Kimberly McIntosh is senior policy officer at the social policy think tank Race on the Agenda.
This week, Britain has once again tuned in to the confusion and monotony that characterize the Brexit negotiations — a process that seems to update daily, yet never results in actual change. While it remains unclear how the relentless political stalemate will end, Britain will not crash out of the European Union without a deal on Friday after E.U. leaders offered to extend Brexit until Oct. 31.
A pause, however temporary, to the threat of a no-deal Brexit is good news for the British economy. As we crawl back from the cliff’s edge, business leaders and trade unions will breathe a collective sigh of relief. And so should the country’s ethnic minority communities.
Leaving the E.U. without a deal — which would mean Britain would transition to less favorable World Trade Organization rules — is projected to have a long-term negative impact on the British economy. The government’s own analysis projects that the economy would shrink by 6.3 percent to 9 percent after around 15 years in a no-deal scenario.
This would be bad for the country as a whole. But it would be especially difficult for those on low incomes or employed in industries that rely on the E.U. for exports and are sensitive to tariff increases — groups that are disproportionately made up of ethnic minorities.
Ethnic minorities are more likely to be in economically vulnerable positions. They are more likely to spend a greater share of their income on rent and have less in savings. This makes it harder to inoculate themselves from any negative consequences of a no-deal exit, such as projected increases to the price of food.
These harmful impacts could carry over even if the government evades a no-deal scenario, but still pursues a “hard” Brexit. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has projected that a hard Brexit would leave workers in jobs on production lines or operating machinery at high risk of job cuts. Pakistani and Bangladeshi men are twice as likely to work in these industries, and much more likely to be living in poverty.
The reality is that Britain has an inequality and poverty problem. It is world’s fifth largest economy, but a fifth of its population live in poverty. This is heavily drawn across ethnic lines. Minority groups have seen consistent gains in formal qualifications. But they still face lower pay, insecure working conditions and higher rates of unemployment, and are concentrated in particular industries compared to the rest of the population. This led the government to launch the Race Disparity Audit in 2017, to shine a light on chronic racial inequalities.
A no-deal Brexit, or even a hard Brexit, risks exacerbating inequalities that already exist. And government preparations for any number of Brexit scenarios has funneled money away from domestic policies that could directly address these inequalities. The Treasury has earmarked more than $5 billion since 2016 to support core Brexit preparations — money that could have been used for anti-poverty measures to ensure that the most vulnerable members of the population are insulated from the harmful repercussions from Brexit.
Finally, Brexit has also unearthed that ethnic divisions go beyond inequality. What was once unsaid in polite society is now public discourse, with mainstream politicians engaging with Islamophobic rhetoric and shameless association with far-right figures. The worst ever rise in recorded hate crime followed the Brexit vote in 2016. The charity Hope Not Hate recently helped foil a far-right plot to kill an anti-Brexit member of Parliament, and tensions only stand to grow with the economic disruptions that could follow Brexit.
How our government responds to the aftermath of Brexit will be crucial. Yet there is no clear plan in place to assist people to adapt to their new economic and social reality.
To avoid the deepening of inequality, the government should steer clear of a no-deal Brexit — but that’s not all. If British leaders truly cared about the well-being of the most vulnerable, they would pursue a deal that minimizes disruptions to trade and ensure that legislation protecting workers’ rights and equality is strengthened and future-proofed.
Just as vital is a comprehensive support package for the industries and communities that face the highest risks, to reduce the potential exacerbation of poverty and unemployment that Brexit will leave in its wake.
But most of all, we need a government and political leaders that take a stand against hate, instead of courting it for political expediency. More funding has been allocated to support anti-hate prevention projects and victim support. With woefully low conviction rates for hate crimes, the government needs to fund more community outreach policing, improve trust and take steps to increase reporting. Finally, British politicians need to leave racism and polarizing or dehumanizing stereotypes out of their rhetoric.
Whenever and however it leaves the European Union, Britain will need a government that prioritizes the people and increases investment in the industries and communities projected to be impacted negatively. Thus far, its leaders have fallen short, putting their own interests and political squabbles ahead of the freedom and security of ethnic minority communities, and the future of the country as a whole. If the past is the best predictor of the future, it is not looking promising for Britain’s minority communities.