The curious case of immigrants in the UK

London’s Notting Hill Carnival is in full swing as I write this, dramatically highlighting one aspect of Britain’s protracted negotiations to leave the European Union. The Carnival emphasizes the extent to which cultures and lifestyles are interdependent in a globalised world. Even those who voted against the EU in the 2016 referendum are now worried about the consequences if labour mobility ends.

Individual householders fear there might be no plumbers if all Poles return to Poland. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, one-third of small firms have already reported that their growth is constrained by the inability to find appropriate talent. Anglo-Saxons are instinctively averse to immigration. But there would have been no United Kingdom without waves of migration through the centuries.

That realisation explains the current exhibition “Immigration and Modern Britain” at London’s stately Somerset House overlooking the Thames. Even a cursory glance at the Carnival, which came to this part of West Kensington from Trinidad, exposes the synthesis of food, drink, costume, dance and music from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean that underlies contemporary living.

The free London tabloid Metro says about street food at the Carnival: “Whether you fancy Jamaican patties (choose your filling!), rice and peas, some jerk chicken (keep an eye out for Mama’s Jerk Station on Portobello Road), a tub of curried goat or fully vegan slice of Rastafarian culture, you certainly won’t go hungry at the Carnival. And if you just want some chips to help soak up the Red Stripe, there’s not a single person going to think the worse of you for it.”

When I first saw Notting Hill more than 60 years ago it was a rough area of elegant terraced houses run to seed occupied mainly by West Indians of African descent and notorious for extortionate landlords, drugs and crime. The infamous Notting Hill race riots of 1958 was both the climax and swansong of that rumbustious era.

Notting Hill was cleaned up after that and the Carnival inaugurated to promote inter-racial goodwill. West Kensington soon became a fashionable district with some of London’s highest property prices. Brexit may not directly impact on the Carnival whose main interaction isn’t with continental Europe, but it is difficult to predict the fall-out of either free or restricted travel.

Everyone knows that in the late 1960s and early 1970s Indian doctors saved Britain’s cradle- to-grave National Health Service which is the envy of the world, and which Donald Trump is yearning to get his hands on through a post-Brexit trade deal.

Earlier, thousands of West Indian immigrants, beginning with a contingent of nearly 500 on board a ship called the Empire Windrush, manned the buses that are still the country’s pride. Both groups of immigrants filled the manpower need Britain felt as a result of the high toll of British lives in the Second World War. But such imported talent has always provoked resentment, and in 1762 a 50,000-strong crowd marched to Westminster beating drums to protest against foreign craftsmen.

So-called Indian–many are actually Bangladeshi–restaurants in the UK soon felt the pinch when London tightened visa rules for South Asians. Faced with their complaints, David Cameron’s government introduced a special scheme giving easier short-term access to chefs and cooks from Dhaka. But it was scrapped when it emerged that economic refugees who had nothing to do with cuisine were treating it as a loophole to come to Britain. As a result, one hears complaints about the quality of “Indian” food in these restaurants and about many of them being staffed nowadays by Nepalese who benefit from the visas issued to Gurkha soldiers and their dependents.

Other trades are bound to suffer as fewer EU citizens move to Britain, and more return from Britain to their own original countries. The FSB has already warned against a “sudden end” to the free movement of EU citizens on October 31, the date when Britain is scheduled to leave the union “do or die”, in Boris Johnson’s flamboyant words. “European business owners and employees are central to the UK’s economic success” says the FSB chairman, Michael Cherry.

“One in five small employers rely on the skills of EU citizens. A sudden end to free movement on November 1 will make a bad situation worse. Business owners need time to prepare.” The people FSB represents are worried because Mr Johnson has confirmed that he intends to put an end to free movement in its current form on October 31. True, his plan seems to be not to cut down on numbers but to impose “tougher criminality checks” to make the intake selective.

He has also promised to introduce an Australian-style points scheme to give priority to applicants with skills that British employers need. But actual physical movement shows that the Poles, Rumanians, Czechs, Slovakians and others have already taken the hint. Only 92,000 EU citizens sought jobs in the UK in the 12 months up to March 2019 as against the 190,000 recorded in the same period of 2015-2016.

The UK Office for National Statistics confirms that immigration from the EU is at its lowest level in six years. Some 200,000 Europeans crossed the English Channel in search of a better life in the year ending in March. But the ONS says that net migration has remained broadly steady since the end of 2016. Around 226,000 more people are thought to have entered the UK with the intention of staying on than left it in 2018-2019. But this represents a decline from the 2014-2015 peak of 343,000 European migrants. Numbers can only go down from now on.

Priti Patel, Britain’s ethnic Indian home secretary, is discussing with her French counterpart the case of 37 migrants, including six children, who tried to cross the Channel in small boats. Another such incident off the Sussex coast involved more than 20 potential migrants. They were probably Asian and African economic refugees transiting through France after a long and arduous trek from some distant home country.

Madeleine Sumption, director of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, concludes that the UK is a “less attractive destination for EU citizens than it was before the referendum vote.” But Britain’s immigration minister, Seema Kennedy, appears to dispute this. She insists that “highly skilled workers continue to be attracted to the UK”.

There might be an element of wishful thinking in her claim. Or else, since Ms Kennedy does not specify nationality, the “highly skilled” migrants might be from Asia. After all, we cannot deny that the worst in Britain is still more attractive than the best that India, Pakistan or Bangladesh offers its citizens.

The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.

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