Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Rishi, Suella fuel ‘outsider’ fears to remain in power?

The Asian Age.

Opinion, Columnists

The spectacle of two ethnic Indian politicians swearing to keep out foreign migrants isn’t modern Britain’s only inconsistency

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. File Photo: AP/PTI

It’s ironic that the muted tussle between Britain’s two top ethnic Indian leaders, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and home secretary Suella Braverman, may decide how deep the “coffee” is in the “coffee-coloured future” that may be the destiny (quoting The Times of London) of a nation on whose colonial empire the sun was once said never to set.

The title Bloody Foreigners of a 2004 book on immigration to Britain by a veteran journalist, Robert Winder, captures the bigger irony. It rightly conveys native disapproval of outsiders, yet the reserved British welcome migrants more hospitably than any other nation on earth. Strictly speaking, the debate this time is not about coloured Asian, African or Caribbean immigrants. But it is already clear that the first to be affected might be around 136,000 mainly Indian dependents of post-graduate students who were granted visas in December 2022. Indians also loom large among the 193,000 migrants from non-European Union countries that Britain received in 2022 as well as among the 173,000 asylum-seekers awaiting a decision.

In fact, Britain’s 1.4 million ethnic Indians are foremost in almost every immigration category. Curiously, this is something that New Delhi takes pride in, not realising that it is the most devastating indictment of the failure of the BJP-led NDA government’s social and economic policies to create a healthy environment at home so that Indians are not forced to squander their savings and family assets to pay human traffickers to find them refuge abroad.

Net migration to Britain hit a record 606,000 in 2022, driven by people coming to work from countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Eritrea.

Paradoxically, Britain needs these immigrants, especially the better skilled and more industrious among them. Already in dire straits because of a desperate shortage of manpower, the National Health Service whose womb-to-tomb care is the world’s envy would have collapsed without Indian doctors. Public transport would have ground to a halt if West Indian bus drivers hadn’t come to the rescue. Foreign students, especially increasingly large numbers from China, fund British universities. East African Asians run news agents and corner shops throughout the country. Polish plumbers and Pakistani taxi drivers have become national jokes. The money that foreign-born settlers spend locally keeps retail business going.

Yet, Mr Sunak says immigration is “too high”. There were about 500,000 net arrivals annually when he became the Prime Minister. That number must come down, he maintains, without specifying a figure. His home secretary goes further. By identifying immigration with “integration” which, she holds, will destroy Britain’s national character, she appears to condemn all migrants from abroad. It does not occur to the good lady that her argument damns herself and her boss, indicts the French-origin aristocracy and the German-origin royal family.

The ambitious 43-year-old Ms Braverman is the daughter of a Hindu Tamil nursing sister of Mauritius-Indian descent and a Goan Christian father whose family had settled in Kenya. Both Mr Sunak’s parents are Indian Punjabi Hindus born in different British colonies in East Africa. Referring to this chequered history, the British-born Mr Sunak says: “I am thoroughly British. This is my home and my country, but my religious and cultural heritage is Indian. My wife is Indian. I am open about being a Hindu”.

The spectacle of two ethnic Indian politicians swearing to keep out foreign migrants isn’t modern Britain’s only inconsistency. Brexit, the withdrawal seven years ago from the EU whose predecessor, the European Community, Britain had joined in 1973, was another. Now Nigel Farage, former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, who worked tirelessly to get Britain out of Europe, admits that Brexit “has failed”. It was believed to have flooded Britain with unskilled and economically useless foreigners who were a drain on British resources.

Net migration continues to add to Britain’s population every year, with an estimated 504,000 more people arriving than departing. Those who seek to rationalise anti-immigrant sentiment argue that Britain’s present population of 67.33 million cannot be allowed to grow unchecked if orderly governance and the present level of prosperity are to be maintained. That fear, combined with traditional insularity, determined the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum when a majority of Britons was inspired by the government’s promise to “take back control of the borders” and voted to leave the EU.

A trade pact with the United States would have helped to counter the economic effects of Brexit. A long-term commercial agreement with India might also have helped to a certain extent. But India wants virtually free access for Indian migrants disguised as students, or at least the same privileges as visitors from China enjoy. Unwilling to concede either demand (India can’t match the massive Chinese investment in Britain) Prime Minister Sunak is engaged in a frantic search for a magic figure for the number of immigrants from abroad that can be permitted to enter the country every year without rocking the boats of social, economic and political stability.

Boris Johnson, who was Conservative Prime Minister from 2019 to 2022, swears by his party’s manifesto promise for the 2019 general election to bring down net immigration, which was then about 225,000. Ms Braverman endorses the demand. Mr Sunak refuses to mention any figure even when confronted with the expert view that not only will net immigration this year stand between 600,000 and a million, but that it will prompt a backlash among Conservative backbenchers. But he adds that he is “relentlessly focused on stopping the boats” in which traffickers pack illegal migrants from French ports across the English Channel. This is one of his five famous pledges, the others being to reduce the time taken for NHS investigations, spur economic growth, halve the inflation rate, and reduce the national debt.

He had better be quick about it. With the general election due by January 2025 and opinion polls giving the Opposition Labour Party an 18-point lead over the ruling Conservatives, Mr Sunak can’t take a return to Number Ten for granted.

The sequel to the sun-not-setting over the British empire saying used to be “because God wouldn’t trust it in the dark”. Such internecine battles might erupt again if Ms Braverman raises the standard of revolt. Bizarre though it seems, many expect this ethnic-Indian woman to pander to diehard anti-immigrant Conservatives and denounce “bloody foreigners” in her anxiety to become Britain’s first Asian woman Prime Minister.