A family of West Indian immigrants arrive to Britain Evening Standard/Getty Images

Populism Bites Back

Political posturing is often expedient. But British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is now being reminded daily of the far-reaching consequences of staking out positions that lack any meaningful regard for the future.

LONDON – This spring, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government is being reminded of just how powerful – and long-lasting – the unintended consequences of policies can be. Two problems concerning the United Kingdom’s borders – one relating to immigration, the other linked to the frontier with the Republic of Ireland – have lately erupted. While they have not yet weakened support for the government, they probably will. And they are almost certain to diminish what is left of Britain’s soft power.

The immigration problem goes back some seven decades, to the arrival of the first waves of Caribbean immigrants in the UK. They had been invited by the government in the wake of World War II to help offset a labor shortage, taking hard-to-fill jobs in the National Health Service (NHS) and other sectors.

Named “the Windrush generation,” after the first ship that brought them, these immigrants entered the UK on their original passports. As citizens of British colonies, they were legally regarded as citizens of the UK as well. Thus, they did not need to take additional steps to acquire specifically UK citizenship; nor did their children, whose arrival was recorded only on paper landing cards.

Yet the UK government has now decided that these long-time British citizens are not citizens at all, because they lack the proper documentation. An administrative blunder seems to have resulted in the destruction of the old landing cards, which had been stored in crates somewhere at the Home Office.

May’s government is now scrambling to deal with one shameful incident after another. Elderly people have been refused re-entry to the UK – a country that they regard unquestionably as home – after visiting relatives back in countries like Jamaica. Others have been inhumanely detained and denied free NHS treatment, even for cancer.

Britain may not be fundamentally a racist country, but over the last several decades, right-wing nativist politicians have used inflammatory rhetoric to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment, targeting those from South Asia and the West Indies in particular. To name a particularly notorious example, 50 years ago this spring, Enoch Powell, a Conservative member of parliament, delivered his abhorrent “rivers of blood” speech, in which he warned that, within 15 or 20 years, “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

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Powell’s inflammatory rhetoric aside, his speech reflected the regular build-up of pressure on politicians to take a tough line on immigration – a process that continues to this day. May’s government now promises not just to reduce illegal immigration, but also to cut overall annual immigration to less than 100,000.

That figure is ludicrously low, amounting to about half the current level of immigration from outside the European Union (another 90,000 per year come from the EU). As if achieving that goal were not already impossible, May insists on counting foreign students as migrants, even though they are in the UK only for the duration of their studies.

But May’s problematic approach to immigration extends back further. In 2013, when she was Home Secretary, she advocated creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants – a policy that many argued poisoned the atmosphere for anyone with darker skin. Political embarrassment mounts.

As for other government ministers, their shame-faced apologies for the Windrush scandal have been all the louder, because the story broke the same week that the heads of government of the Commonwealth met in London for their biennial conference. With reports of Home Office mistreatment of non-Caribbean Commonwealth-born citizens proliferating, indicating that the problem is likely to spread beyond the Windrush group, we can probably expect more apologies.

But managing immigration is hardly the May government’s only border-related challenge. It also must navigate the question of what to do about the UK’s land border with the Republic of Ireland after Britain withdraws from the EU.

When the May government announced its commitment to follow through with Brexit, it made clear that it would also depart the Single Market and the customs union, without thinking through the implications for the UK’s borders. That decision was in no way required by the result of the Brexit referendum in June 2016. Instead, that self-imposed red line, like the referendum itself, was meant simply to appease the Conservative Party’s most right-wing elements.

Such a “hard Brexit” would have serious consequences for the British economy. Customs unions typically bring together neighboring countries, which then trade across tariff- and quota-free frontiers and apply common tariffs for trade with other countries. There have been several customs unions around the world, but none as successful as the EU’s.

May’s government has said that leaving the customs union will enable the UK to make its own trade deals. But, as an EU member, it already has access to about 70% of the world’s markets on favorable terms. It is unclear how May’s government thinks the UK can do better on its own.

Making matters worse, as May herself declared when she was campaigning for the Remain camp ahead of the referendum, there is no such thing as a virtual border between countries with different tariffs. If the UK, including Northern Ireland, is out of the customs union, and the Republic of Ireland is still in, there will have to be a hard border.

Yet such a border risks undermining the Good Friday Agreement that has underpinned peace in Northern Ireland for two decades. And May’s government has proposed no plausible alternative solution for managing the relationship between two different customs regimes without a border.

Political posturing is often expedient. But May’s government is now being reminded daily of the far-reaching consequences of staking out positions that lack any meaningful regard for the future.

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