In just one month Great Britain has gone through more political upheaval than it usually does in five years. Since a narrow majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union (EU) in June: The prime minister has resigned, two party leaders have gone, the leader of the Opposition Labour party is facing an unprecedented revolt, numerous other political careers have been killed off, the currency and stock markets have lost enormous value and the economy is on the brink of a crisis.
But there is a depressing twist. The international victims of Britain’s vote to leaving the EU in June will most likely be Indians. Want to visit Britain as a tourist? To study? Want to travel there to find work or even to join family? They are all about to get a lot harder than they already are. Every year thousands of Indians marry someone from Britain and apply to settle there. Thousands more go there annually to rejoin families or visit their children. Nearly 20,000 Indians went to study at British universities last year, many settling down after finding work or even falling in love. Britain may have a ‘special relationship’ with America, but it has strong ‘family ties’ with India.
But while the rules for visiting, studying, settling or working in Britain have already been made stricter in recent years, worse is yet to come.
Part of the reason is the new Prime Minister’s background. As the daughter of a Church of England vicar, Theresa May’s deliberately non-flashy and middle-class background sharply contrasts with the man who occupied that job last.
She is a more traditional Conservative with values more in tune with the heart of middle-class England than metropolitan London, i.e. suspicious of both foreigners and rich bankers. As she said when launching her campaign to be PM: “I don’t gossip about people over lunch. I don’t go drinking in Parliament’s bars. I just get on with the job in front of me.”
And that job, as home secretary for six years, was frequently about clamping down hard on immigration. At one point, her department hired vans to tour Indian-dominated areas of London with big ‘Go Home’ signs that were apparently aimed at illegal immigrants. Only 11 people actually left the country as a result. But it didn’t matter because the British media was willing to overlook her mistakes as long as she talked tough on immigration.
Brexit is about to make this situation worse. A lot of Britons voted to leave the EU because they want to see immigration cut drastically. But no one told them the legal process to leave could take up to three years, perhaps more, and in the meantime EU citizens can still walk into Britain without a visa. They will soon start getting angry.
So until it happens, May will have to appease the anti-immigration lobby by restricting non-EU immigration again. A huge proportion of them are from India and China. But since Chinese visitors mostly come to study (a source of income Britain does not want to give up), they will seek to restrict Indian immigration.
In practice, this could mean stricter requirements for those visiting as tourists or joining family and higher charges for Indians hoping to study or work there. All of this would be a big mistake for a country that now needs a stronger relationship with India more than ever. But it would not be the first time the new PM will put political calculations ahead of her country’s needs.
Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London. The views expressed are personal.