The UK was already short of curry chefs. Now the Brexit vote has made it worse
Back in 1971 George Harrison sang “Bangladesh, sure looks like a mess”. This description now applies to the situation unleashed by the self-destructive decision to leave the EU following the monumental miscalculated gamble of the referendum.
On the pin-board in my office in parliament is a letter from the BCA, the Bangladesh Caterers Association, “established 1960” as the letterhead points out, to fight for the rights of Indian restaurant workers – the nearest thing we have to a curry trade union. It thanks me for raising the “curry crisis” in the House of Commons to George Osborne last November. At the time I lamented that two Indian eateries a week were closing and declared it would be a national tragedy if this much-loved staple of the UK high street were to disappear.
A year later it seems so many more tragedies have unfolded – not least the referendum result. Osborne and David Cameron have gone; the latter has completely left the crime scene, and the leave supporting BCA, furious that it has been sold down the river by the Brexiteers, is spitting feathers in the FT and Mirror. I hate to say “I told you so” but we remainers were always sceptical when the pro-leave side promised that a vote to leave the EU would mean subcontinental chefs would be welcomed with open arms. Alas, the curry unions bought it.
The Economist has observed “The curry house is a British institution”. At the high watermark of New Labour, Robin Cook declared chicken tikka masala was the national dish. Of course it is British Bangladeshis, not Indians, who are the main engine of the Indian restaurant industry, providing the UK’s balti, jalfrezi and korma dishes among others. I’m a product of the trade: my late father had two tandoori establishments at one time, and toiled tirelessly to support us. Even my mum did her share of unsociable hours for the Huqs’ curry career.
The contribution of the curry trade to the exchequer is substantial; it is estimated to be worth £5bn to the British economy, and annually employs 200,000 people – but it has staffing problems. The British Bangla population is now coming of age and branching out – the nation’s most famous Bengali is probably Nadiya Hussain, last year’s Great British Bake Off winner, a title attained not by making naan but cupcakes. My siblings and I didn’t fancy working in the family business – one became a Blue Peter presenter, while I became a lecturer and am now an MP. Following a familiar immigrant trajectory, there’s also been diasporic shift from the inner cities to the leafier suburbs.
Back in 1971 George Harrison sang “Bangladesh, sure looks like a mess”. This description now applies to the situation unleashed by the self-destructive decision to leave the EU following the monumental miscalculated gamble of the referendum. Government back-of-a-fag-packet immigration policy aiming to reduce immigration down to the tens of thousands is not only a flop but it’s unworkable. Constrained by dogma, the Tories are intent on aping Ukip rather than addressing genuine skills shortages in our economy be it in fruit-picking, IT or curry cooking. Another unwelcome byproduct of a vote that centred on immigration is the attendant climate of emboldened xenophobia and rocketing hate-crime – and we haven’t even left the EU yet.
When I was growing up we were all Asians together. Now faith seems to be more clearly asserted, and those who are mixed race make up an ever-bigger demographic. No party can take Asian votes for granted. Perhaps it was for this reason that Priti Patel was chosen to woo the subcontinental chefs during the referendum campaign. On the Today programme and elsewhere curry leaders accordingly came out for Leave, believing this was the only way to save their industry from extinction. I doubt that the curry constituency could have swung the result, but it was sorely misled.
This week, addressing the Commons from the opposition frontbench for the first time as newly promoted shadow home affairs minister, I asked about that promise. I wanted to know when we could expect the red carpet to be rolled out for curry cooks from the subcontinent. I got a big fat raspberry. Theresa May’s immigration minister declared that there are no plans to deviate from the long-stated strategy to have our own home-grown curry chefs rather than to import them. Just as Osborne said 12 months ago. No change there then. The pledge had as much value as the NHS money promised on the side of that infamous bus.
My office has also received an invitation to the glitzy British Curry awards. This year it promises the Right Hon Priti Patel at the event as chief guest. It’s not made the pin-board, even if we so-called “remoaners” have had some wind in our sails after yesterday’s high court judgement. I’m giving the bash a miss – Brexit and its entanglement with curry has left a bit of a sour aftertaste.
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