By Dr Eva Namusoke, Postdoctoral Research Officer, ICWS, Commonwealth Oral History Project
The campaign ahead of the EU referendum on Thursday 23rd June has been bitterly fought by both the Remain and Leave camps, with rhetoric and statistics bombarded at voters on a daily basis from politicians, business leaders and celebrities. Amidst the ongoing discussion concerning the future of the UK’s place in or outside of the European Union, the role of the Commonwealth, and of eligible Commonwealth voters in the UK has provided an interesting dimension.
Individuals from the Commonwealth who are currently resident in the UK are eligible to vote in the referendum, meaning there are anywhere from 894,000 to more than 960,000 Commonwealth votes at play. In October 2015, Lord Green of Deddington, chairman of MigrationWatch UK, a group that campaigns for stricter border controls, tabled an amendment calling for the exclusion of foreign nationals from voting in the referendum. As the referendum drew nearer, a petition calling for the vote to be restricted to British citizens reached 40,517 signatories. Despite these protests, there has been no change in the legislation and a potential hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth voters will have their say in British politics, potentially swinging the vote.
More than the Commonwealth voters, however, the Commonwealth itself has been brought up in the wider campaigns. In their simplest form, the debates in the EU referendum have boiled down to two connected issues – economics and immigration. Regarding economics, the Leave campaign has long maintained that exiting the EU would allow the UK to negotiate more trade agreements with Commonwealth nations. Perhaps just as important as the government’s response, Baroness Patricia Scotland, the Commonwealth Secretary General summed up the counter narrative and stated in an interview: ‘I say the Commonwealth offers a huge amount, but the Commonwealth does not set itself up in competition with Europe – we are partners.’
Regarding immigration, in a February letter, Commonwealth representatives in the Leave campaign pointed to EU policy that they claim favours EU migrants at the expense of Commonwealth workers, with the striking comment: ‘The descendants of the men who volunteered to fight for Britain in two world wars must stand aside in favour of people with no connection to the United Kingdom.’ However, this argument in the Leave camp is greatly complicated by the vocal anti-immigration, and indeed racist elements campaigning to leave the EU. From Boris Johnson’s careless remarks about President Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage, to UKIP’s deeply problematic poster, the Leave campaign’s xenophobic undercurrent is difficult to reconcile with a closer relationship with the diverse Commonwealth.
Amongst the Commonwealth citizens eligible to vote in Thursday’s election, two nationalities in particular have been the cause of added controversy and courting – those from Cyprus and Malta, the two countries that (along with the UK) share both EU and Commonwealth membership. In the case of Cyprus, the High Commissioner has urged eligible voters to vote ‘In’ while the Maltese Prime Minister (and current Commonwealth Chair-in-Office) has similarly expressed apprehension at the UK leaving the EU. Indeed, these two Commonwealth officials appear to be in line with leaders from other influential Commonwealth countries including Australia, India, Canada and New Zealand that have shown support for the Remain campaign.
While the view from the top suggests the Commonwealth is in support of the Remain camp, those Commonwealth citizens eligible to vote in the UK are by no means a monolithic bloc. In May the BBC featured a handful of Commonwealth individuals and their reasons for voting for either side, concluding that both the Remain and Leave camps had so far failed to court the Commonwealth vote. Indeed, with only days until the election it appears the Commonwealth vote – unlike the Commonwealth itself – has remained something of an afterthought. Whatever the result, it will be interesting to see how individuals from countries as diverse as Pakistan and New Zealand vote in the referendum. One thing is certain, when it counts, the UK reaffirms its Commonwealth connections; it remains to be seen what this will mean in a post-23rd June world.
For more on the Commonwealth and Brexit, see:
‘The 1975 and 2016 Referendums compared: courses and consequences’