Last November, in the Green Room at the BBC, a Tory asked me how the ethnic minorities planned to vote on Europe. I didn’t have the answer in my pocket, but the question remains important, and rarely asked enough.
Priti Patel, the Tory employment minister and a formidable political dominatrix, is now being trumpeted as a “poster girl” (she’s 43) for EU quitters . She is as right-wing, illiberal, jingoistic, punitive and pig-headed as Norman Tebbitt. Though he, like other old Tories, might find her a bit too “foreign”. (Remember his invidious “cricket test”?) In 2010, Patel became the MP for Witham, Essex, a white working class heartland. They love her because she wants to bring back capital punishment, stop migration and reinstate a set of fine old-fashioned values. Now she is all set to fight her own leader and push to get Great Britain out of the EU.
Patel viscerally loathes the EU parliament and commission, as well as the European Council and the European Court of Human Rights, not to mention hard-won rights in EU labour and gender laws over the past 25 years.
She, like me, is an exile from Uganda but she, unlike me, wants to keep out those whose need is greater than ours was when many of us accepted asylum here in 1972. I am a socialist. Her father set up a chain of newsagents and got rich.
The ethnic minority vote grows harder than ever to predict. We have Asian, Arab, African and Afro-Caribbean citizens who valiantly assimilate, and in some cases become Little Englanders as they get more prosperous. Until the Nineties most of them voted Labour. Since then many have moved to the Tories and Lib Dems. For reasons difficult to fathom, some are drawn to Ukip. This January, the barrister and Ukip MEP Steven Woolfe, himself mixed race, claimed that millions of non-white UK citizens were anti-EU because “they want prosperity, they want their culture protected, they want freedom and also want to be safe”. Think about these loaded words and how they are calculated to resonate with blind patriots, the disenfranchised and fearful, as well as traditionalists and the bourgeoisie. He must have appealed to minorities across ethnicities and classes. Though not EU migrants, obviously – now the new enemies within.
Woolfe and Patel both know how to divide, conquer, and influence. In his speech Woolfe said: “If granny wants to come over from Pakistan or India for a wedding, they have more difficulty in terms of getting visas than would a granny from either Spain or France” [sic]. Such messages play well in urban areas where immigrants settled way back in the Sixties and Seventies. Khalid Mahmood, the maverick Labour MP for Perry Barr, Birmingham, has been kicking up a fuss about European migration. His complaint is lazy and predictable: “They” get in while Commonwealth applicants are kept out. The churlishness is unbecoming in a Labour MP but also ludicrous. Does he really think that if we leave the EU, Britain will become less hostile to those from the East and South? Dream on.
Last month, I went out and talked to residents in west London. Native Brits seemed more for than against the EU, possibly because eastern European workers are appreciated here. Bryan, for example, who runs a small hardware store, said: “My business has gone right up – they need stuff I have and they are honest customers. I can’t stand the Somalis – no work ethic. Caribbeans are my mates. But I think the EU has revived this area.” So I talked to Abroon, a Somali who works in a gym. He has many Polish friends but wants out: “Too many of them coming. No houses for them. Look how many shops they have. Not good. Send them back. They not refugees [sic].”
Suresh Patel, a newsagent, is with Priti Patel and Khalid Mahmood: “Let us get out. These Europeans must go home. Send them away. So then our people can come. Our culture fits better. My brother’s family wants to move from India. No chance today. England and we have long relationship. The country got rich from the Raj. These people, who are they? Show them a picture of the Queen and they will not know her.” Mr Hussain, the Turkish grocer, doesn’t like the EU because they hate Turkey and those people in Brussels control everything. I argued with him but it was hopeless.
Even after moving across several seas, tribal loyalties remain in place. Internationalism is a terrible threat.
I was so dejected after this walkabout. The local college thankfully lifted the spirits. Here second- and third-generation children of migrants were almost wholly for the EU. Rubina, whose parents are from Pakistan, is studying business management. “I travel all around Europe. Love it. Imagine if Pakistan, India and Bangladesh could come together? They have this amazing Union and want to leave? How stupid is that?” A Tanzanian student, Balthazar, agreed: “I want Kenya, Uganda and my country to make a union too. Look, the Europeans had so many wars for hundreds of years. Then they came together. It is a miracle. The EU is good. It is strong and the UK must stay in.”
In the 2015 general election, about 10 percent of those who voted were black, Asian, Arab or mixed race. Their votes made a difference to the result in several constituencies. Similar numbers are likely to vote in the EU referendum. Again, their participation could be decisive. As the debates take off, key politicians from the In and Out camps need to talk and listen to people of colour. We matter. Our votes must matter.
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