‘Vote Leave, take control’ – the misleading promise of the Brexiteers

Photo: Ken MayerPhoto: Ken Mayer

The assertions of the ‘Leave’ campaign that an exit from the European Union would allow Britain to regain full control of its own borders, seize back decision making from Brussels, and ‘make Britain great again’, tied immigration control and national sovereignty in a manner that resonated with enough of the population to secure a victory for ‘Out’. Immigration was cited as the main reason for Leave voters choosing Brexit. Yet this is only the latest episode in a saga of nations implementing migration controls in attempts to rouse nationalism and assert sovereignty. From the late nineteenth century, explicitly and implicitly racially charged legislation has been implemented and manipulated by governments seeking to appease citizens in times of economic and political pressure. Yet for Britain, this has not always been the case. During her renaissance, the peak of British influence on the globe, the country’s lack of migration restriction was heralded as a core reason for the nation’s prosperity and success. However, Thursday’s vote reveals a British public with views far more in line with the xenophobic officials of early twentieth century Australia and the United States than with the liberal politicians of what many consider to be Britain’s true era of greatness.

Prior to the increased mobility of the late nineteenth century, border controls and immigration restrictions were seen as anomalous, and in fact against the very principles Great Britain stood for. Freedom of movement and free trade were seen as the twin core principles of the British Empire, and the very notions that defined Britain as the world’s superpower. Free trade could not prosper without the freedom to travel and reside abroad. British and European migrants streamed to Australia and North America in the late nineteenth century, Spaniards and Portuguese sought employment in South America during times of European economic downturn, and the Indian Ocean formed a complex migration network between population hubs such as India, and the plantations of Southeast Asia. Free mobility was seen as the hallmark of the modern nation, and countries with passport controls in place in 1860 were subjected to relentless criticism. This freedom of movement came to exist after the failure of border controls in the 1850s. The exclusion acts in California and Victoria, which targeted labourers travelling in third class were highly controversial, with the greatest opposition coming from Whitehall and Westminster, and were removed within five years of implementation due to their failure, and the political strife caused.

The idea of using immigration restrictions as a method of asserting sovereignty is in no way a new one. From the controls introduced by Australia, the first independent nation of the twentieth century in 1901, prohibiting entry for certain groups and ethnicities provided the nation with the ability to shape its own identity – an identity characterised along racial lines. Drawing comparisons to policy in South Africa, prospective immigrants were filtered by ethnicity, with ‘desirables’ only being waved past entrance tests. Dictation tests were required of those of non-white ethnicities, and migrants were ordered to write out a dictated fifty word passage in any European language. Only 59 of 1,359 people given the test between 1902 and 1909 passed. Such legislation allowed Australian legislation to remain devoid of explicitly racist language, yet permitted border officials to filter on the grounds of ethnicity in practice.

A nation shaped by immigration, the United States was not immune to the calls for limitations on the numbers gaining residency in the 1920s. Federal law sought to control what many saw as the unprecedented migration of Eastern Europeans, Asians and Africans to the US, and crucially it sought to form a distinctly ‘American’ identity. The architects of the Act, Congressman Albert Johnson, and Senator David Reed, prioritised a ‘stabilising of the ethnic identity’ of the country, and a limitation on the numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans and Jews, entering the country, as they could not ‘adapt to American culture’, and arrived sick and starving at the US border, unable to contribute to the nation’s economy. The resulting law, the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, is cited by many historians as the origin of the US-Japanese conflict that came to shape the Second World War in the Pacific. The blanket ban on Asians seeking residency in the US met fierce opposition in Japan, where it was viewed as a direct attack on their nation’s people. After a racial equality discussion at the League of Nations was batted down, and Johnson-Reed remained in place, Tokyo was covered in signs declaring ‘Hate Everything American’, and a boycott of US goods and movies was instigated. The failure of the League to pass a clause on racial equality formed a driving force for Japanese nationalism, and was used as rationale for the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. This military expansion was a key cause of destabilisation in East Asia in the 1930s, and provided a platform for the Japanese to launch a full invasion of China in 1937. Immigration restrictions in the US led to bubbling resentment, followed by fully-fledged opposition across the Pacific, fuelling nationalism that resulted in an outburst of Japanese imperialism, and an undermining of East Asian security.

Immigration Acts formed a key tool of the postcolonial state in the new state rhetoric of independence. The 1957 Federation of Malaya Act, establishing Malaysia as an independent sovereign state and part of the Commonwealth, was quickly followed up by immigration control acts. A complex set of exclusions was devised as an assertion of the newly independent nation’s masculine sovereignty – border control as a demonstration of nationalism and strong government. Yet the reality of such legislation was much the same as the migration control under the former colonial rulers, and in many instances, the postwar migration acts of newly independent nations often had identical phrasing and sections as the supposedly race-less, actually racist, colonial immigration acts. Of crucial significance is the fact that true change was not afoot regarding immigration to the country. As with many other nations gaining independence in the postwar era, immigration acts were initiated or altered to create a rhetoric of independent decision making, rather than instigating true logistical change. Whether the rhetoric of border control post-Brexit is used to appease the masses, to little effect on the numbers entering the country, is a question to be answered in the years following the Referendum.

The central proposition of the Leave campaign, that the Referendum offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to reclaim British sovereignty by restricting immigration, holds a twin historical significance – providing the reason millions voted in favour of Brexit, and placing Britain in a long line of nations attempting to tie border control, nationalist tendencies, and independence. Perhaps looking back to the previous century, and seeing the dangerous divisions, and lack of real change such attempts resulted in, could have informed voters on the momentous decision made on June 23rd.