The Commonwealth pawn in the Brexit game

by Yojana Sharma | 28.04.2016

There’s nothing new about the immigrants-are-taking-our-jobs argument, but Brexit has added a new twist. Because some migrant groups settled in Britain can vote in the referendum, a generalised anti-immigration message is not going to go down well.

Appealing to the interests of ethnic minorities from Commonwealth countries makes sense because Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK have a referendum vote. Europeans, even if resident, don’t (with the exception of citizens of Malta and Cyprus, which are also members of the Commonwealth, as well as Ireland, which is not).

But standing up for Commonwealth interests as a Brexit strategy is nothing but a cynical ploy and a form of nostalgia for the British Empire dressed up to suit the Leave campaign.  The argument goes like this: we were fine before we joined the EU because we had the Commonwealth (read: Empire). So we’ll be fine again when we leave. We’ll just do business with Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India and other Commonwealth countries that fought with us during the war and are “more like us”.

“I do think naturally that people from India and Australia are in some ways more likely to speak English, understand common law and have a connection with this country, than some people that come perhaps from countries that haven’t fully recovered from being behind the Iron Curtain,”  UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said.

The notion that the far-from-homogenous Commonwealth is “more like us” is neither sincere nor honest.  What is galling is that the same argument was absent when Black and Asian Commonwealth migrants first arrived in the 1960s and 70s. On the contrary – I remember it well – immigrants were derided for looking different, smelling of curry and not fitting in with “our ways”.

It took a generation to move on from the attitudes of that earlier era, but no one should be happy that the supposed “Englishness” of Commonwealth immigrants as defined by UKIP and other Brexiteers is being proclaimed to tarnish another group – those from Eastern Europe.

It is worth noting that Africans for Britain immediately resigned from Vote Leave after Boris Johnson referred in The Sun to President Obama being part-Kenyan. The group, which had backed Vote Leave because Britain outside the EU might be an easier destination for people from Africa and Caribbean, said the London mayor’s “very alarming” remarks risked scapegoating immigrants.


There is a tweak to this argument – the fallacy that Britain can take in only so many immigrants. More arrivals from Eastern Europe leave less room for those who are supposedly “more like us”. Conservative Eurosceptic MP Priti Patel, whose Indian parents came to Britain via East Africa in the 1970s, has said Britain’s EU membership “stops highly skilled people from other countries outside Europe”.

In February some 80 community and business leaders with Commonwealth ties wrote to David Cameron. The letter stated:  “Our immigration policy forces us, in effect, to turn away qualified workers from the Commonwealth so as to free up unlimited space for migrants from the EU.”

At first blush, Britain’s curry crisis seemingly corroborates the Brexiteers’ claim. A shortage of skilled cooks from the Indian subcontinent has forced 600 curry houses to close in the past 18 months, and a third of the 4,000 that remain are under threat. The danger to ethnic minority entrepreneurship and job opportunities is real. And just imagine, chicken tikka masala, for years Britain’s favourite dish, could become extinct within our lifetime…

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    But the shortage is not due to EU enlargement. Rather, it is down to the reluctance of second-generation immigrants to follow their parents into the family business, thus forcing restaurants to import chefs; tighter visa rules since 2012 have exacerbated the problem. Tellingly, Brexit is not one of the solutions examined by parliament’s all-party curry group. The panel’s members, incidentally, include the Indian entrepreneur Karan Bilimoria, the chairman of Cobra Beer, who favours remaining in the EU.

    What is often framed as a debate on immigration is, then, in fact about skills. Eastern Europeans, even with poorer English, may have pushed Commonwealth immigrants out of some low-skilled jobs. But EU enlargement has not plugged the shortage of GPs – the NHS still wants to bring in hundreds of doctors from India – and engineers from Commonwealth countries will be needed for big projects such as the HS2 rail line, as they were for Crossrail.

    The argument that immigrant groups already in Britain have the most to lose from unbridled movement of EU workers can be persuasive, but it makes little sense to suggest immigration is too high and then attempt to make a special case for people from the Commonwealth.

    The truth is, voters of Commonwealth origin are being used as pawns in a tight race where every vote matters. Post-referendum, it is more than likely that many of the same Brexiteers will oppose migration from both the EU and the Commonwealth.

    This article was corrected shortly after publication to make clear that Irish citizens also have a vote in the referendum. 

    5 Responses to “The Commonwealth pawn in the Brexit game”

    • Copied and pasted from another post from myself:

      Please read and spread (from UK reuters article regarding the launch of the so called pro brexit “report”: Prof Minford words today at the launch ot the pro-brexit report: “Farmers, as well as car manufacturers, would suffer from lower exports to the EU, Minford said. But the economy as a whole would benefit from being able to SCRAP EU REGULATIONS ON WORKER’S RIGHTS and climate change, and focus on services where it had a competitive advantage” (emphasis on the worker’s rights issue made by myself, but still prof Minford’s words). So you will have it. These will be the people looking after normal UK people? “focus on services” – i.e: financial, insurance aspects – where it will be then left the average UK citizen? Answer: JOBLESS and with prospect of any UK Govt aid.

      Another HUGE FLAW in the quitters economic argument is: WTO rules are restrictive: if you trade with one country with x tariff or 0 tariff then you are obliged to trade with the rest of the world on the same x tariff or 0 tariff, whereas the partner country/bloc can either choose the tariff or will be obliged by WTO rules to abide by the tariffs this partner country/bloc places on different ones. This means: if UK trades WTO with EU at x tariff or 0 tariff, then UK has to do the same (obliged by WTO rules) to do the same with everyone else. However EU can trade with UK on Y tariff if it chooses or if obliged at the same Y tariff EU applies to other WTO trading countries. UK will never be able under WTO rules to apply X tariff to EU and Z tariff to China or US or whatever else. NO!! It has to apply the same X tariff to either EU AND the rest of the world (under WTO rules) whereas other countries are not obliged to place the same X tariff on UK or they simply cannot (same WTO restriction also on them).

    • Finally…what I was saying for many days starts to be heard – perhaps!! (about Indian GPs recruitments in UK but the are also Philippine nurse hired directly from the Philippines by NHS managers who are flying there for this purpose)

    • Good piece. One correction though, Irish citizens resident in the UK can also vote in the referendum (in the same way that UK citizens resident in Ireland can vote in Ireland.)