Updated: June 27, 2016 4:12:19 pm
“Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.”
These are the words of Robin Cook, former Foreign Secretary of Britain, as he gave a speech explaining his concept of ‘Britishness’ in 2001. He went on to say:
“The British are not a race, but a gathering of countless different races and communities, the vast majority of which were not indigenous to these islands. This pluralism is not a burden we must reluctantly accept. It is an immense asset that contributes to the cultural and economic vitality of our nation.”
Cook’s celebration of diversity, inherent in Britishness, comes in direct contrast with the rhetoric of xenophobia that allegedly surrounds Britain’s decision to drop out of the European Union.
Between 2001 and 2016, much has changed in terms of global politics and economy. With the attention placed on immigration during and following the UK elections in 2015, it would appear that anti-immigration is the foremost reason for the brexit vote. On a closer look, however, the complexity of the situation would become more apparent.
In order to understand the hard lined, stringent approach towards immigration that the UK has been implementing over the past few decades leading to the popular vote to exit from the EU, one needs to look at the long history of empire and migration to Britain since the mid twentieth century and the socio-economic problems it gave rise to.
War, loss of Empire and large scale migration
Mid twentieth century was a decisive moment in the history of Europe and more so in the case of Britain. As all of Europe lay devastated after the exhaustive impact of the Second World War, Britain had just started pulling out of majority of its colonial possessions. Both these factors combined to cause immigration to Britain at a colossal scale.
Majority of those entering the borders of UK were from the Commonwealth nations. By 1971, the number of West Indian immigrants in Britain had risen to 3,04,070. South Asians and Chinese were the two other non-European countries to enter UK at an unprecedented number. The 2001 census showed the presence of 2,027,000 Asians in the country, out of which, 1 million were South Asians. Among the Europeans, the largest group to enter were the Irish, who were part of the only European colony of Britain.
At this moment though, immigration was not seen as a bad thing in the UK. The British government celebrated the large numbers. In the first place, following the war, the British economy lay in tatters and an influx of labour was more than welcome. Then, in the second half of the twentieth century, Britain was still coming to terms with its loss of grandeur as an empire. As decolonization set in at an unexpected rate, Britain tried ardently to retain good, yet imperial relations with its former colonies. One way of doing so was to allow immigrants from colonies to settle in large number within its national boundaries.
Watch Video: Immigrants from West Indies land at Southampton (1962) (source: British Pathe)
Further, the citizens of Commonwealth countries having been ruled by Britain for centuries, did not pose any cultural threat to the British identity either.
The best illustration of the country’s acceptance of immigrants is the 1948 Nationality Act which gave full permission to all immigrants from Commonwealth countries to enter and settle in Britain.
Imperial supremacy vs EU membership
The EU was a result of post war negotiations to create a single market entity with standardised laws that would negate any possibility of a repeat telecast of the two world wars. In the words of Winston Churchill, what was needed was “a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom… a kind of United States of Europe.”
While most other great powers in Europe saw EU as a viable solution to the problem of conflicting national interests, and despite the optimism shown by Churchill, Britain had from its very inception been unsure about joining the union. In 1973, the country agreed to join the common European entity amid much reluctance and contentions.
One of the biggest threats posed by EU membership for Britain was the likelihood of larger number of European migrants replacing migrants from the Commonwealth countries. Social scientist Joana Fomina, in her article says that “one of the reasons for Britain’s reluctance to join the EU was a sense of compromising its obligations towards its former empire.”
One other cause for the hesitation in becoming part of united Europe was the imperial mindset and superiority that Britain still believed in and did not want to let go off by joining other European countries.
Explaining the clash of interests between Britain and EU, Dr Guy Ortolano ( Historian and Professor of British history at New York University) says “Britain has long adopted an antagonistic stance towards the European continent, a stance that was sustained and explained in part by its status as an imperial power.”
This becomes evident from the recurring demands made by British politicians to maintain a separate legal and economic system for themselves even after joining the EU in 1973.
Throughout the 1980s, Britain and Brussels were on a constant tussle to negotiate plans for a common currency in Europe. Finally, in 1992, the UK opted out of that part of the Mastricht treaty which required the countries to operate under a common currency.
In 1995, Home Secretary Michael Howard, a Conservative, responded to a common EU anti-discrimination law by stating:
“Many of the proposed measures are unnecessary and others would be counterproductive. The UK already has effective legislation. It would mean changing our laws for reasons that we do not have much to do with the circumstances we encounter in Britain.”
The very fact that out of the 52 per cent who voted in favour of Brexit, majority were those above the age of 65 clearly shows how the imperial mentality clashes with the status of Britain as an EU member state.
“The Brexit vote might be understood as forcing a recalibration of Britain’s relations with the outside world, but Britain and Europe will never be able to avoid one another. Britain was, is and remains a European country, whereas the imperial history has come and gone,” says Ortolano.
Migration as an economic threat post EU membership
Over the years, the happy attitude towards migration from the Commonwealth countries could not be retained. The numbers migrating far outgrew the number of jobs available. Further, incidents of racism came as a huge harassment for both the citizens and the government.
The Notting Hill riots of 1958 compelled the government to take stricter measures toward immigration. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, the 1968 Commonwealth immigration Act, the 1971 Immigration Act, the 1981 British Nationality Act and the 1988 Immigration Act were all attempts at strengthening border controls.
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On the other hand, the idea of a multicultural Britain was promoted with full force to preserve racial harmony.
Post EU membership, the doors of UK had been thrown open to EU citizens who came in unabated. This came as a worrisome factor for the country that was in any case grappling with the social impact of migration from its colonies.
Migration from European countries kept increasing as more number of Southern Europe and Eastern European states joined the union. In 2004, when Britain agreed to give automatic work rights to all EU citizens, approximately 600,000 migrants from the new EU countries, especially those in the East, arrived at its shores. The elaborate welfare benefit system of the UK was a powerful pull factor attracting migrants from the newer EU nation states.
While race was a point of contention when it came to the migration crisis posed by the Commonwealth countries, it was the pressures on economy which was seen as disturbing when it came to the migration crisis created by the European countries.
In November, 2014, David Cameron announced three drastic measures to cut down immigration:
A qualifying period before immigrants are eligible to receive in-work benefits.
Stop child benefits payments for children living outside the UK.
Removing migrants that do not find work within six months
The strong emphasis laid on altering welfare measures for immigrants is clear proof of the economic threat they were perceived to be.
EU membership turned into a point of debate and division within British society and politics resulting in Cameron’s announcement of the 2016 referendum soon after he took office in 2015. The campaign for Brexit saw Eurosceptics like Nigel Farage blaming migrants, in particular those from East Europe for problems like unemployment and crime.
Explaining the stance taken by the UK towards migrants, Ortolano says, “Britain’s history as a colonial power arguably drew upon, fostered and deepened-rather than alleviated antagonistic attitudes towards outsiders. But Britain is a complex place, and the Brexit vote was a complex vote. Xenophobia played some role among some people, but so did many other things, and it would be a mistake to read the Brexit vote or the British people as simply and straightforwardly racist or xenophobic”
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