Our friends in the Commonwealth: The paradox of the post-EU immigration question

By Matthew Whittle, Teaching Fellow in English (Contemporary & Postcolonial), University of Leeds

The morning after Britain voted to leave the European Union, a now infamous clip was circulated of Nigel Farage being interviewed about the Leave campaign’s pledge to spend £350m a week on the NHS. The claim of course has now been widely discredited, with Iain Duncan Smith later admitting to Andrew Marr that it was in fact a lie, or in doublespeak, an ‘extrapolation’. But I want to turn our attention to the other key claim of Farage’s interview on Good Morning Britain, the one that reveals the paradox at the heart of the post-EU immigration question.

As Susanna Reid looked on, embodying the incredulity of millions of Britons who had been deceived, Farage spluttered something about the Commonwealth, and then the video doing the rounds abruptly ended. But what does he actually say, and what’s the significance of his claim? Farage’s backtracking on the amount of money now available to a post-EU Britain involves a commitment to establish better trade links with nations ‘out there’, beyond Europe’s borders:

‘We’re back to being a normal country, in charge of our own laws, and able to start making our own relationships with the rest of the world, maybe even re-engaging with the Commonwealth and the real friends we’ve got out there’.

It’s a telling remark, one that encapsulates the Janus-faced nature of Brexit nationalism: Farage simultaneously argues for looking back in order to go forwards. Just what particular ‘normal’ point in Britain’s history does he envisage the nation as having gone ‘back’ to? Is it the pre-EEC early 1970s of the three-day week, the miners’ strikes and the rise of the National Front? Surely not the permissive 1960s, with high levels of immigration and the threat of ‘rivers of blood’?


The reference to the Commonwealth suggests the 1950s, when Britain lost its Empire, was superseded on the world stage by America following the Suez Crisis and saw a rise in racism as a response to mass immigration from Commonwealth nations, leading directly to the race riots of 1958. But herein lies the paradox: when the Commonwealth is invoked it is wrapped up anti-immigration, xenophobic rhetoric; yet if Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove know their own history they would know that when the Commonwealth was formed as an attempt to shore up the last remaining fragments of the British Empire, this was very much the ‘big bang’ of mass immigration to Britain. It was the point at which ‘immigration’ became interwoven with issues of ‘race’ and asserted itself as a political question that would remain unresolved, only to have a direct impact upon the world we find ourselves in today. There are millions who voted Leave who do not ascribe to xenophobic stereotyping. But as the sickening rise in racism in recent days attests, for many the success of the Leave campaign has legitimised and emboldened a long-standing ‘England for the English’ ideology. The prominent Tory Leaver Dan Hannan has already stated that to leave the EU does not mean a significant cut to immigration. Similarly, however, ‘re-engaging with the Commonwealth’ would surely lead to more immigration, not less.

The appeal to ‘our friends’ in the Commonwealth has been a central pillar of Farage’s career and has also been mooted by Johnson prior to his public U-turn on Europe. It is perhaps not surprising that these two politicians look back to the heady days of the Commonwealth; they both recall two other men whose political careers are marked indelibly by imperialist ambition and rhetoric. Farage seems to be a reanimated Enoch Powell who’s woken up in a future he doesn’t quite understand and to fit in has modelled himself on a popular TV personality, not realising that Alan Partridge is a parody of misplaced masculine bravado. Johnson resembles a nodding car insurance dog come to life believing that he actually is Winston Churchill.

London Mayor Boris Johnson speaks at a Vote Leave rally in Newcastle

Boris Johnson speaks at a Vote Leave rally in Newcastle, Britain April 16, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Yates

Given their proven track-records of inciting suspicion of non-white ‘outsiders’, however, one can only assume that by saying ‘our friends’ in the Commonwealth what is actually meant is the old ‘white Dominions’ of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Johnson’s view of the largely non-white regions of the globe was evinced in his assertion that ‘the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies’. For Johnson, those Commonwealth nations who have not benefitted from a deep cultural connection with Europe are lumped together in his thoroughly imperialist view of AK47- and panga-wielding African tribesmen who spend their days ‘hacking […] human flesh’ only to ‘break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief [a reference to Tony Blair’s visit to DRC] touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird’. More recently, Johnson dismissed President Obama’s pro-Europe sentiments because of his familial links to Kenya, a country that apparently marks Obama out as harbouring an ‘ancestral dislike of the British Empire’. The remark not only highlighted once again Johnson’s inherently racist world-view but simultaneously managed to patronise an entire Commonwealth nation and disregard the thousands of survivors of torture during the so-called ‘Mau Mau uprising’ who are currently battling for compensation in the British courts.

If by ‘the Commonwealth’, then, the high-profile Leavers do in fact simply mean the ‘white Dominions’, then perhaps these nations can be engaged with because they are essentially seen as being peopled by ex-pats, by Britons who abandoned Europe before Britain did. This of course ignores all of the indigenous populations of non-white, non-European peoples who lived there first. It also essentially takes us back to 1962 and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, labelled ‘cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation’ by Hugh Gaitskill, that effectively placed strict controls on the migration to Britain of citizens of the Commonwealth based on racial difference. Maybe this is what Farage’s ‘normal’ Britain looks like.

One of the core arguments for Britain breaking away from the EU was the one oft-repeated: that ‘we don’t need them’, that Britain used to be strong independent of the rest of Europe and will be again. Curiously, the argument to leave what is regarded by many as an undemocratic super-state draws upon Britain’s own history of developing one of the world’s largest undemocratic systems of state governance, the British Empire. Furthermore, in a world in which national economies have become more, not less, reliant on globalisation and the movement of labour, even the prominent Leavers were undermining their own ‘we’re strong enough to stand on our own two feet’ line by admitting that Britain does need someone. And that someone was the Commonwealth, the ‘family’ of 54 nations across many continents that the anti-immigration xenophobes within the Leave camp routinely look down upon.

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Just what this re-engagement will in fact look like, and how it can be squared with the anti-immigration sentiments that the Leavers exploited, remains to be seen. There is certainly no formal, economic single market in place to rival the one Britain has just voted in favour of abandoning. The very make up of Commonwealth relations is based on voluntary and unbinding membership, including at least one regime accused of the kinds of human rights abuses that would see it automatically kicked out of the EU. In seeking to define the ‘family feeling’ of the Commonwealth of nations in his series of 1961 lectures, Empire into Commonwealth, Clement Attlee drew on the ‘very distinctive British game’ of cricket. ‘[W]ith the exception of Canada, where climate stands in the way’, Attlee remarks, cricket ‘is played with enormous enthusiasm in India, Pakistan, the West Indies, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand’ and ‘serve[s] to emphasize the very peculiar character of the British Commonwealth of Nations’. It is this loose cultural connection between Commonwealth nations that Attlee concluded illustrated ‘the difficulty to the foreigner of understanding its nature’. I would imagine that in today’s Britain it is not only ‘the foreigner’ that would struggle with this. In post-EU Britain, perhaps it is time to reacquaint ourselves with the Duckworth-Lewis Method and take it from there. Regardless, the double commitment to anti-immigration and the Commonwealth is a largely unexplored problem with Johnson’s and Farage’s campaign to Leave that exposes a devotion to a white-washed past.