DEBUG: blog_post
Cooking Curry
04 Sep, 2018

A skill - not a genetic trait

Leave campaigners’ appeal to Indian/ Pakistani voters was based on a racial absurdity. At the same time Leave played on non-Muslims’ fears of Muslim immigration. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg looks at the issues.

First, a test: how many Muslims are there in Britain?

Absolute numbers or as a proportion of the population. Answers near the end.

Save the British curry house

Before the referendum, the Leave campaign wooed the Indian, Pakistani and Bangla Deshi origin electorates with promises to save the British curry house. Instead of an immigration policy that prioritised EU citizens, a neutral policy would allow the entry of more chefs from those countries into Britain.

When rumours of favourable immigration rules for EU citizens in return for preferential trade access began to come out of the negotiations, the curry house industry called it a betrayal.

Anyone can cook a curry, of course. It’s a learned skill not a genetic trait. True, David Cameron’s Curry Colleges failed – but that was for lack of British applicants, not because white people cannot cook curry. At the top end Cinnamon Club, Vivek Singh trains British chefs of all races to make refined Indian food in his own apprenticeship scheme and calls it a “lazy myth” that “you have to be born of an Indian mother’s womb” to make Indian food. Jim Pizer, owner of the Bristol-based Thali chain, is white. That said, others disagree. The Guardian’s long read and a Financial Times article set out both views. But with 100,000 employees, the sector surely should be able to teach its own.

Different Leave messages for different audiences

There can be no disagreement that the Leave messaging offered contradictory stories to different audiences. The overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistani and Bangla Deshi and significantly Muslim Indian origin populations in Britain were told that immigration for them would be easier under Leave.

At the same time, non-Muslims were unsettled by Leave campaigners’ stories of Muslims coming over. Posters representing mostly Muslim immigrants queuing to get into the EU under the title “Breaking Point”. Warnings that Turkey was about to join the EU and that as a result 80m Muslims would have freedom of movement rights to come to Britain.

Populism is driven by fear of Islamicisation

From their own perspective, Leave campaigners’ focus on fears of Muslim immigration made good sense. Professor Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck shows how Muslim immigration is a trigger for people who place high value on stable, safe and secure surroundings. The higher the perceived rate of Muslim immigration, the higher the support for populist parties.

That data-driven finding chimes with the more anecdotal evidence from CommonGround who found in their Ten Towns Listening Project that concerns over Muslim immigration – hardly an EU issue - had been a significant factor in some Leave voters’ motivation, see for example reports on Bradford and Bilston.

The theme is developed in a long article by New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt drawing on 2005 work by then Assistant Professor at Princeton Karen Stenner which discusses authoritarianism – an unfortunate word, which does come with intolerance, but here means mainly a belief in the importance of a stable, cohesive community. Such communities have real advantages: high trust/ high social capital reduces crime and compliance costs, for example. In some cases it is just a cover for racism. But in this sense “authoritarianism” is a valid personal preference; indeed all of us need some sense of community preference for a country to function.

“Authoritarianism” is not a stable condition but a predisposition to react to certain threats. Stenner conducted experiments similar to Kaufmann’s and with the same results: telling nationalists that immigrants make society more diverse led them to higher intolerance; telling them that immigrants assimilate calms them.

Stenner argues that Muslims are perceived not only as a terrorist threat, but also as a threat to society’s norms. Muslims may ask for special treatment, eg women-only sessions at the swimming pool, that go against local ideas of sex equality. Headscarves and veils both mark them out as not assimilating and challenge values.

How many Muslims are there

ONS found in the 2011 census that there were 2.7m Muslims in England and Wales, making 5% of the population. For the UK, the census figure was 2.8m, 4.4%. The Muslim Council of Britain uses these numbers and provides more detailed analyses.

A more recent but less reliable ONS figure puts the number of Muslims in Great Britain in 2015 at 3.1m, 5%.

How many Muslims do people think there are.

Surveys suggest that people in several European countries overestimate the number of Muslims. In Britain, respondents to the survey put the Muslim proportion at 15%.

Use in campaigning

A clear message to use is that Leave tells contradictory stories to different audiences: more curry house chefs from the Indian subcontinent/ fear of Muslims.

It seems odd to address the dislike or distrust of Muslims as an issue for Brexit as Muslim immigration is mainly from outside the EU. There are about 26m Muslims in the EU (5% of the population); about 1.8bn worldwide. This difference is borne out in the religious mix of immigrants, with Muslim immigrants overwhelmingly coming from outside the EU. But in some voters’ minds Islam and the EU are connected. Indeed, the far-right narrative on both sides of the Atlantic has majored on economic protectionism, hostility to the EU and other international/ supranational bodies, and distrust of Muslims.

This could be an area where facts work, Professor Kaufmann reckons. Presenting the truth about the actual number of Muslims and a good estimate of future numbers compared with perceptions and the exaggerated numbers circulating in some quarters could allay some voters’ concerns. He provides some useful numbers to use. Full Fact also has a briefing note.

A point that Haidt makes is that nationalists/ authoritarians are not natural companions of traditional conservatives. The former are willing to take big risks and make large changes; conservatives are more cautious, preferring incremental change and then only when necessary. So it may be possible to separate natural conservatives from the radical step in the dark that is Brexit.

Stenner holds that focussing on how we have the same values and way of life, showing how immigrants assimilate, rather than emphasising difference/ diversity will reduce expressions of intolerance: “Paradoxically, then, it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness…. Ultimately, nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions, and processes. And regrettably, nothing is more certain to provoke increased expression of their latent predispositions than the likes of “multicultural education,” bilingual policies, and non-assimilation.”

The theme of assimilation v diversity has been covered in a blog on this page.





Blogs on this page represent the views of the author and not necessarily those of London4Europe.