New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Cover Story
19 June 2024

A left-wing vision for a post-Brexit Britain

We should engage with the Global South and ease migration restrictions from Commonwealth countries.

By Hans Kundnani

During the eight years since the Brexit referendum in 2016, there has been a remarkable absence of imagination on the British left. Torn between the demands of Remain and Leave voters, the centre left has tended to frame Britain’s departure from the EU as an inherently right-wing project while refusing to commit to rejoining the single market or the customs union. While gradually accepting the reality of the referendum result, especially after 2019, the left has completely failed to develop anything like a meaningful vision for a post-Brexit Britain.

Under Keir Starmer, Labour’s approach to the EU has coalesced around what is essentially a limited and partial reversal of Brexit. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, it has followed the Conservative government in seeking to increase security cooperation with the EU – but is willing to go further than the Conservatives to reintegrate the UK into EU structures to do so. This forms part of a wider approach to foreign policy that David Lammy has recently called “progressive realism”. But what he outlines is neither progressive nor realist. If anything, it is more like a repackaging of neoconservatism.

The left should instead see Brexit an opportunity to create a Britain that is less Eurocentric and a foreign policy that is less focused on the civilisational idea of the West. If the fundamental basis of left-wing politics is the idea of equality, the starting point for a progressive foreign policy must be global inequality. We should rethink the UK’s relationship with the Global South as the basis for a new progressive foreign policy. In particular, the UK could take the lead in imagining a project of reparations for European colonialism.

One example of what such an approach might look like is in immigration policy. In a groundbreaking and influential paper published in 2019, the law professor and former UN special rapporteur on racism Tendayi Achiume has argued that former colonial powers have an obligation to open their borders to former colonial subjects – what she calls “decolonial migration”. Based on the idea that the UK owes a special debt to its former colonies, I propose a limited version of Achiume’s idea as a first step towards the more expansive approach she suggests.

Although it is rarely discussed, the end of post-1945 mass immigration from the non-white Commonwealth went together with the long process of joining what became the EU. It is more than a historical coincidence that the Immigration Act 1971, the third piece of legislation that racialised British immigration policy and brought mass immigration from Britain’s former colonies to an end, came into effect on 1 January 1973 – the day that the UK joined the European Economic Community. As it became more difficult for citizens of Britain’s formers colonies to settle in the UK, it became easier for Europeans to do so.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Brexit has led to a partial reversal of this dynamic of Europeanisation. Even under a Conservative government that has taken extreme measures to reduce asylum applications – the Rwanda scheme, for example – Brexit has actually led to a remarkable increase in overall immigration to the UK. Although immigration from the EU has reduced, immigration from outside Europe has dramatically increased. It is particularly striking that much of this increase has come from former British colonies such as India and Nigeria.

A Labour government should lean in to this shift – and take it further. For moral-historical reasons, it should be easier for someone from Trinidad to come to Britain than someone from Bulgaria. I call this the “post-imperial preference”. In the 1980s, the moral-historical logic that was captured in the anti-racist slogan “We are here because you were there” was contested. But it is now much more widely accepted – certainly more than the idea of freedom of movement within the EU was.

This idea of post-imperial preference is just one illustration that a left-wing vision for a post-Brexit Britain is possible. It is possible to imagine parallel policies in other areas – that is, policies based on an idea of reparative justice, with a particular focus on Britain’s former colonies. The Commonwealth might even be repurposed as a vehicle for them. But all this would require much more ambition – and more creativity – that the British centre left has shown since 2016.

This article is part of the series “How to fix a nation

Content from our partners
The power of place in tackling climate change
Tackling the UK's biggest health challenges
"Heat or eat": how to help millions in fuel poverty – with British Gas Energy Trust

Topics in this article : , , ,