Brexit vote aside, UK won’t be the same again
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Europe doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for nearly half (or maybe more; we will know tomorrow) of British citizens. But it also does not work for Europe itself. A project that began as a trading arrangement for steel and coal, and later for all goods and services, slowly began to turn into a more cohesive union. The ideal behind it was noble—Europe had experienced two bitter world wars in the 20th century; such conflict must be banished from the continent. In building peace within Western Europe and in being part of the Western alliance to maintain détente with the Soviet Union-led East, Europe was successful.
But it kept growing into a giant bureaucracy, run by faceless officials whose names no European outside Brussels could name easily, which had an elected parliament filled with people whose political clout was virtually unknown, and which projected a united face in international affairs while concealing significant differences. There is a charming apocryphal story that the former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, said, “If I want to call Europe, who do I call,” suggesting a dysfunctional leadership. (Kissinger never said that; he actually wanted a leader of stature to deal with, not a well-meaning Scandinavian pacifist, who happened to be dealing with foreign affairs of the European Union at that time). While the story is not true, it reinforces the popular perception not only in Britain, but also in many parts of Europe, that the Union is an elite project, loved by people who want to travel across borders (and hence want to erase them). These are the elite who are glad that their roaming charges have dropped. But there are a large number of people who have lost jobs to migrants eager to work for less.
And there were economic policies that crippled agriculture as well—it subsidised its farmers to produce butter and milk and wine, restricting imports of such products from primary products producing countries outside the Union, perpetuating poverty in those countries, and making them reliant on EU budgetary support. Fortress Europe is how the world saw the project. I recall a German banker telling me in the late 80s, before the Exchange Rate Mechanism became a reality, a decade before the euro was born. He said if Europe becomes a fortress, Europe would itself be its first prisoner.
But to anyone from outside Europe—and anyone from developing countries—the continent seemed to represent an impregnable fortress. Barriers rose, but migrants found exceptional ways to get in—flying in the undercarriage of aircraft, even if they might freeze to death; sit on shaky boats and try to cross the Mediterranean; walking miles through the snowbound forests of Norway, with its unguarded borders, and turning up in Scandinavian towns. The deal Europe struck with Turkey—to keep refugees from Syria from crossing into Europe—undermined Europe’s humanitarian ideals.
And when the Greek economy collapsed, Europe struggled to work out the way forward—should German banks that lent Greece money be protected, or Greece’s population? Again, the central conceit of the European project got in the way—that it was an economic union, attempting to be a political entity, but without a unified commanding structure—as though it was a country with a common monetary policy but widely different fiscal policies pursued by individual states (and that’s exactly what was happening). Euro became a currency without an army.
For Britain, across the channel, this was a slow-motion disaster movie in the making. The English Channel separated Britain from Europe, and Britain is happier for it. As an Englishman told a Financial Times journalist—why fill the channel which God had created? So smug and self-assured has Britain been about the separation, that in 1957 the Times (London) headlined “Fog in the Channel – the Continent Cut Off.”
It is instructive to recall that date—1957—it was 10 years after what journalist Madhavan Narayanan quipped yesterday as the last great Brexit—1947, when Britain left India and Pakistan. That led to diminution of Britain’s global role, something which successive British generations have not grasped adequately. A year before that headline, Britain realised that it no longer ruled the waves, when its adventure to take over the Suez Canal backfired. That year (1956) Bertrand Russell and others led the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which created a powerful pacifist movement urging Britain to give up its global military ambitions. And it was the year John Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger, a play that captured the post-war, post-colonial angst as few other works of literature did.
Indeed, there had been great military victories, but the soldiers who died at Somme and Ypres and in Africa were not only valiant English soldiers, but conscripts from the empire; and the empire was itself built on another conceit—free trade. East India Company was free to trade how it wanted and erect monopolies; it was not based on competitive, market-based principles. And it negotiated with superior firepower on its side. Stealth, deceit, and force were its foundations.
And yet, nostalgia has power. It stokes the belief that the country is greater than it is; that the past was always better—a past so idyllic that only misty images of Turner or Constable landscapes, or images of church bells and old ladies on bicycles, warm beer and gentle applause at a village green can do it justice. Any intrusion by ‘bloody foreigners’ that disrupts that image is to be resisted. British industry claims to be tired of health and safety rules from the European Union and the Conservative Party wants to do away with the Human Rights Act (which allows appeals to the European Court of Human Rights), arguing that Britain understands liberties and doesn’t need outside interference. Boris Johnson, the former London mayor, was once a journalist—and lost his job for making up quotes. He is credited with inventing legendary EU regulations that didn’t exist (including one on the shape of a banana) and because he wrote outrageous stories about the EU from Brussels, other dailies asked their reporters to do one better. Johnson’s aim? Advancing his own career—as a British journalist quipped on twitter, Johnson is a man who doesn’t believe what he is saying (about Europe), about a cause (leaving Europe) that he doesn’t care about, in order to get a job (prime ministership) for which he is unqualified.
The message Johnson, his Conservative colleague Michael Gove, and the UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, have emphasised during the campaign to leave Europe underscores that nostalgia—we want our country back.
There is a joke, of an old Englishman returning to Birmingham after spending years in Malaysia running plantations. When he returns to his old street he cannot recognise the neighbourhood. He gently knocks one door, and an elderly Sikh man opens the door. “What do you want,” he asks.
“Excuse me, I used to live on this street, and I have distinct recollection that this is the house where Mr Smith used to live. Would you happen to know where he might be? Could he have moved?” the Englishman asks.
“Smith? No foreigners are living here,” the Sikh says as he shuts the door.
It is a joke, but it is also true that vast parts of urban Britain would no longer be recognisable to those relying only on memories, and they’d want to turn the clock back. But that foreignness—which makes Mr Smith a foreigner—has also enriched Britain in many ways.
But those who want to vote “leave” today, want their country back.
Also read: Britain votes in historic referendum on EU
But who has taken away the country, anyway? And back to what? The country that these politicians—many of them posh—yearn for is that little island that once ruled the world. They are playing on the worst fears of those who have suffered from globalisation—such as the steelworkers this year just as coalminers were once the sufferers—and claiming that if Britain leaves Europe, those jobs will return. The trouble is, those jobs haven’t flown to Romania or Hungary or Estonia; they’ve gone to China and beyond. Those jobs won’t come back. New skills will have to be learned (for which the EU has many schemes) and maintaining infrastructure in towns that have lost industry will be difficult (except that EU grants revive many such regions across the continent).
So the desire of “wanting the country back” is not only naively nostalgic, it is also, at another level, deeply racist. It will turn Great Britain into Little England. Consider the alarmist poster of immigrants queueing up, with the slogan—Breaking Point—implying that Syrian refugees who manage to enter Europe will all jump across the continent to Calais and land up in Dover. Britain has historically taken refugees, and the “English” identity is itself a curious mix of many ethnicities—Robert Winder was being ironic when he called his biography of immigration into the UK “Bloody Foreigners,” for he meant that “foreigners” are indeed part of the English blood.
And there has been real bloodshed. In an assassination that shocked the nation, a man kicked, assaulted, shot and killed Jo Cox, a Labour Party MP who was pro-EU. At his arraignment, he remained unmoved and unrepentant. Cox was a dynamic MP who had worked with Oxfam and championed refugees. Her words during her maiden parliamentary speech, “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us,” have become a haunting reminder of what Britain may lose. A tolerant, kind, polite, friendly nation—that’s how Britain likes to describe itself. Cox personified those virtues. The remarks some pro-leavers made on the Internet during her memorial service were vicious; those were the kind of remarks you would expect in the “comments” sections of newspapers that still carry them; they were on par with what Internet trolls say routinely. Even as the ceremony was on at Trafalgar Square, eyewitnesses reported a low-flying aircraft with a banner advertising “leave” flying overhead. (On the eve of the poll, many European cities— Madrid, Warsaw, Vienna—placed the Union Flag on their prominent buildings, urging the UK to stay). Together with partners and allies, Britain is enhanced. Without them, it is diminished.
The greatness that some of the pro-leave campaigners yearn for, was built in no small part by race, colonialism, and class. If barriers are being removed—if a head-scarf-wearing Bangladeshi British woman wins the Great British Bake-Off challenge on national television; if a city as vibrant as London elects a Muslim mayor, the son of a Pakistani immigrant; if the nation’s favourite dish was, until recently, chicken tikka masala—those are indicators of how Britain can become great again—even without an empire.
But the workers in the North losing their jobs; the new immigrants on their path to citizenship who resent more competition; companies that cannot compete globally and hope for state-funded largesse or subsidies to keep them afloat; and those nostalgists who want to recreate England to resemble an Enid Blyton landscape— they want to leave. A survey in the Financial Times showed clearly that majority of the so-called upper classes prefer staying in Europe, and the majority of the so-called lower classes prefer to leave. Everyone who is part of the “establishment” wants to stay—all living prime ministers, most former ministers, most CEOs of large companies, most academics and scientists, most of the young.
This is not to suggest that the EU is working well. It isn’t. But if Britain leaves Europe, it will take the rules the EU sets and will have no role in setting the rules. If Britain leaves, the status of many Europeans living and working in the UK will be under question; the status of the British living and working in Europe too will be under question. Britain has indeed carved up many countries arbitrarily, and this may be its turn—of decoupling from Europe, then perhaps see Scotland go, for the Scots overwhelmingly want to stay. It also jeopardises the Good Friday agreement which allows an open boarder between Ireland and Northern Ireland (a British province). And it might stoke Welsh nationalism—who knows, if in another decade, the “sceptered isle”, as Shakespeare described it, is diminished further, shrinking into Little England.
Tomorrow we will know what Britain has decided. Regardless of how Britain votes, the country won’t be the same again. The wounds have been deep; nationalism of the narrowest kind has been stoked; nastiness and meanness have been glorified; attempts have been made to settle political disputes with bullets. It is a different country, what A.A. Gill characterised as “an angry island” which conceals its anger by adopting traits that make the English appear endearing and stoic and polite. How sincere is that awkward virtue of tolerance? Can Britain recede into becoming a small island?
The 16th century poet John Donne thought otherwise:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.