Perhaps the most successful immigrant group in British history are the east African Asians who fled from Uganda and Kenya in the 1960s and 1970s. Being a market-dominant minority in Africa, they attracted resentment and after expulsion soon established a number of businesses in their new home.
Ugandan and Kenyan Asians are now also well-represented in politics, and of 15 Asian Tory MPs, five are of east African origin — Suella Braverman, Shailesh Vara, Paul Uppal, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Patel’s grandparents had come from Gujarat and settled in Uganda but her parents left for England in the 1960s before dictator Idi Amin completely lost the plot and expelled most of the Asians in 1972. And now, several decades later, she’s in charge of deciding who gets to live in Britain.
Earlier this week, in what was supposedly a gotcha moment, the Home Secretary was asked by LBC Radio host Nick Ferrari whether her own family would have been able to come here under rules she’d drawn up. She couldn’t answer, and the whole episode was revealing — not of Patel, but the people making a point of it.
Just as people stating that “something isn’t truly British because it’s foreign in origin” are revealing a belief that something indigenous is more authentically British, so is the surprise that a second-generation immigrant might show more loyalty to the country of her birth than her parents’ ethnic group.
Most of my male ancestors arrived on this island in longboats carrying axes, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t pass Patel’s immigration rules either — but so what? The vast majority of our forebears wouldn’t be accepted by modern Home Office rules, because immigration rules by definition need to become stricter in line with increased globalisation (mainly as there are just so many more opportunities for travel, and established diasporas already here). She’s creating immigration rules appropriate for 2020, not the 1960s.
The implication of Patel’s critics is that her loyalty should be to her family — and by extension, ethnic group — and that any restriction against them is equivalent to insulting her ancestors, because she might rather they had not come. And by insulting people’s ancestors, and suggesting any past immigration was not entirely benevolent or good, we are insulting their descendants. Tantamount to saying they never should have existed.
Yet we’re all here because of the past, for good or ill; Patel is a product of the British Empire just as she is of 1960s migration rules. Personally, I’m a product of England’s long involvement in Ireland; do I think that was in Ireland’s best interests, and the interests of my Irish ancestors? No. Am I still glad I exist? Of course. But whether my grandfather or great-great-grandfather would have been allowed in under a particular rule is irrelevant to how effective or necessary it is now.
Immigration as a subject is emotional enough as it is — I think we could do without bringing ancestor-worship into it.