Economic self-interest limited inter-migrant solidarity in the vote for Brexit.

In the aftermath of yesterday’s vote for Brexit, I had several conversations that surprised me. The first, with a Romanian who had recently arrived in the UK, who claimed that all the Indians and Pakistanis he knew had voted for Brexit. The second, with Pakistani friends, was that an overwhelming majority of their friends had voted for Brexit, even though they did not normally vote. The reasons given were economic: they expected lower taxes and lower competition from Eastern European migrants in low-wage jobs.

Slough, Luton and Dagenham, all areas with large South Asian populations voted leave, and Leicester, Newham and Harrow were very close to 50%.  This may mirror a quixotic pattern that we saw in the last general election, where older Irish voters supported UKIP over Labour. Migrants, especially settled migrants in a precarious economic situation, can see other migrants as a threat, especially where they are not linked to them by ties of family or culture. Paul Collier argues that recent migrants are much more likely to lose out from further migration than other people. 

This voting pattern goes against the grain of the assumptions of many politicians and analysts. Before the referendum, Omar Khan of the Runnymede trust tweeted that the young and ethnic minorities opposed Brexit. But the first guess from British Future is that about 1m ethnic minority Brits voted out and 2m voted remain. Even in London more people voted out than voted for Sadiq Khan. (And 10 out of the 17 ethnic minority Tory MPs supported out.)

It would clearly be wrong to imagine an innate solidarity that binds all migrants: once you are in and settled, then you have incentives to reduce numbers coming in. Community leaders may see a bigger picture and seek to build bridges that draw together different minority groups, but that does not mean that individual members of ethnic minorities see ‘migration’ as being in their short-term economic interest. (It is sometimes said that the most rational position for an immigrant to take is to be the last one!)

The discussion of migration over the last decade, and certainly during the referendum campaign, has tended to lump all migrants together, often with reference to David Cameron’s failed pledge to reduce the total number. This overlooked the fact that different sections of the public likely have very different concerns about migration, ranging from economic rivalry to rapid cultural change. It also encouraged analysts to conceive of migrants as a unified group, who shared the challenges of integration and settlement.

But migrant unity is only true up to a point. Among groups that had migrated after the second world war, many of the concerns of the British public about migration in general are displaced onto specific other groups of migrants. In many cases this discussion creates a contrast between us (good migrants) and them (bad migrants, i.e. those who give the rest of us a bad press).

However, we will have to wait to see whether Brexit does realize advantages for those who voted for it, ethnic minorities or otherwise. In particular, one of the ‘soft’ advantages of freedom of movement with the EU was greater exposure to different cultures and with this came a reluctance to engage in xenophobic rhetoric of the kind that was once common. Civil society will have to ensure that this cosmopolitanism does not give way to a narrow notion of ‘England for the English’, where migrants and their descendants will be the first to lose out.

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