The Telegraph, July 5, 2013
By Swapan Dasgupta
It is remarkable what a century can do to change the mentality of the governing classes. On December 2, 1912, Viscount Milner, one of the presiding deities of the British imperial presence in South Africa, spoke to a body called the Authors Club which, presumably, was a feeble Conservative alternative to the more bohemian and, presumably, Left-wing, literary bodies that sprang up around Bloomsbury.
After the mandatory lament that people in the Mother Country had only a perfunctory interest in issues relating to the Empire, Milner went on to advocate one of his pet themes: the idea of Imperial citizenship. "My hope", he said, "is that a day may come when the words 'the Empire is my country' will not be a hard saying to any civilised man. I don't care what the colour of his skin...; when those words will express his real feeling; when, over and above his local and racial patriotism, he will recognise that his highest allegiance is to the Empire as a whole."
And just in case the audience mistook Milner's inclusiveness to be limited to the self-governing dominions such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, he explicitly clarified that he was referring to all parts of the map that were coloured red. "It would be a mistake to undervalue the attachment to the Empire which undoubtedly exists even among the subject races of India and Africa, however childlike may be, must be in the majority of the people, their conception of what the Empire is."
Milner's dream project, quite predictably, came to nought--not least because of the subsequent intensity of the nationalist movement in India. However, till as late as 1971, the United Kingdom persisted with the myth that the Empire had merely been replaced by the Commonwealth, with the Queen at its head and UK as the Mother Country. Until the Immigration Act of 1971, Commonwealth citizens enjoyed visa-free travel to the UK and could even live there with a minimum of fuss. Whitehall took its imperial obligations seriously enough to allow many thousands of British passport-holders of Indian origin to live in the UK after Idi Amin peremptorily threw them out of Uganda. Only Enoch Powell was indiscreet enough to question the wisdom of persisting with the fiction of the Commonwealth using some vivid imagery borrowed from the classics. He was promptly dubbed a racist and fascist, and was unceremoniously banished to the fringes of British politics.
Ironically, 45 years after his infamous "rivers of blood" speech, Powell's prescience has become conventional wisdom. When the Union Jack was lowered for the last time in Hong Kong, a special category of British citizenship was created. It gave the holder of a British overseas passport the nominal protection of Her Majesty's Government but didn't give her the automatic right to live in the UK. Maybe the British Home Office will be a little more generous to the sheep farmers around Port Stanley when the Falkland Islands revert to Argentina one day, but the principle of Imperial citizenship has come to an inglorious end.
In any case, even in the heyday of Empire, the principle of discretion invariably tempered the right of all subjects of the King/ Queen to enter the UK. In 1933, Subhas Chandra Bose, then considered a subversive with revolutionary links, was issued a British Indian passport to travel to Europe for medical treatment. Yet, his passport contained an endorsement in red ink: "Not valid for entry into Germany or the United Kingdom." Bose's visit to the UK had to await his selection as president of the Indian National Congress in 1938.
In view of this background, the Home Office need not be denounced as pathologically racist in proposing a pilot scheme to make "high risk" visitors to UK from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Ghana submit a Rs 2.75 lakh (Pounds 3,000) bond as surety to prevent them from overstaying and joining the ranks of the estimated 5.7 lakh illegal immigrants. The ethnic breakdown of the illegal immigrants who lead a shadowy existence, doing low-paid jobs the natives wouldn't dream of doing, are yet unknown. That is because the UK has no system to record the details of those who depart its shores, and such a system is unlikely to be in place for another five years. My own informal inquiries in London indicated that the number of overstayers who entered on an Indian passport could be anything between 30,000 and 45,000--a high figure but significantly less than the number of illegals from Pakistan.
Clearly the UK has a problem on its hands. Apart from the fact that the illegal immigrants help fuel an underground, black economy, they (and their families) strain the resources of schools and the creaking National Health Service. Reports in the tabloid press over the years suggest that the reluctance of medical practices to operate as an extension counter of UK Borders has led to an explosion of medical tourism. A cash-strapped British exchequer can no longer afford this indulgence.
Unfortunately for Britain, it is extremely unlikely that the Rs 2.75 lakh bond will contribute in any meaningful way towards checking an additional influx of illegal immigrants. The Home Office proposal was premised on the belief that the possible forfeiture of such a sum would put an unacceptable strain on the finances of those who perceive a grim life in Britain as an acceptable alternative to working in a sweat shop in the Gulf.
Logically that may well be true but what constitutes logic in the UK may well be interpreted in a very different way in the districts of Punjab from where most of the overstayers originate.
According to the assessments of those familiar with the British Asian community, the Rs 2.75 lakh bond is almost inevitably going to be viewed as a handling fee. In the past, this fee was paid to touts and travel agents who handled the human shipments and now it will be paid directly to the UK Government. Indeed, far from reducing the risks to a trickle, the surety bonds will be perceived as easy and even legitimate way of entering the UK and then conveniently disappearing into the ghettos. The present generation of British administrators, it would seem, have not yet grasped what their illustrious Indian Civil Service colleagues had learnt from experience: that Indians are habitually inclined to treat the rule of law as an unnecessary impediment.
It has been suggested by concerned MPs on all sides of the party divide that a general amnesty, along the lines of the exercise being undertaken in the United States, is the only realistic way out of the muddle. There is a grain of truth in the proposal since the mere detection of an illegal immigrant does not automatically result in his/her expulsion from the country. Over the years the British Government has learnt to its cost that national laws can easily be overruled by European Union legislation which puts "family life" over punishment of criminality. This implies that each deportation will cost the public exchequer an inordinate amount of money in legal costs: a think-tank has calculated that the detection and deportation of all illegals would cost the taxpayers some 12 billion Pounds spread over 20 years.
There is an additional problem. In recent years, the problem of immigration has ceased to be a Commonwealth problem. The free movement of labour within the EU has meant that citizens from the relatively poorer countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans are now pouring into the UK in search of opportunities. Willing to work for wages that are unattractive for the locals, their presence has created enormous resentment and may even generate social tension. The recent surge in the votes for the United Kingdom Independence Party can be directly linked to the growing British hiccups over immigration.
Britain faces an awkward dilemma. Its economy, particularly the financial sector in London and the new high-tech manufacturing, depend upon a free market and global talent. This necessitates a variant of Milner's Imperial citizenship. At the same time, making the UK attractive for capitalism demands a smaller, more efficient state and lower taxation. That objective is unrealisable as long as resources are being channelled to ensuring the survival of an expanding underclass.
Reconciling "little Britain" with global aspirations, it would seem, has preoccupied the UK for more than a century. And yet there are no clear answers, only a few ham-handed experiments that will end up making a liberal country look needlessly nasty. (END)