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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 28 New Delhi July 2, 2016

A Very British Revolution

Friday 1 July 2016


by L.K. Sharma

“Britain has changed.” One kept hearing this lament in London even during the run-up to the historic referendum on Europe. Change can be seen and heard. The armed police presence is no longer a rare sight. Warnings about suspicious objects are heard at underground and railway stations. Many trains get cancelled or delayed. The passengers speak in several tongues and do it loudly. The Englishmen don’t read The Times any more. They tap their smart phones and laptops and reschedule the missed appointments.

At the underground stations, unmanageable peak-hour crowds are managed through moveable barriers. The trains run overloaded. The air and bus services get affected for different reasons. Schools and hospitals can’t cope with the rush for admissions. Last year as many as 630,000 foreign nationals settled in Britain and all public services are under pressure. Many English people wonder about the future of their nation.

A more momentous change struck Britain on June 23 when it decided to leave the European Union through a referendum, rupturing a 43-year-old relationship.

It was an extraordinary democratic exercise! The voters defied the will of the Tory Govern-ment, Labour Opposition, a majority of the MPs, the big business, the American President and the European leaders, the Bank of England and international financial institutions. They demonstrated that even money and foreign leaders can at times fail to move the voters.

It was known that a vote in favour of leaving the EU would be followed by a period of uncertainty. But the situation in the polarised nation got further accentuated when the Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron, who had led the pro-EU campaign, announced that he would resign. What is more, he is not quitting immediately but will do so in October when the party would elect a new leader! Thus he is not starting the complex negotiations for Britain quitting the EU as he had threatened to do in case he lost the EU referendum. Now he wants the task to be handled by his successor.

So for four months Britain would have a lame-duck Prime Minister.

Is there a conspiracy to subvert the referen-dum result? Some companies have started announcing that they plan to move jobs to other countries. A section of the pro-EU activists and the big business hope that the economic situation may get worse and some of the anti-EU voters start regretting their decision. The media is featuring the voters who are having second thoughts! A mass petition for a second referendum has been launched. There are experts who say that the referendum was only an advisory and therefore not binding on Parlia-ment!

The time-table of Britain exiting from the EU has already become controversial, not just in Britain but also in Europe since the EU says the negotiations should begin as soon as possible. The vote in favour of leaving the EU has created an unprecedented situation. Britain and Europe were not the best of lovers and their marriage was formalised after years of hesitation and controversies.The media described the victory of the “Leave” campaign as a “seismic” event. The adjective seemed appropriate.

The historic decision has been hailed by half the voters as the birth of a New Britain. A fringe party wants to celebrate June 23 as Britain’s Independence Day. Those who do not go that far say that Britain has taken control of its destiny or that Britain has freed itself from the dictatorial clutches of the European Union run by the bureaucrats in Brussels.

Britain’s decision will affect Europe. It will influence the US foreign policy. It will dishearten the Indian and other Asian business leaders using Britain as a gateway to Europe. Some American commentators say the British blunder of offering a referendum would affect the world!

The victory of the “Leave” campaign will provoke further discussion on democracy, nationalism, globalisation, capitalism, economic inequality, populism and identity politics. Some describe it as Britain’s Trump moment!

Britain’s relationship with Europe divided each of the two major political parties. It accentuated divisions based on class, generation, region, ideology and the level of education. A strange pattern of the alignment of the rival political forces emerged. Both the “Remain” and the “Leave” camps attracted strange bedfellows. The Right-wingers were happy to join the socialists.

The referendum result highlighted the conflict between Parliament and the people. A majority of the British MPs favour Britain’s continuation in the EU while the people voted for an exit. How will this Parliament adjust to the next Prime Minister who led the campaign against the EU? Speculation about a fresh general election has started but nobody would like another election as the present Parliament has completed just one year.

The campaign for the referendum was described as “venal” with the rivals stooping to personal attacks, resorting to lies and scare-mongering. Unsayable things were said. Political correctness was abandoned. The comedians had a heyday because the “Remain” campaigners painted a doomsday scenario in order to mobilise votes.

The dire warnings of an economic meltdown were ignored by the 52 per cent of the voters who heeded the pleas for regaining national sovereignty and for curbing the EU-enabled migration.

Migration was a big issue in the “Leave” campaign. The European migrants were straining the public services, causing job losses to the British citizens and accepting lower wages. Moreover, the recent acts of terrorism in some countries by the citizens of Europe meant that Britain would become more vulnerable because of the free movement of persons.

As the poll results came out, the losers predicted an economic disaster, the victors saw a glorious new dawn! They saw the victory as an affirmation of democracy, freedom, sovereignty and the English identity. They said people had taken their country back.

The headliners wrote: Britain Out, Prime Minister Out. The Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron, was sure of winning the referendum. He led the “Remain” campaign to fix the Euro-sceptics in his own party! Now the ruling party has gone into the campaign mode for electing a new leader.

A storm is also brewing in Labour, the Opposition party, because while its official policy was in favour of continuing in the EU, most traditional Labour voters favoured Britain’s exit from the EU. Its Left-wing recalled the legacy of leaders such as Tony Benn and Barbara Castle who in their lifetime had fought bitterly against joining the European bandwagon.

Thus in the hour of a setback for the Tories, some dissident Labour MPs are calling for the resignation of their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, blaming him for not running the pro-EU campaign effectively! Corbyn’s election as the leader was the result of the ordinary workers revolting against the elite loyal to former Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Blairites, who have not forgiven this radical leader, are now using a new political weapon to attack Corbyn.

The victory of the “Leave” campaign has given much political mileage to the odd leaders such as Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party and George Galloway, a former Labour MP who runs his own political outfit.

The referendum has opened the Pandora’s Box. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in favour of the UK continuing in the EU as they see their future closely linked to Europe. Northern Ireland has land border with Europe. The regional differences on the issue were so sharp that it is feared that one day Scotland and Northern Ireland may vote for independence. The ruling party in Scotland has revived the demand for a second referendum on Scottish independence. In Northern Ireland the talk of uniting with Ireland has started again. Their pro-EU movements could lead to a Disunited Kingdom.

London too voted in favour of the EU. The corporate world would not mind London city being turned into an independent nation as part of the 28-nation club that began as an economic project but evolved into a political project!

The “Leave” campaign highlighted the demo-cracy deficit in the EU and said that the club would not last long. Britain’s decision has caused unease among the European Union member-nations. They fear that it would encourage the Euro-sceptic political forces in other member-countries and may eventually lead to the disintegration of the EU.

The demands for taking back national sovereignty and rejecting the anti-democratic character of the European dispensation are being raised by the far-Right elements in more than one country. If the exit of Britain from the EU diminishes it, as many British politicians say, it also poses a danger to the European Union.

Britain’s verdict has caused tremors in Washington D.C. as America will have to tinker with its foreign policy related to Britain and to Europe. The successive US governments, while pledging their special relationship with Britain, always wanted this country to remain a member of the European Union.

It seemed to matter to the US so much that President Barak Obama during his visit to the UK in April advised the Britons not to leave the EU. That had the opposite effect because many resented a foreign leader telling the British voters what to do. The “Leave” campaign made critical references to “foreign influence and the role of money” in the referendum.

It was hoped that notwithstanding their craving for national sovereignty and Englishness and their economic hardship caused by the European migrants or by the EU bureaucracy, on the voting day, the British people will control their desire for change and hand a narrow victory to the pro-Europe Prime Minister.

Most opinion polls also predicted a narrow victory for the “Remain” campaign which enjoyed the formidable support of the government that churned out frightening statistics about the economy if Britain were to exit. The Prime Minister kept citing opinions by economists whom he called experts to impress the voters who do not trust politicians.

The Prime Minister’s campaign enjoyed an active lobbying by the former Tory Prime Minister, John Major, and the former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair. His campaign had no shortage of funds The big business leaders lent their vocal and active support to his campaign. The Bank of England and a bunch of economists backed the “Remain” campaign. But nothing stopped the British voters from setting off a tectonic shift.

Such an explosive mass conduct is usually seen only in the developing countries or in a country such as France where political protests tend to turn violent. The people of Britain are generally conservative. They normally hesitate from rocking the boat or upsetting the apple cart. It is not easy to provoke politics-driven mass hysteria in Britain, unlike in countries of Asia or Africa. The victory of the “Leave” campaign was a triumph of passion over pragmatism.

The democratic exercise allowed the steam to be let off. After such a highly emotional campaign, if the excited people see that voting does not change anything, they may be attracted to violent methods of making a political point. During the campaign, a woman Labour MP was murdered by someone who claimed to be speaking for Britain.

This referendum highlighted a new pattern of voters’ behaviour. Elections in Britain are often fought over one-penny or two-penny tax cut! The pro-EU campaign gave primacy to econo-mics, as per the traditional wisdom. It under-estimated the impact of issues such as national sovereignty and English identity. The pro-Europe campaigners kept warning of the economic disaster that would visit the island if it isolated itself from the European Union. They failed to scare the majority of voters.

The politicians promoting the interests of bankers and businessmen had lost touch with the common people. The ordinary voters resented their neglect and the adoration of the elites and experts. When inequality keeps rising, growing affluence angers the disprivileged. In the radio and TV discussions, one detected traces of class hatred. Nasty comments were made about “Them”—the upstairs people—by the lowly downstairs creatures.

It was as if a grassroot movement had targeted the political establishment aligned with wealth-managers and stock-brokers. The dire warnings about a fall in house prices had an unintended consequence. The young Britons, unable to climb on the housing ladder, saw it as a blessing if leaving the EU corrected the sky-high house prices!

The behaviour of the anti-Europe voters was also influenced by a factor that has come to the fore in some other countries also. The masses turn against the political establishment and seek to take control of the situation or at least assert their power by voting against the elite. Every TV discussion during the campaign for the referendum saw the audience laughing whenever anyone cited “experts” to buttress the case for Europe.

The markets may recover from the shock of the referendum result, the fall of the pound and the credit ratings may be arrested, but a climate of uncertainty and contentious debates within Britain and between Britain and Europe will continue for long. The divorce proceedings are expected to go on for two years. The EU does not do things in a hurry.

The euphoria in the “Leave” camp over freeing Britain and its farmers and fishermen from the legislative madness of the European Union will be moderated over the coming months as negotiations over trade and tariffs drag on. Obama had threatened that if Britain left the EU, it would be the last in the line for bilateral trade negotiations with the US.

The new Prime Minister will face several questions in addition to the complex trade and tariff negotiations. What will be the impact of this decision on the EU nationals working in Britain? How welcome would they feel? What will be the plight of the British expatriates living in various European countries?

Britain has entered unchartered waters. The shopping bags displaying the famous war-time slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” has found new resonance. But during the War there was no cultural or political conflict in Britain. Those living in the manor houses and those working in the coal mines were unitedly engaged in the war effort. Britain today is witnessing a million mutinies!

Britain’s divorce from the European Union after more than 40 years of cohabitation is, at a fundamental level, related to the continuing exploration of the British identity and a gnawing uncertainty about Britain’s place in the world. Thus once again one recalls American Dean Acheson’s words: “Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.”

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a free- lancer. He was in the British capital at the time of the referendum on whether or not the UK should remain in the EU, and has sent this article from London for publication in this journal.

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