By Nicolas Maclean

18th July 2018

This article was first published on:

The BREXIT imbroglio has tangentially involved South Asians on several occasions, first during Britain’s EU referendum in 2016 and later in the subsequent debates as to Britain’s future relationship with the EU. The situation raises many values issues in both official and public diplomacy, particularly with regard to truthfulness and credibility.

Part of Prime Minister Cameron’s strategy during the referendum campaign in the spring and summer of 2016 was to invoke wise heads from around the world and all kinds of voices of authority to convince the British people to vote for REMAIN on Thursday 23rd June 2016. It was striking that every leader of the Commonwealth was said to have made statements supporting Britain’s continued membership of a reformed EU, both in Britain’s own interest and in those of its overseas partners. Christine Lagarde, Head of the IMF, and all leaders of the G8, except Vladimir Putin, were quoted as giving the same endorsement of Cameron’s policy.

Unfortunately for Cameron, there was anger in the air after the 2007/2009 economic and financial crisis, and disenchantment among many sections of the British people, both socially disadvantaged and better-off, against the so-called “Establishment” and the “metropolitan elite”. The reasons for the startling success of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the European Parliamentary Elections of 2014 were essentially anti-authoritarian. So invoking authority in support of the Prime Minister’s chosen position, ironically, may have helped to increase the protest vote element in favour of LEAVE. South Asian Commonwealth leaders spoke out clearly in favour of REMAIN but were not believed.

Instead too many ordinary people were misled by fake news and misleading claims. It was even reported that some South Asian Members of the European Parliament in the Conservative Party were stirring up pro-LEAVE sentiment among South Asian communities in Britain with the argument that a vote for LEAVE would allow an increase in South Asian migration to the UK, as migration from the EU would be restricted. Some British South Asians are therefore thought to have voted for LEAVE so as to improve chances of family reunions and fewer restrictions on immigration from South Asia.

The hollowness of this claim was seen after the referendum when the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, visited India. Prime Minister Modi received a cool response from her to requests for a more open visa system and an increased flow of Indian immigrants, even on a temporary basis as students. In fact, the Brexiteers had often raised a false dichotomy in the referendum debate, quoting India specifically. Their argument was that Britain should focus its trade and investment on the fast-growing economies of Asia, predominantly India and China, and the large economies of the Americas, such as the USA and Brazil, rather than on the sluggish EU economy, whose growth rate Boris Johnson compared to that of Antarctica. (Britain under the shadow of BREXIT is now the EU’s slowest growing economy).

The argument of the Brexiteers was fallacious, in that Britain could, of course, have a mutually beneficial economic relationship with India from either inside or outside the EU. Germany and other major EU countries are examples of successful engagement with India from inside the EU, and Britain has itself not done badly out of the present Indo-British Partnership. It is illusory for Dr Liam Fox, Britain’s Secretary of State for International Trade, to claim that Britain can only maximize trade opportunities with India through negotiating a bilateral trade agreement, and therefore that it is necessary to leave the EU Customs Union. When Brexiteers criticize the EU for the lack of an EU-Indian Free Trade Agreement, they fail to mention the key truth that it was Britain which prevented such an agreement from being successfully negotiated just a few years ago due to British concerns about visa issues. The Brexiteers are quite happy to stand facts on their head in order to achieve their emotive goal.

In addition, companies such as Tata have invested heavily in Britain not just for the benefits of the British market of 65m people but because of the access membership of the Single Market gives to the whole EU market of 508m. Tata’s subsidiary, Jaguar Landrover, has recently displayed the values of courage and corporate social responsibility by risking speaking truth to power in public warnings to Mrs May and her Ministers. The British automotive industry is highly integrated with suppliers in other parts of the EU and to produce a single Jaguar Landrover vehicle in Britain may involve up to ten separate cross-border movements within the EU. Britain’s leaving the Single Market and Customs Union would be disastrous for jobs and future prosperity.

Finally, the role of several notable British South Asians should be mentioned in the unfolding BREXIT drama: Sadiq Khan, a former Labour cabinet minister, now the first Asian Mayor of London, is a convinced Remainer, who campaigned long and hard against LEAVE during the referendum. He is well aware that London is one of Britain’s most multi-racial cities and voted overwhelmingly for REMAIN. He now has justified concerns for London’s future prosperity if Mrs May insists that Britain should leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union, which many Brexiteers told us we could stay in when quizzed about it during the referendum campaign. Jobs in the City of London, the EU’s largest financial centre, are particularly vulnerable if Britain leaves the Single Market and therefore loses “Passporting” rights.

Councillor Ravi Govindia, Leader of Wandsworth Borough Council, was re-elected in this May’s local elections and his Conservative group lost only a few seats, retaining overall control of the Council. His view differs from Khan’s, as he is a Conservative loyalist, but the campaign he led in the recent local elections showed that he wanted to get away from the BREXIT issue, which has proved unpopular with many internationalist Wandsworth residents. Labour had won the Battersea seat in the Borough of Wandsworth in the June 2017 General Election, because many voters deserted the Conservatives due to their hard BREXIT manifesto policy. However, Govindia succeeded this year by stressing that this election was about keeping local taxes low and local services efficient rather than a litmus paper for BREXIT issues at national level.

The third South Asian politician to watch is Sajid Javid, appointed Home Secretary earlier this year, following the resignation of Amber Rudd. He is the first Asian to hold one of the four most senior offices of state and has already served as an effective Cabinet Minister. He is now mentioned as a possible future Prime Minister, and has already shown a willingness to change some counter-productive Home Office rules on immigration, which had been stopping the recruitment of non-EU doctors by the NHS. More is hoped of him, though his shift from a pro-REMAIN position during the referendum to a more Euro-sceptic one now is worrying. Javid has one of the most powerful swing positions in the Cabinet and could have great potential for good if he exercises his new-found power in an enlightened way. 

All in all, South Asians and South Asia have played and continue to play a crucial role in the BREXIT dilemma. Hopefully, our sovereign Parliament will grant  the British people a final say on the current BREXIT negotiations with a choice in a “People’s Vote” to LEAVE on agreed terms, to LEAVE without a deal, or to REMAIN. That is when traditional South Asian values such as truthfulness, honesty, common sense and wisdom could prove decisive among the large and diverse British South Asian communities and help guide the whole United Kingdom towards a better future.