Post-imperial preference

As a progressive, I find myself quite liking the idea, which Conservative Home Secretary Sajid Javid has proposed, of an immigration policy that does not discriminate in favour of citizens of European Union member states. For as long as the UK is in the EU, the principle of freedom of movement means that any citizen of another member state can come and live in Britain. But it is extremely hard for someone from outside of the EU to move to Britain. In that sense, though I voted to remain in the EU, the basic idea of the post-Brexit immigration policy proposed by Javid seems to me to be positive. But I would actually go even further. I believe British immigration policy should actively discriminate in favour of citizens of Britain’s former colonies.

In the immediate post-war period, citizens of Britain’s former colonies had a right to come and live here. Hundreds of thousands, in particular from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, came to fill labour shortages – for example in the National Health Service. It was only from the 1960s onwards that tighter restrictions were placed on immigration from the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, after 1973, it gradually became easier for citizens of European countries to move to Britain. In particular, the principle of freedom of movement was extended in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which created the concept of EU citizenship. In short, the balance in UK immigration policy shifted from the Commonwealth to Europe.

The left generally supports freedom of movement of people. But even though I am generally in favour of immigration, it seems to me that there is something problematic from a left-wing perspective about the way that the principle of freedom of movement in the EU in effect discriminates in favour of white people. This issue came up during the campaign ahead of the referendum on British membership of the EU in 2016. In particular, some in south Asian communities in the UK resented “the apparent ease with which European migrants could enter the UK” which “stood in stark contrast to the situation of immigrants from the Commonwealth”, as Neema Begum puts it. Some even saw the EU as a “white fortress”.

It seems to me that Britain owes a debt of gratitude to what was once the Empire. Citizens of former colonies have a kind of claim on Britain. It also seems to me that this should be reflected in our immigration policy – a kind of post-imperial preference. In other words, I believe it should be easier for someone from India or Jamaica to come to live in Britain than someone from Bulgaria or Romania. To many in continental Europe, this will be an outrageous idea. After all, Europe is meant to be a “community of fate”. But perhaps Britain belongs to another “community of fate” too – one consisting of the countries it once colonized, which have influenced and been influenced by it, and with which, in short, it shares a story?

Maybe I’m alone in thinking along these lines. But I wonder whether the attitude of British people to immigration is more complex than is generally assumed, especially by pro-Europeans. In particular, I wonder – and I wish there were more data on this – whether at least some of those who cited immigration as the reason they voted to leave the EU were not so much against immigration per se as a particular kind of immigration. I’d guess that some of them think they have more in common with an Indian or a Jamaican than a Bulgarian or a Romanian. It is generally assumed that such people are nostalgic for the white Britain before mass immigration began. But perhaps some of them are a little nostalgic, as I am, for a time when immigrants came from the Commonwealth?

I recently re-read Sam Selvon’s wonderful novel The Lonely Londoners (1956), which is about the first generation of Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s – what is now called the Windrush generation. I was struck by one particular passage early on in the book in which the narrator, Moses Aloetta, is educating a new arrival from Trinidad about Britain. He tells him about a restaurant run by someone from Poland that refuses to serve black people – at a time when that was still lawful in the UK – and says:

The Pole who have that restaurant, he ain’t have no more right in this country than we. In fact, we is British subjects and he is only a foreigner, we have more right than any people from the damn continent to live and work in this country, and enjoy what this country have, because is we who bleed to make this country prosperous.

I think Moses has a point.


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