tory parliamentarians; and Andrea Leadsom, the last surviving pro-Brexit candidate, dropped out before she could embarrass herself further. This left the home secretary Theresa May to be the second woman to become prime minister in Britain.

I came across a few cases of Asians who had voted to leave. A Bangladeshi woman about to acquire British nationality voted to leave because she believed there were too many immigrants in the country. An Indian man genuinely believed that leaving would make it easier for the UK to sign a free trade agreement with India. A Gujarati woman told me it would make it easier for her family to visit her. In each case, the driving force was a narrower concern based on identity politics.

Earlier this year, when London elected its mayor, appeals to identity politics were visible.

The Conservative Party sent out targeted letters to ethnic minorities, asking them to vote for its candidate, Zac Goldsmith, because he would represent their interests better. Gujaratis and other Indians received leaflets showing Goldsmith celebrating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to London, and contrasted that with the refusal by Labour candidate (and eventual winner) Sadiq Khan to meet Modi. A friend who is a Muslim with a Bengali first name was sent such a letter; another woman, whose surname is Patel and who is a Muslim, was offended when she received a letter seeking her support because Goldsmith liked Modi. Another woman received a letter asking her to support Goldsmith because Goldsmith liked Tamils—and this woman wasn’t Tamil. There were other similar howlers, but at its root was the cynical desire to manipulate voters by dividing them, by appealing to their narrower identity, by pitting them against other communities. The Tory grandee, Norman Tebbit, who used to get horrified when British minorities supported Pakistani, Indian, or West Indies cricket teams against England, would have balked at such campaigning. But then, divide and rule has always been an essential part of the British establishment’s ways of governing.

The immigrant communities which supported Brexit might recall the time in 2013 when the home office, under May’s leadership, sent vans and posted billboards in six London boroughs asking illegal immigrants to “go home". She later said that the experiment had not been a good idea and it was not extended nationwide. But the view that Britain is overrun by immigrants is widely held and believed, and many of yesterday’s immigrants are so keen to belong that they want to shut the door promptly behind them.

But once they are on the island, they discover that Britain is a salad bowl, not a melting pot; that integrating into society is not that simple or easy. And in the days following the Brexit vote, ugliness has emerged—women in hijab have been insulted or told to go home, a Polish culture centre has been vandalized and cities across the country are reporting an increase in hate crimes.

It is in that context that Khan is the delightful exception.

In the last month, he has spoken out warmly about London’s diversity and openness. He rejoiced at massive Eid celebrations in the city. He took part in the pride march, celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. And on Sunday, he was seated in the royal box, watching the Wimbledon finals, where Andy Murray effortlessly won the men’s title.

Sadiq Khan’s achievement is certainly his, but it also shows London’s openness. But as the referendum showed, London is an island within this small island, and over there, in Little England, each community knows its place and wants others to know theirs.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to livemint.com/saliltripathi

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