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Priti Patel represents the many paradoxes evident in the June 23 referendum in the UK on whether to stick with Europe or go it alone—to Brexit that is, as wordplay-loving Britain puts it. Articulate and engaging, she was appointed employment minister by prime minister David Cameron as Britain’s first “UK Indian diaspora champion”. But she’s now using that platform to undermine the Cameron-led ‘Remain’ campaign and urging Asians to back ‘Brexit’. Arguing with passion and eloquence, she appears regularly on TV debates and tears into the government’s “biased” immigration policy. In India, she’d have been sacked; but this is Britain, where such contradictions are the norm. Whether Labour or Conservative, every party has senior members opposed to the official line.
As for the Brexit referendum, all polls in recent days have revealed even more contradictions. To begin with, there are deep divisions between party leaders and their voters. Even more paradoxical is that the main worry for Asian voters, considered key to the way the vote goes, is immigration: immigrants themselves, they are concerned about East European immigrants competing for jobs their children now have. Every day, at community centres and shopping areas in London’s Asian enclaves of Hounslow, Southall, Ealing, Heston and Harrow, first-generation immigrants gather in groups to share family news, gossip, parathas and discuss the rising cost of housing and the latest deals on consumer items.
I approach one group at the Treaty Centre in Hounslow, a popular shopping centre, and start a conversation about the referendum. They clearly seem confused about the issues, but express anger at the way East Europeans, mainly from Poland, have swarmed in and been given council housing and benefits. They complain that rather than spend locally what they earn or get from the generous dole, the East Europeans send it back to families in Europe. Some MPs, too, have openly asked why a Bulgarian taxi-driver should be allowed to claim benefits for children living in another country.
Jessie (Jaswinder) Singh, a retired bus driver, speaks for fellow pensioners when he says, “We sacrificed a lot and worked hard when we came here just to give our kids a good education. They speak the language, are fully integrated, have good jobs. But they are unable to compete with white-skinned immigrants from Europe who don’t speak the language but are willing to work for lower wages!” The other big worry, expressed by leaders like Priti Patel, is that faceless European bureaucrats in Brussels will have a greater say in British policies impacting communities and traditions. Priti Patel and other ‘Leave’ campaigners also harp on the fact that laws are being tweaked to prevent skilled Asians—IT workers, skilled professionals, chefs—from coming to Britain. There’s some scare-mongering too, with extreme scenarios being aired: the pound will be replaced by the euro; cars will have to be driven on the right-hand side of the road.
‘Leave’ campaigners recently marshalled 80 business and community leaders of Commonwealth background to write to Cameron: “Whilst EU citizens enjoy freedom of movement and no restrictions on their stay in the UK, those coming to the UK from outside of the EU face greater restrictions.... Families of second- or third-generation immigrants from the Indian subcontinent ask, ‘Why do we have to jump so many hurdles just to bring in relatives for a wedding?’” They point to difficulties in bringing in priests for their temples and gurudwaras. Samir Thukral, who owns a popular Indian restaurant in Knightsbridge, points to the problems he has in getting chefs from India owing to EU restrictions and says he may have to shut shop.
Despite contrasting arguments, most Brits of Indian origin are expected to vote against Brexit. According to the British Election Survey, 51.7 per cent of Indian-origin voters will vote for the official ‘In’ campaign, though the gap is narrowing daily as the campaign heats up. Immigration was the issue most likely to affect how the British, and not just Asians, will vote. Forty-nine per cent said it would influence their decision, while among ‘Out’ supporters, it is the primary issue for 72 per cent. Even among white-collar workers, immigration is the scare factor, with visions of thousands of Europeans coming to a comparatively prosperous Britain and taking jobs and availing of public services and benefits.
In Asian-dominated enclaves, the fear of an immigrant invasion from the EU is palpable. Patel recently argued on a BBC programme that second-generation immigrants will bear the brunt of new migration as they tend to live in the same areas and compete for the same low-skilled jobs and housing. However, from my conversations with a cross-section of people in Hounslow and Ealing, it is clear that a large section of the British-Indian community is still unsure about which way to vote. In a recent poll of British Indians, nearly 17 per cent of respondents said that they “don’t know”, with experts saying that their decision could shift the outcome of the referendum. The new data indicates that ethnic minority voters could hold the balance of power, with white voters evenly divided.
At a dinner in a friend’s house in upper class Kensington, I ask Dev Patel (not the actor, but a financial analyst with Barclays) what his views are. He sees the irony of being born in an immigrant family and now wanting to pull up the drawbridge on others, but justifies himself, saying, “I have skills that mean I have earned the right to live here and contribute to the economy. I strongly oppose people coming in who neither have roots here nor even the expertise I have, but will be able to compete with me because of some quota system drawn up in Brussels.” There are other guests who are concerned by the possible arrival of neo-Nazis from parts of Europe where the far right is strong. A recent research report from Runnymede Trust, a London-based think-tank, says, “Some view Europe in explicitly ethnic or racial terms, identifying fortress Europe as a way of keeping out non-white immigrants while allowing significant levels of European immigration.”
Other prominent Asians are also calling for a points system, something which ‘Leave’ campaign leaders like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel are backing. They do, however, acknowledge that there are economic benefits to remaining in the EU but insist these do not outweigh the disadvantages. Sadly, what the ‘Leave’ campaign has succeeded in creating is an image of Britain as some kind of island utopia. The irony is that these are the same people who are extremely critical of Donald Trump, but are in effect supporting a Trump wall of their own. What seems clear is that there are solid arguments on both sides, with the Asian community stuck in the middle.
Indeed, however persuasive Priti Patel may be, she has competition from the fiery Seema Malhotra, a Labour MP who has accused Brexit campaigners of blaming Brussels for decisions made by British ministers. Keith Vaz, the Labour MP who has strong support from Asians, has accused Patel of “divide-and-rule politics of the worst kind”. It all seems ironically reminiscent of the ongoing Euro 2016 soccer tournament in France, where passions and prejudices are being played out on and off the field, and where European unity is clearly a mirage. So too, is the projection of Britain as a country with the financial and political clout to pull out of Europe. The fear of immigrants among Asian immigrants is just one of the many ironies governing next week’s vote.
By Dilip Bobb in London