The one promise that Brexiters kept


Second only to music as an evoker of personal memories is smell. That of egusi soup — a sort of spiced spinach whiff — is enough to transport me across time and space to Nigeria in the 1980s. Now, at Ikoyi, too daring a restaurant for its setting in the hedgies-and-royals end of London, a Chinese-Canadian chef reinterprets the dish to two-starred standard. Similar feats with sorghum (Nigeria is a major producer of that cereal) and jollof rice round off the Lagos-on-Thames-via-Kowloon motif.

After four years away from London, the question of where to dine first in a city I view as not so much home as an extension of my body wasn’t so difficult. I just chose the restaurant that is hardest to imagine existing anywhere else.

London is going to have more Ikoyis, more of the world rather than of Europe, and for that there are some improbable people to credit. Brexiters always said that less immigration from nearby would allow for more from beyond. The nation’s global rather than continental orientation would be given room to express itself. It was the one promise they kept. Britain is now a country of high non-white immigration again — in construction, in healthcare — and mostly relaxed about the fact.

And so, no, there is not going to be a Brexit dividend (see the growth forecasts). There is not going to be a levelling of the regions (see London’s performance versus the rest). Exporters are not finding New Zealand adequate compensation for an internal market of 500mn people. Over time, such is the compound effect of lower growth, much of Britain outside its otherworldly capital could become what it was in the 1970s: a poor rich nation.

But if Remainers are free to claim vindication, so too, on the narrow matter of immigration, are Leavers. Astute readers of the British temperament, they knew that formal “control” of borders mattered more to people than actually using it to shut out the world.

The result has been visible on the ground during this first week back. No self-respecting urbanist should need to consult official data to know the latest immigration flows in and out of their city. With an ear tuned to accents on the street, it was possible to pick up on the exodus of Australians after the 2008 crash and the Spanish arrivals after the euro crisis two years later. The relative rise of west Africa vis-à-vis the Caribbean has been unmistakable in London since the millennium.

Well, those demographic antennae haven’t deserted me. Within a few days of landing at Heathrow, it was obvious that Indians and Hong Kongers (over 100,000 of whom have applied for visas since 2021) are on the up, eastern and central Europeans well down, and that whole Franco-Italian thing in the rich but chintzy quarters more or less steady.

And this is after just a year or two under the new system, with a pandemic still gumming up the world movement of people. Project forward, and the social change could be profound.

Governments never do anything more important than set immigration rules. Of all the bills that Lyndon Johnson signed into law, the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 tends to get less fanfare than civil rights and the expansion of the welfare state. But it changed the literal complexion of America. The bias towards northern Europeans in immigration law fell away, setting the US on its Latin-Asian course. Brexit isn’t quite as abrupt a shift: extra-European immigration is hardly a novelty here. Still, the reorientation towards the rest of the world will affect the texture of British life towards mid-century and beyond.

I remain doubtful that this is what the median Brexit voter had in mind on June 23 2016. But we liberals must take our victories where we can these days. The meals eaten, the romances formed: life is about to become more, not less varied in a city that already had a fair claim as the world’s most cosmopolitan. How strange if the ultimate winner of Brexit turns out to be the kind of effete globalist who writes this column. And how amusing.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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