The growing anti-immigrant hysteria in Britain, following last week’s pro-Brexit vote on continued membership of the European Union, is reminiscent, to some degree, of similar apprehensions in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
The only difference this time around is that instead of Barbadians and other West Indians, Eastern Europeans who legitimately flocked to Britain in search of employment opportunities for a better life under the European Union’s free movement provisions, are among the principal targets.
Just under 50 years ago, dark-skinned immigrants from the Caribbean and African countries with an existing or former colonial association with Britain, were at the receiving end. They too had come legitimately to Britain, through a recruitment drive, to fill jobs which were important to the economy but which Britons were not keen about taking up.
In both instances, the stirring up of anti-immigrant sentiments, with sometimes quite obvious racist overtones, has been the work of political demagogues delivering a populist message that connects with ordinary people on a strictly emotional level.
The message speaks directly to their insecurities and fears about marginalization in the country of their birth, and taps into the human tendency to always find an easy scapegoat for their problems. It seems history again is repeating itself.
The anti-immigration hysteria of close to 50 years ago was triggered by the infamous 1968 Rivers Of Blood speech which was delivered by then prominent Conservative politician Enoch Powell. It urged decisive action against “preventable evils” related to immigration and warned, among other things, that in a matter of decades, the offspring of immigrants would constitute the majority of the British population.
“. . . The black man will have the whip over the white man,” Powell strongly suggested, quoting the words of a constituent who had expressed a desire to leave Britain and go elsewhere.
The backlash was open harassment of immigrants on the streets. In the case of Caribbean nationals, hearing taunts of “go home, Sunshine!” were quite common.
These tensions subsequently died down, but their resurgence today provides confirmation that a strong undercurrent of anti-immigrant sentiments remained. It is the inflammatory rhetoric of Nigel Farage, leader of the far right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), that has brought them roaring back to prominence.
In last year’s general election, UKIP pushed an anti-immigrant platform, warning that the character of Britain was fundamentally changing because there were already towns and cities which had become unrecognizable because
of an influx of foreigners. UKIP’s efforts were rewarded with just one seat in the House of Commons.
However, in elections to the European Parliament a year earlier, UKIP had reaped major success, picking up more seats (22 altogether) than the mainstream parties, with a message linking European integration to the immigration question and the loss of British sovereignty. Using this platform, it was able to help convince a 52 per cent majority to vote “Leave” in last week’s referendum.
These are obviously not the best of times to be an immigrant in Britain. Indeed, the immigration issue forms part of a wider political crisis that has emerged following the Brexit vote. Our concern is about the well-being of Barbadians, even though they may be British citizens, who are caught up in this poisoned environment.
Their well-being is an issue which, we hope, is already engaging the attention of the Government of Barbados, given the increased importance it has attached in recent years to cultivating closer relations with the Diaspora. Given its volatility, close monitoring of the situation will be required during the period of uncertainty that lies ahead.
Seeing that the issue equally affects other Caribbean nationals, a regional response offers a more effective approach and should be engaging the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) at the highest level. Coordination of foreign policy was among the main reasons why the regional grouping was established in the first place.
On the whole, the implications of Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union are too far-reaching for Barbados and other regional countries to be adopting a wait-and-see approach. That is not the best response to a crisis.
At the very least, regional foreign ministers should have an urgent meeting to assess the fallout for the region and start the process of proactively putting arrangements in place to deal with the possibility of any worst-case
Post-Independence, our relations with Britain, in particular, and Europe, in general, have become way too important from a development perspective for us as individual countries and a region to leave anything to chance. The time to act is now!