“This place is full of white people talking about the food and essentials they’ve been stockpiling and brown people talking about the racist abuse they’ve been copping,” I reported to friends during a trip to Britain earlier this year.
Remainers were swapping tips inherited from their grandparents about food preservation during rationing. Leave supporters were piously proclaiming that Brexit had nothing to do with immigration and certainly nothing at all to do with racism. And people of decidedly non-European immigrant appearance were being told that the Brexit vote meant that it was time for them to pack their suitcases and go back to where they (or their parents… or their grandparents) had come from.
“We are here because you were there,” the late Ambalavaner Sivanandan, editor of Race & Class, said of those like him who had migrated to Britain from the corners of the Empire on which the sun had finally set. That was certainly true of my father and grandmother, who left their village to join my grandfather in Singapore as Britain was preparing to follow Gandhi’s advice to “leave India to God or anarchy”. A few months after their departure, somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people lost their lives in the violence of Partition. My great-grandmother was among them.
From Singapore, my grandparents and their offspring — “Pakistanis” who had never lived in post-independence Pakistan, their ancestral village now on the Indian side of the border — eventually joined the south Asian diaspora in Britain. At the time, both immigrants and the British authorities assumed that their stay would be of limited duration while the migrants provided much-needed labour for post-war reconstruction and accumulated savings for their eventual return to their countries of origin.
As the labour market shifted and barriers against immigration began to be erected, those who had already made the journey mustered any dependants they had left behind to join them in their new location, for fear of permanent separation. They lived in a nation that had become wealthy through the loot and pillage of their homelands, but they were regarded as scroungers who had flocked from the Third World to scrounge on Britain’s hard-earned resources. Years of racist scapegoating came to a head in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, with a spike in racist harassment and abuse against “outsiders” of all descriptions.
A few days after the “leave” vote, one of my uncles was told by an older female driver after a minor traffic altercation that “it won’t be long now — we’re getting rid of your kind”. The uncle — who I had always regarded as embarrassingly Anglophile, with his drama-school acquired accent that makes him sound like a minor member of the Royal family and his comfortable home in Hampstead — is now talking about departing Britain, not for Pakistan (God, no), but for Spain. Or perhaps for Singapore — a country he knows only from very dim childhood memories and from watching Crazy Rich Asians. “I am not rejecting this country. This country has never accepted me,” he told me.
The 2018 Windrush scandal, in which migrants from the Caribbean who had been legally resident as Commonwealth citizens in Britain for decades found themselves deemed illegal immigrants, denied healthcare and housing, and in some cases deported to their countries of origin, was an even more brutal exercise in rejection. These elderly parents and grandparents had established families, paid taxes and provided essential services for the entire lifetimes of those who enforced the regulation of the “hostile environment” upon them.
The Windrush scandal had a salutary effect on at least some of those for whom the scapegoating of immigrants has become a reflex response. However, Britain remains a hostile environment for those of immigrant appearance, whatever their place of birth or current citizenship. The hostility seems unlikely to subside as Britain either approaches or retreats from Brexit.