Unequal scrutiny

The turmoil in Britain over Brexit is sweet music to Donald Trump

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 14.07.18

Donald Trump flew into a Britain in turmoil. The shock defeat at Croatia's hands of a soccer team that had confidently been bellowing 'It's coming home' (meaning the World Cup) rivalled the exodus from Theresa May's government to compound national humiliation. Her survival recalls King Charles II telling his brother, the future James II, "No one would kill me, Jamie, to make you king!" Although 48 Tory members of parliament can demand a confidence vote, the fear of who or what might succeed her advises restraint.

If anyone suspected Mrs May of a mischievous sense of humour, they would have said her appointment last Monday of Dominic Raab (picture, left) to succeed David Davis as the new Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union proved the medium is the message. No one could more dramatically symbolize migration from Europe, which Mrs May is formally committed to ending, than this son of a Czech-born Jewish father who came to Britain when he was only six. Raab's acquired Englishness could be presented as vindication of Mrs May's demand in the 98-page Brexit White Paper released on Thursday that no immigration control can ignore the "depth of the relationship and close ties between the peoples of the United Kingdom and the European Union".

Not that she dare publicly admit her preference for European over Afro-Asian immigrants. Britain has changed vastly in the last twenty or thirty years, giving Asians and Africans the respect, security and opportunities they were formerly denied. The phrase 'colour bar' is never heard nowadays. The concept is banned. The inclusion of a black actor in a white's role in stage productions proclaims determined colour-blindness. Mrs May is probably the exception. Her pernicious influence as home minister is said to be largely responsible for the stroppy attitude of immigration officials to Afro-Asian visitors. Afro-Asian residents might have serious cause for worry if her Brexit policy sends the message that loopholes are being officially created for European migrants despite the referendum verdict.

Such duplicity would play into the hands of the racist segment that might lie low but is not extinct. David Lammy, the black MP of Guyanese descent for Tottenham for 18 years, is a vocal Remainer and also ardent England supporter. He gets foul tweets telling him he can't ever be English, and has no right to back the England team. The well-known newspaper columnist, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, born an Ugandan Asian, wrote recently, "In June, I was in a pub near Birmingham station, sitting near three middle-aged, white blokes who were discussing the forthcoming World Cup. England's team was 'rubbish', they said, full of 'nig-nogs and mongrels'. In 1966, the winning players were Englishmen, 'through and through'. One of them then noticed me and warned loudly: 'Not allowed to say that are we? PC EU laws and all that.' They sniggered."

Such examples can be multiplied. Vivek Chaudhary reported in The Guardian of January 24, 2004 that a former England manager had "alleged that during his tenure he was told by senior Football Association officials not to pick too many black players." When Clarke Carlisle, a former footballer whose grandfather came from Dominica, made a documentary titled 'Is Football Racist?' in 2012, a current England internationalist refused to comment on racism in the game because he believed that his place in the squad could be at risk from the FA.

Raab isn't the only minister with foreign antecedents. Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, is an Iraqi Kurd. Sajid Javid, the home secretary, is ethnic Pakistani. But Raab represents a community that is knocking loudly at a door that some - probably including the prime minister - are anxious to keep ajar while pretending not to. The number of Europeans in Britain has increased from 758,000 ten years ago to today's 2.9 million, of whom 2.15 million are employed. In contrast, there are only 1.19 million non-EU migrant (read Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and West Indian) workers. In the last two weeks, I have come across Lithuanian housemaids, Romanian decorators, Polish plumbers, Yugoslav receptionists and a petite female police constable whose name sounds Italian. The only South Asians were the Bangladeshi who fixed my mobile and a laptop mechanic from Pakistan. No Indians. The three Indian newsagents in this part of Kensington have moved up to white-collar jobs.

Raab is European. So is the royal family. Over their tea and cucumber sandwiches, the Queen can tell Trump that her father's brother, the late Duke of Windsor, boasted of not having a single drop of English blood in his veins. Raab's appointment rewards his loyalty. He was an ardent Remainer but is now a fervent Leaver. Like many successful immigrants, he is quick to fault those who would follow in his footsteps. Earlier this year, he said that immigration had "put house prices up by something like 20 per cent over the past 25 years." When asked for proof by the statistics authorities, he trotted out an old housing ministry document based on an out-of-date model that had never been intended for this kind of analysis. But, clearly, Mrs May trusts him.

Whether other politicians trust her is the question. One reason for scepticism is the apparently sneaky way Number 10 is thought to have leaked Boris Johnson's resignation letter in violation of the tradition that the writer chooses when and how to make the matter public. Another was the way Davis is said to have been snubbed and ignored. What was beyond doubt, however, on Monday was her stamina as she listened and responded to question after question in the Commons for hours on end. She sounded absolutely convincing to others and perhaps even to herself as she reiterated time and again that Brexit means "the end of freedom of movement". However, the Brexit White Paper that was released on Thursday amidst chaotic confusion confirmed the suspicion that she is guilty of what the greatest Conservative of them all called "terminological inexactitude".

The extent to which Mrs May and Javid disagree on immigration may not be known until another White Paper, which should have been published last summer, appears in the autumn. What does seem clear is that the 52 per cent of respondents who voted in the 2016 referendum to leave the EU because they didn't want a flood of Continentals "will be sold down the river" in the colourful phrase of a veteran Conservative MP, Sir Edward Leigh, who enjoys a reputation for independent thinking to the extent of voting against his party on the invasion of Iraq. Of course, Mrs May and her White Paper keep saying that Britain is taking back its borders and that there will be an end to the free movement of people at the end of the transition period in December 2020. But no procedure is laid out.

Instead, there are any number of clauses to indicate that she will find some way or other - trade, tourism, education or whatever - to allow easy visa-less entry to Europeans. Her promise of "reciprocal arrangements", including measures that "support businesses to provide services and to move their talented people", says it all. So does the spectacle of Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party leader who has emerged from the woodwork, harrumphing on the sidelines. Meanwhile, she is suspected of exaggerating the numbers of students who stay on to cut down on Asian student visas.

The confusion all this suggests must be sweet music to Trump, according to Sir Vincent Cable of the Liberal Democrats. He accuses the president of hoping to drive more wedges between the EU and its members so that the United States of America deals only with vulnerable individual entities. Duplicity meets duplicity.