Barnie Choudhury: Hostile attitudes are historic

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II holds a minute of silence during her visit at the Stahnsdorf cemetery where British and Commonwealth soldiers killed during the 1st World War are buried (Photo: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II holds a minute of silence during her visit at the Stahnsdorf cemetery where British and Commonwealth soldiers killed during the 1st World War are buried (Photo: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Former BBC journalist

THERE’S an old joke. How do you know when a politician is lying? When their lips move. I was reminded of that when I watched the BBC’s The Secret Windrush Files.

My old friend David Olusoga forensically destroyed any idea that the UK’s “hostile environment” immigration policy was created by Theresa May when she was home secretary.

Using government papers in The National Archives, David’s compelling thesis was that right at the beginning of the end of Empire, no matter which party was in power, Britain wanted to keep out British subjects of colour. Immigration policy after immigration policy found ways to discriminate against Commonwealth citizens who had served King and country. Not only that, in the 1950s prime minister Winston Churchill clearly aligned himself to the racist ‘Keep England White’ brigade.

The sacrifice of British subjects around the Commonwealth was conveniently forgotten. Lest we forget, more than 87,000 Indians, pre-partition, died during the Second World War. And how shabbily they were treated. After that war, like thousands from the Caribbean, south Asians answered the call to rebuild their “motherland”, blitzed by the enemy. Instead of welcoming those who had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with allied troops, the UK government shamefully encouraged white people from Europe, including Germany’s Schutzstaffel (SS) troops to settle and assimilate in Britain.

The fear of successive governments appeared to be that ‘coloured people’ would ‘breed’ with indigenous whites causing untold ‘social problems’, and that they would simply come to the UK to scrounge off the state. With the benefit of 70 years hindsight, how wrong the fearmongers were. In 2011 under one in 10 was in a mixed-race relationship, and Indians,
Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were least likely to marry or cohabit outside their ethnic group. The 2021 Census will add to our knowledge, but I would suspect from anecdotal evidence and observation that south Asians will continue to be those least likely to favour ‘interethnic breeding’. Sadly, honour-based violence is alive and well in the UK.

When it comes to ‘scrounging off the state’, the government’s own figures show that 56 per cent of families in England and Wales receive some sort of assistance. White British families receive most benefits, at 58 per cent. While it could be argued that proportionately more ethnic minorities claim benefit, we shouldn’t forget the contribution they make to the UK’s
economy. We know that last year 800 Indian companies operated in the UK and were worth almost £47 billion, paying £360 million into our treasury coffers.

So, don’t ever say we come to the UK to live off benefits. Having said that, unfortunately, like all ethnic groups, we do have benefit cheats. It is a price we pay for a system which is meant to make sure the poorest in our country are not left unsupported, and, boy, do we need it. How can we in 2019, as the seventh richest nation in the world, justify the need for 2,000 foodbanks handing out 1.6 million food parcels a year?

Yet immigration remains a hot topic. Conservative MP Boris Johnson’s made it a centrepiece in his bid for Number 10. He wants to introduce an Australian-style visa-points system if he becomes the prime minister. Over the past 20 years, Australia has tied immigration to skilled labour. That is why Tory MPs are telling south Asian businesses that a vote for Boris
would ensure parity with EU immigrants post-Brexit.

Based on past form, I remain sceptical because there will be loopholes in favour of white migrants. Take for example the Scottish restaurateur, Ajmal Mushtaq, who wants authentic, fully trained chefs from India. He’s been told that because he also runs a takeaway service he cannot hire from there.

Why is fairness so important? Because loyalty to subjects, no matter their skin colour, means a better chance of reciprocated faithfulness. If successive UK governments want people of colour to put their chosen country above all else, then fairness needs to be transparent in all our policies. It’s not pandering to the politically correct. It’s sound business sense. If the Tories want the south Asian vote, then they should point to one fact. In the past two decades, India and China, this century’s two emerging economic superpowers, have been the largest countries of origin for permanent migrants to Australia.

What successive UK governments have singularly failed to recognise is that immigration enhances a country’s talent pool. Our regressive policies which discriminate against people of colour are the main reasons why wealthy middle-class south Asian students are choosing to study in America, Canada and… Australia.

In 30 years, we will know the truth behind how this government framed its immigration policy post-Brexit. Until then, based on history, I can’t help but seeing a politician’s lips moving and thinking about that old joke.