Britain doesn’t need a hard Brexit – it needs a diversity Brexit

Equality and inclusion must be at the heart of British identity


Britain is open for business. That’s the key message and identity our government charts for Britain upon leaving the European Union. Brexiteers talk of Britain as if it were a trading company selling irresistible products.

This vision is narrow on two fronts: it focuses primarily on trade relationships, and on how Britain interacts with the rest of the world.

First, our historical strengths aren’t just openness to money and trade, but to ideas and people. And, second, we must affirm these values internationally and domestically, including equal rights and liberties for everyone who lives here. Who we are as a country is fundamentally a question of values and community, and of making sure those values feel real for everyone.

Today, the day we formally give notice to leave the European Union, and as the Great Repeal Bill undoes many European laws, many of the one in five people who are not white British may wonder if their rights will remain.

Concerns about losing rights and protection from discrimination must be addressed. Citizens want more than the right to live or work here, but to have their voices heard, and to contribute equally to the future vision and priorities for Britain. 

We now know that waiting for generational change in public attitudes and laissez-faire ‘tolerance’ of diversity isn’t enough. Instead we have to do more to affirm the value of diversity and of the contributions of migrants to who Britain is — and will be in the future.

It’s unlikely our economic and international relationships will actually take off post-Brexit if we invoke a trading past that, as Gideon Rachman shows, was built on imperial political, economic and military dominance. With less than four per cent (and shrinking) share of global GDP, Britain can’t build an Empire 2.0 platform.

What instead can Britain offer to itself and to the world post-Brexit? On the one hand our strengths of open-ness and diversity are simply good business. The evidence shows that embracing diversity helps profits and not doing so harms the economy. UK plc has heard this message, with government-sponsored reviews calling for greater action on race equality led by business leaders Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith and Sir John Parker.

And it isn’t just hard economics. Have we forgotten the London Olympics? This was a consummate exercise in soft diplomacy, where we unexpectedly beat out Paris to host because of our explicitly ‘multicultural’ pitch.  Reducing discrimination and inequality is also the best step for bringing communities together domestically too.

Immigration didn’t begin when we joined the EU and it won’t end when we leave it, as even Brexit minister David Davis now concedes. What Britain needs is not so much a hard Brexit, but a Diversity Brexit.

To get the deals we want Britain will be judged on more than the size of our trade flows: less nativist, more non-racist.

We need to stop using EU citizens as a bargaining chip and start welcoming them. Bring in more Syrian refugees and expel less parents of British-born children, who might have failed to fill in a naturalisation form because they were labouring under the mistaken impression that they were welcome here. 

Britain’s economic challenges are closely bound with our identity issue. Our past and present record will come up when trying to broker deals with countries we used to govern  If we don’t get a grip on the current extent of race inequality, and protect our human rights, it looks like Britain is firmly stuck in past prejudices.

Brexit hasn’t created all of these challenges. A decade ago Paul Gilroy wrote of Britain’s ‘postcolonial melancholia’ suggesting that British or English identities haven’t been inclusive enough for all ethnic minorities.

Post-Brexit we will only secure profitable trade deals and bridge divisions by ensuring that equality and diversity are explicitly front and centre in defining who we are.

Dr Omar Khan is Director of the Runnymede Trust. He tweets at @omaromalleykhan

See: Article 50: Time for Tory ministers to stop their arrogant posturing and work constructively with Europe

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.