by Ed West
Tuesday, 15
June 2021
Idea
11:24

Why didn’t we shut the border with India sooner?

Partly, it seems because Boris didn't want to offend Modi
by Ed West
Credit: Getty

I went to a birthday party at a Wetherspoons a couple of weeks ago. There were around 30 of us, sitting under a marquee in the pouring rain. You could only order by their app, and since I have the tech skills of the granny in the “do they send emails on a Sunday” meme, I struggled.

We were only allowed to sit down at our tables of six, and every time someone stood up to talk to someone on another table, staff in hi vis jackets — the most symbolic representation of Britain’s decline — would bark at us to sit down.

But we all did our bit to stop the spread, even though we were outdoors, and the risk would have been miniscule.

Meanwhile, some 20,000 people have been allowed to wander in from India, a country blighted by a new, more contagious, variant of Covid, without any proper health quarantines put in place. And now, as a result, we’ve got another month of being barked at, and Freedom Day has been postponed.

Boris is by nature a libertarian, but what that means during a pandemic is libertarianism in the sky, and authoritarianism on the ground; you either have freedom between countries, or freedom within them. Boris Johnson once again chose the former, because it’s the easier thing to do; the rest of us are paying the price.

The Government apparently delayed red-listing India because it didn’t want to ‘offend’ Modi, and for a certain type of Brexiteer India plays a crucial role in their dream of a Global Britain — even though India isn’t even in the top 20 of our biggest export markets. (Nine of those are in the EU, which still dominates Britain’s trade.)

So why is this far-away country so important that we have sacrificed our chance to return to normal life? There is a strain of Tory Commonwealth nostalgia who believe that we have more in common with India than with Germany and France because we both play cricket and have a common history. That’s clearly not true — we have more in common with France or the Netherlands even than with the United States, let alone India — but we do share a not especially happy historical link, one that is somewhat repeating itself.

Robert Tombs called the Raj “the Anglo-Indian Empire”, because it was controlled by an intertwined British-Indian elite, and Indians played such a large part in the wider empire, from Africa to Fiji to the West Indies.

Likewise, in 21st century Britain, people of Indian descent play an increasingly important role in the country’s politics and cultural life, in particular those from the British imperial diaspora. Under Boris Johnson, the UK will increasingly be drawn into the orbit of its former colony, and even the subcontinent’s culture wars (in one of those strange developments in globalised politics, British extreme-Right grifters now market themselves at Hindu nationalists, who share their hatred of Muslims).

Every international treaty, every international relationship, entails a loss of sovereignty, something Brexiteers pretended wasn’t the case. This one will have its costs too, which is something for us to reflect on as we spend another month under house arrest, being bossed around by men in hi vis jackets, because our Prime Minister wanted to avoid “offending” our new trading partner.

Join the discussion


  • Based on my travels, where I have lived, friends and family, I reckon we have more in common with the Dutch than the French.

  • …..and there was me thinking it was a simple case of racism. Or in this case not wanting to offend, or appear racist, to the chitter-arty or Anglo Indian/Pakistani electorate. Which to a certain extent, would be racist, because it would suggest that some communities are indeed less valuable, in a having to pay attention to their concerns or voices, than others.

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