Brexit, immigration and the Commonwealth factor
14 Jun 2016|

It may be the immigration question that brings about a British departure from the European Union. Much publicity has been given to the recent ‘discovery’ of illegal arrivals by small boat across the English Channel. The timing of such a ‘discovery’, given the effective non-existence of air and seaborne surveillance of Britain’s maritime approaches, is a little too convenient to be true, for it’s likely this sort of thing has been going on for years.

The UK’s Border Agency has only a handful of small cutters, while the Royal Navy’s Fishery Protection Squadron is a shadow of its former size. The Royal Air Force won’t have operational maritime patrol aircraft again for several years (buying P-8s was a last minute decision of the recent SDSR) and the Border Agency has given up on most, if not all, of its chartered coastal and offshore air patrols.

Furthermore, illegal arrivals by boat have little to do with the free, legal movement of European Union citizens. An exit vote would do nothing to stop their flow. Fairly or not, however, the ‘illegals’ problem has been tied into more legitimate concerns about the overall rate of immigration into the UK—and some in the ‘exit’ campaign are making the most of it.

There can be no doubt that there’s a racist element to the Brexit debate, notably engendered by the Anglo-Saxon distrust of outsiders which has so often marked the English attitude to the continent (let alone the rest of the world). Nigel Farage and the UK Independent Party are making as much as they can of the prospect of ‘bodies on the beaches’, perhaps disguising their real motives with a concern for the welfare of the would-be immigrants.

Yet UKIP have some unexpected fellow travellers. As has been the experience in Australia, some of the most recently arrived legal immigrants are the most opposed to unregulated or illegal immigration—and those recent arrivals include workers from Eastern Europe. But there’s also what can only be described as a Commonwealth theme to the desire to end the free movement of people from Europe and to create much better border controls.

Part of that is certainly the concern felt by those Anglo-Saxons (and Celts) who see their cousins, the descendants of those who emigrated to Australia, Canada and New Zealand, given less favourable treatment when they visit the United Kingdom than the most recent members of the EU.

Curiously, however, there may a ‘new’ Commonwealth element at work as well. It isn’t just that the descendants of the immigrants from the Caribbean, from South Asia and from Africa have similar concerns to Britain’s longer-term inhabitants about the limits placed on the entry of their extended families. They also feel little connection with much of the ‘European Project’—perhaps even less than those who can at least claim that their ancestors fought at Agincourt and in Flanders.

While these people aren’t prepared to accept the argument that the British Empire was an unalloyed ‘good thing’, there’s a belief that the necessary re-balancing of British history to include recognition of such things of slavery and colonial exploitation is in danger of being neglected in favour of a new narrative which emphasises Britain’s place in Europe at the expense of its global past—and also at the expense of at least some of the positive linguistic and cultural inheritance which the Commonwealth shares and fosters.

There’s also a feeling that, whatever its failings, the British polity may have embraced multiculturalism and rejected racism more successfully and wholeheartedly than countries such as France. In other words, they believe that their chances of living within a successfully integrated society may be greater in a Britain which isn’t caught within a web of European commitments and compromises.

It’s very difficult to assess whether this element will be decisive in the referendum. A voluntary voting system on an issue over which a significant proportion of the population feel either disengaged or have yet to involve themselves at all may result in a limited turn-out on the day.

The campaign to persuade voters away from an exit vote, largely on economic grounds, may well succeed, although its increasingly shrill tone suggests that the ‘remain’ element is becoming fearful of the result. A successful exit may be followed by the departure of Scotland from the United Kingdom, and so on. But…