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PETER WICKHAM: Bajan Brexiters


PETER WICKHAM: Bajan Brexiters

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THE UK’S VOTE to leave the EU continues to provide food for thought and this week I was inspired by a conversation I had in the UK with a gentleman who was also fortunate to have been educated at the Foundation School, although under the tutelage of Harford Skeete.

This gentleman who migrated around the same time as my parents, spoke extensively about his reasons for not supporting the Brexit campaign.

While admitting that the decision would make little difference to him personally, he argued that he would never vote to deny his children the right to live and work in 27 European countries. 

In addition, he took aim at those who were anxious about immigration and reminded of the times when a similar chorus was raised in objection to people like him (and my parents) who migrated in the 50s and 60s to expand their horizons and to the development of the UK.

As I reflect on the similarities, it is interesting that I am already old enough to draw parallels about our own attitude to what was categorised as a wave of migrants into Barbados in the late 90s and early 2000s. The parallels are striking as I am told the British concerns about immigration can be traced back to Tony Blair’s decision to support the Eastern expansion of the EU into places such as Poland (without the option to defer free movement).

The Polish scenario is indicative as in 2001 one source estimated that there were 58 000 Polish living in the UK, while in 2011 that number grew to 676 000. In our case there was no “legal” facility to accommodate the migration of an estimated 15 000 Guyanese but Owen Arthur’s apparent willingness to ignore these numbers matched Blair’s “welcome”.

The two leaders had much in common that motivates their openness to migration, beginning with the fact that both were buttressed by extremely high levels of public support reflected in landslides that either put or kept them in office for an extended period.

The two had a similar world view which I support entirely and sought to grow their economies by way of migrant labour. In both cases the leaders correctly identified a critical impediment to development (the cost of labour) which is often the case with successful economies.

The single market is ideally suited to address such problems especially where countries at different levels of development are brought together; hence both Barbados and the UK have benefited tremendously from this migration.

It is unsurprising that building booms in Barbados (pre-World Cup) and the UK (pre-Olympics) were facilitated by labour from Guyana and Poland, respectively, and it is equally unsurprising that in both countries there are people who simply “don’t get it”. 

In Arthur’s case and to his credit he understood the political challenge and pushed to advance the single market while leaving grey areas that effectively left our borders “ajar”.

This was a sound strategy that is steeped in realism, while in Blair’s case he was confident about his people’s ability to assess the benefits of migration (alongside the challenges) and presumed that no Labour leader would ever be foolish enough to put such matters to a referendum.

As is often the case in politics, an opportunity emerged in both countries and in the case of the UK it was the Independence movement which fundamentally exploited the British tendency towards xenophobia. In time the Independence movement forged an alliance of sorts with the Conservative Party and the rest is history.

On this side of the Atlantic Arthur’s attitude towards immigration was such that was cast as a leader who was encouraging lawlessness, which was not helped by his notorious quip that he conspired to break the law by employing Guyanese. 

This was followed by David Thompson in his rhetoric and ultimately the DLP’s post-2008 policy stance as articulated in the infamous Green Paper on immigration reform. 

I have before and will continue to argue that this position was unnecessary and counterproductive political opportunism that exploited the Barbadian proclivity towards xenophobia.

The lesson in all of this is that the reactions of both Brits and Barbadians are a natural reaction to migration which they/we might not immediately understand is beneficial in the long-term. It is equally true that short-term impacts have been exploited by political forces that identify opportunities for advancement and can provide the catalyst to events which have long-term negative implications. The Thompson administration was not exclusively elected on a campaign of discontinuing migration and while that has easily been their most successful policy initiative to-date, Thompson was no Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson. The UK’s development has, however, been hijacked by a motley crew that has little to offer to that country’s long-term development. We would, therefore, do well to watch, learn and avoid similar mistakes.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: [email protected]