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The Story of Brexit is the Story of Empire: Why Did Asian Immigrants Vote to Leave the EU?

The complicated love-hate relationship of immigrants from former colonies with the British Empire cannot be ignored if lessons are to be learned in post-Brexit Britain, says Hardeep Matharu

THE STORY OF BREXIT ISTHE STORY OF EMPIREWhy Did Asian Immigrants Vote to Leave the EU?

The complicated love-hate relationship of immigrants from former colonies with the British Empire cannot be ignored if lessons are to be learned in post-Brexit Britain, says Hardeep Matharu

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Love-Hate Relationship

Why, in British public life, do we almost never speak about Empire?

It was a question that struck me again recently as I was watching the news with my parents. Another day in Parliament with Theresa May embroiled in the continuing chaos around Brexit.

Having migrated to Britain from Kenya and India more than 40 years ago, I still find it perplexing that they both voted to leave the EU in the 2016 Referendum.

Responding to their disillusionment on May’s attempts to deliver Brexit, I asked them whether they would still vote in the same way again, knowing what they do about all that was to follow.

“Yes,” they both said without hesitation. “It was still the right thing to do.”  

That the Brexit vote was, in no small part, about Empire for Commonwealth immigrants, and their love-hate relationship with its legacy, has long needed discussion in British society.

Although non-white groups were generally more pro-Remain than white British people, “ethnic minorities showed a non-negligible level of support for leave, which was twice as high amongst Indians as amongst other minority groups”, according to an one report on the matter.

The relationship of Britain’s long-standing immigrant communities with the Empire is a complex one. At once, Britain’s colonisation has created a patriotic allegiance in immigrants who see themselves as ‘British’ – more British than the British – rather than as migrants, while at the same time demanding reparation and recognition for all the damage Britain inflicted on countries such as India.

In many ways, Brexit is the story of Empire. An unfinished, untold story on which the sun won’t set for a very long time.

A Family Affair

Swaraj, the first name of my father, means ‘self-rule’ and was a term used by Mahatma Gandhi to describe India’s quest for independence from hundreds of years of British rule. My grandfather gave him the name as he was born in August 1947, the month and year India finally achieved self-governance.

Raised in Nairobi, Kenya, until he was 18, my Dad spent two years in India, before coming to Britain in 1967 aged 20. His family, Indian Punjabis, had originally migrated to Kenya to build the railways in the country for the British.

While recognising the violence of colonisation, my father enjoyed growing up under British influence.

“I liked the way of life when I was in Kenya under the British rule, everything was run properly, all the laws, the administration,” he told me. “It was a very nice place to be and that’s how I’ve always had this loyalty to Britain and I always wanted to come to England and I wanted to be part of this country. I had no problems settling here.

“I used to read magazines like Time magazine, Life magazine, Reader’s Digest and the old Daily Mirror papers, Eagle comics in Kenya. I learnt to speak, read and write English at school because we had English teachers so I had no problem when I came over to Britain.”

Hardeep’s father Swaraj in Nairobi, Kenya, with his sister. Photo: Pritam Singh Matharu

What about racism? I asked him.

“Racism was something I was used to in Kenya as well,” he said. “I knew that it existed, over there they used to call it ‘colour bar’. There were certain hotels that were only meant for white people and there were certain parts of Nairobi where only white people could buy houses and live, Asians weren’t allowed. So I knew from a very young age that this went on.

“There was a lot of racism [when I came to Britain], but one had to learn to live with it.”

On voting for Brexit, my father admits harbouring “resentment” at how Britain has changed, in his eyes, for the worse – something he feels is linked to being part of the EU.

“My allegiance is to Britain, I don’t see myself as part of Europe, I don’t want to be,” he said. “Europe is trying to impose its own rules, regulations and laws onto this country. Britain should have kept on its own. We were better off that way.”

He believes that Britain was always renowned for its fairness and that it seems unfair that immigrants from Europe can come here relatively easily to work and make their lives.

“It’s changed the whole culture of this country now,” he added.

Reparation, Not Just Nostalgia

The issue is not that simple, however.

My father often speaks about how wrong it was of a morally corrupt Britain to impose its rule on countries more prosperous than itself. Both my parents made a point of telling me about the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar in 1919, in which Colonel Reginald Dyer brutally killed hundreds of non-violent Indian protestors, when I was younger. Upon visiting the site of the killings last year, I was shocked by how close it was to the Golden Temple, a place of profound peace and a site considered the most sacred for Sikhs.

But, paradoxically, because of this brutal history, my father feels that Britain owes a loyalty to its former colonies over Europe.

“They had a very good time in those countries and they benefited a lot from them and they built their own country as well during those years of the Empire,” he told me. “This country was built on the Empire, they took a lot of money from India… They should have some allegiance to those countries as well. Whereas Europe? I don’t see what Europe has ever done for Britain.”

My mother Baljeet agrees. She left India for Britain aged 26 in 1975 to marry my father and sees herself as British, having worked hard to contribute to the country and assimilate into life here.

She said she voted to leave the EU on the grounds of British sovereignty because “we should have our own laws and policies to run the country”.

We have had many a passionate discussion in which I have argued that Britain is sovereign, and that only a minority of laws emanate from the EU.

My mother also feels that Britain does not need immigration from Europe.

Speaking to other immigrants from former colonies, it is clear that – like my parents – the reasons why Asian communities voted to leave the EU are nuanced and difficult to presume.

One second generation immigrant I spoke to said some Pakistani people campaigned for Brexit because they wanted to “control immigration in a way that was favourable to the Indian subcontinent”.

King George V and Queen Mary in Bombay, India, to mark the coronation of the King in 1911

“One of their arguments was that, if we leave, we’d be better able to accept people from the Indian subcontinent, professionals such as doctors, rather than taking them from Europe,” he said. “There was that strand that we’d lost control of immigration, that lots of people from eastern Europe were coming over, but, therefore, people from the Indian subcontinent weren’t getting a fair crack at the whip and it was that disparity. They felt the immigration system was unfair.”

While EU migrants generally benefit from freedom of movement, those from countries such as India and Pakistan are subject to visa and work restrictions – a distinction that was played on by Vote Leave’s Michael Gove during the referendum campaign when he suggested that Britain’s immigration system was “racist”.

Post-Brexit Racism

Another second generation immigrant, whose parents also migrated to Britain from Pakistan, told me he voted for Brexit because he had concerns about the EU “being an economic bloc to the detriment of the rest of the world”.

“I had no animosity towards the eastern Europeans because, if I was in their position, I would do the same for economic reasons and my parents did the same when they came to Britain,” he said.

But, he now believes a second referendum should be held as Brexit is “fragmenting our society” and fuelling far right racism against the very immigrant communities that voted to leave the EU.

“The day after I voted, there were people in white vans with Union Jacks driving around where I live and that shocked me. I didn’t vote for nationalistic reasons so to see the way the white racist community behaved on winning the vote gave me serious concerns about the dynamic in Britain.”

For him, notions of Empire played a role in immigrants voting to leave the EU.

I liked the way of life when I was in Kenya under the British rule, everything was run properly, all the laws, the administration… I’ve always had this loyalty to Britain and I always wanted to be part of this country.

Swaraj Matharu

“People like me were born here, my parents migrated here,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the British Empire and the rule of India we wouldn’t be here.

“My uncle fought in the Second World War in Burma and our ancestors have been entwined in the British Empire and Britain, but we have been given less rights in terms of migration into this country as compared to some eastern European countries who were actually fighting the British during the Second World War. So, what’s that about?”

Shahmir Sanni, who was born in Pakistan, worked for BeLeave – an offshoot of the Vote Leave campaign during the EU Referendum. He turned whistleblower last year, when he exposed electoral wrongdoing at the organisation.

Tasked with targeting and persuading black and ethnic minority people to vote to leave, Sanni said that many of the second-generation immigrants he spoke to in areas such as London and Birmingham were already set on voting for Brexit.

“They would say ‘we don’t need the EU, we were born here, we were bred here, we have worked here, we don’t need it, we have never associated with it so why would we focus on it?’” he told me. “They would also say things like ‘it takes so long for my friends and cousins to get a visa’.

“There was a lining of xenophobia towards eastern Europeans among Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities. There was the perception that people from Europe have got a free pass to come here.”

He believes that such communities have “a huge feeling of being left behind”.

“In the last 20-30 years they’ve seen greater integration with Europe and not with their own communities and they have seen the benefits the Europeans have gotten, particularly in terms of immigration and free rein to go back and forth.

“But, then there’s also a huge population of the south Asian community who have a very strong sense of patriotism, who are very proud to be living in the UK and, sure, they will criticise the British Government, but they are still very proud Britons and that’s where you can have the same sort of mentality among the majority of leave voters which is that Britain can be better on its own.”

Indians were flogged following the Amritsar Massacre in 1919

According to Sanni, notions of the Empire and immigrants from former colonies feeling an allegiance to Britain had a huge part to play in why they voted to leave the EU.

“Previous generations weren’t educated in the way that we were as young millennials who are hyper-aware of colonialism and imperialism and the effect it had on our ancestors,” he told me. “If you look at it from the frame of immigrants then who saw no opportunities back home and came here and were suddenly comfortable, and very comfortable, even if they were working-class, the fact that they had a council house if they were working-class was a blessing. It was huge. ‘The Government of this country gave me a home’.”

He said his work at BeLeave was designed to play on this allegiance to the Commonwealth over Europe.

“It stirred this colonial mindset within non-EU immigrants that the Commonwealth and Britain have so much more in common than the EU. So there was this false idea that we would be back with the Commonwealth again. An older generation of non-EU immigrants do feel like Britain has a solid connection with places like India; that we have a relationship and a friendship with Britain – and that stems from colonised minds.”

And why did he vote to leave the EU?

“Because I didn’t like Europe as a white super-state,” he said. “Britain has a moral obligation to reconnect with the Commonwealth and I consider that a form of reparations. That, if we’re going to have free movement, it should be between Britain and India, Pakistan and countries like Nigeria, not with the EU.

“I also think it’s unfair that European migrants get privileges over non-EU migrants. You can argue that there are people of colour in Europe, but these countries have been desecrated by Britain and it has an obligation to cater to that.”

These are clearly difficult conversations for some to have.

Mau Mau suspects detained in British Kenya await interrogation following a raid in 1953

Sun Never Sets on Empire

Politicians over a number of years have made a mistake in not challenging inaccurate narratives around immigration, as well as not engaging with the views of immigrant communities long settled in Britain and their thoughts about our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world.

As the British-born child of parents who were born in countries of the Empire, I was taught nothing about it at school. Even when I did learn about the slave trade and Britain’s Industrial Revolution, these were not set within the wider context of colonialism.

It may be an uncomfortable, ugly and challenging area of our history to probe, but not doing so ignores the effect is still has on how many feel and think about Britain today.

The longer we refuse to hold a mirror up to Britain’s past, the longer we will fail to properly understand how we have arrived at the present and the consequences of this for the future.

In a post-Brexit world, this will be more vital than ever.

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