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Opinion Columnists 21 Jun 2016 Reflections: Xenopho ...
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.

Reflections: Xenophobia in UK

Published Jun 21, 2016, 12:31 am IST
Updated Jun 21, 2016, 12:31 am IST
Xenophobia seemed to dominate the thinking of the man who is accused of killing Jo Cox, a Labour MP.
Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox. (Photo: AP)
 Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox. (Photo: AP)

It will be the death of an international ideal if Britain votes on Thursday to leave the European Union. Listening to Sunday’s orations at Speakers Corner — the bit of London’s Hyde Park where Krishna Menon once mounted a soapbox to demand Indian Independence — I wondered how many speak up for remaining in the EU. We’ll know on Friday after the June 23 referendum. Meanwhile, Speakers Corner suggested that Britons support Boris Johnson who says that “locked in the EU, we cannot do free trade deals with some of the fastest growing economies — in Southeast Asia, China, India or America.”

More of that later. What must be emphasised right now is that it will be the sad end of the dream of one day achieving global governance if Thursday’s vote goes against continuing membership. Beginning with the modest objective of a common market in iron and steel, the organisation has expanded into a 28-country (with others queuing up to join) association that promises to realise the vision of continental unity. Much of Europe is already borderless. My Schengen visa allows me to wander anywhere I like without being asked questions. Nor do I have to change money: the euro is the common currency.


Member countries elect a European Parliament. The Brussels secretariat coordinates economic laws and trade regulations. There is talk of political union and a common foreign policy. The EU has inspired models worldwide. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Organisation of American States and the Gulf Coordination Council, not to say our South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, followed the EU’s predecessor, European Economic Community. If Britain raises the national drawbridge, other rich countries are bound to be tempted to retreat behind patriotic fortifications and battlements, leaving the EU to only poorer East European nations.

Mr Johnson articulates economic xenophobia. Millions of others fear that unless Britain leaves the EU, the country will be overrun by Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and all manner of economic refugees from less developed EU nations who enjoy free entry. Not many say this openly of course, for the British are nothing if not politically correct, at least in public. But voting being secret, the ballot may well reflect the bigotry peddled by the chauvinist UK Independence Party. There is a contradiction here of which many Brits are uncomfortably aware of even though it’s seldom mentioned. The alternative to EU immigration is Commonwealth immigration from India, Pakistan, Africa and the West Indies.

That could be jumping from the frying pan into the fire for those who hold that EU citizens being Europeans will become indistinguishable from native-born Brits (if with unusual names, but that can be managed, as the royal family has done) in a generation. Another contradiction: the accusation that David Cameron is promoting Turkey’s EU application overlooks Mr Johnson’s Turkish ancestry. He is by no means the most famous “foreigner-Brit”. That distinction goes to Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister. Or, perhaps, to Queen Elizabeth II herself. Her mother was of course Scottish. But her father’s elder brother, the former King Edward VIII, famously boasted that not a single drop of English blood flowed in his veins. His lineage was entirely German.

Few mention race explicitly. But xenophobia seemed to dominate the thinking of the man who is accused of killing Jo Cox, a popular, energetic and idealistic 41-year-old Labour MP, who fervently supported Mr Cameron’s campaign to remain in the EU. While shooting and stabbing Mrs Cox earlier this week, the man is said to have proclaimed “death to traitors” and “victory to Britain”. This was the extreme and violent explosion of emotions that may simmer dangerously in many minds. The alleged murderer also had links at one time with white supremacist groups in the United States.

Anti-EU campaigners usually trot out the economic argument, like three speakers preaching to a thin and desultory gathering in a sadly depleted Speakers Corner on Sunday. No one supported the EU, which the three denounced as anti-democratic and bureaucracy-ridden. One speaker said the EU’s protectionist policies saddled the developing world’s produce with burdensome taxes. The example he chose was of a slab of fair price chocolate one buys across a British counter. The cocoa is grown in Ghana but the processing and manufacturing is in Germany. “It’s the same with coffee” he continued. “It’s grown in Africa but roasted, ground and packaged in Germany.” The Germans impose a 30 per cent levy on the developing world’s produce, he claimed.

I couldn’t tell whether he was appealing to the sublimal  anti-Germanic feeling that accounted for the triumphant “One World Cup, Two World Wars!” chant when England defeated Germany to win the football World Cup. But he certainly hammered home the economic argument for rejecting the EU. Europe’s agricultural policy benefits only the largest landowners, he said. Rich industrialists apparently appeal to the EU against national taxes, and Britain paid £8 billion in rebate last year.

Even if there is an element of truth in some of these charges, they are really matters for negotiation, as Mr Cameron has promised to do if he wins Thursday’s referendum. Rejecting the EU would repudiate the one-world ideal that inspired the League of Nations and United Nations and justifies the many regional organisations mentioned earlier. Even an outsider can share Mr Cameron’s enthusiasm when he predicts more jobs and better prospects, saying: “If we wake up on June 24 and we’re still in the EU, I think there will be a sense of excitement and investment from inward investors and wealth creators.” The excitement will be global. A positive vote will rescue the slender hope of a dream of unity that can save the world.