View From Abroad: The Brexit quandary

Updated March 05, 2018


BRITISH Prime Minister Theresa May.—Reuters
BRITISH Prime Minister Theresa May.—Reuters

AS the world is embroiled in multiple crises from the Korean peninsula to Syria, Britain is still caught up in the self-created mess triggered by its decision to leave the European Union through an ill-judged referendum in July 2016. Anybody who listened to Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech on BBC World last Friday would have noticed the lack of detail about the “hard choices” that she said lay ahead.

May has to perform a difficult balancing act in trying to placate the “hard” and “soft” Brexiteers in her party. And to compound her problems, there is also a group of Tories who voted Remain in the referendum. Getting a good Brexit deal with all these divergent forces pulling in different directions would have tested a strong, popular leader. Unfortunately, May is neither. Greatly weakened by her decision to call a snap election last summer that saw the Conservative Party lose its slim parliamentary majority, she is only in power because party grandees would rather have her take the blame for a bad Brexit deal.

Outsiders are still puzzling over why the British have taken such an obviously disastrous decision. After all, being in the EU has produced many decades of unprecedented prosperity. From the strikes and power cuts of the ‘70s to the high living standards today, Britain has done very well through its membership in the EU. But just as there have been winners, there are losers who made their resentment plain by voting Brexit. In an incisive article, Ian Black spelled out in The Guardian why so many voted to leave the EU.

Between 1979 and 1986, jobs in manufacturing shrank from seven million to 5.1m as factories, mostly in the north, were gutted. Although this trend began earlier, Margaret Thatcher is blamed for her neglect of manufacturing, and her focus on the financial sector. This imbalance saw opportunities and prosperity shift to the south. Of all the jobs lost, 94 per cent were in the north. Skills were lost and traditions ended. For many, part of what it meant to be British disappeared.

Secondly, according to Black, large-scale immigration in the ‘60s and ‘70s caused huge resentment. “Nobody asked us” was a common refrain. But by 2004, anti-immigrant feelings had mostly died down. That was the year Tony Blair’s Labour government decided to allow workers from east and central Europe whose countries had recently joined the EU to enter Britain. It was expected that between 5,000 and 13,000 would take up the offer. In the event, 129,000 flooded into the UK in the first year.

There are now well over half a million Polish workers and their families alone. The total number of EU workers in the UK is now 2.3m. These immigrants have placed a huge strain on medical and educational services as well as housing. The job market for Brits has become tighter as wages have fallen or remained stagnant due to the presence of outsiders willing to work for less. Not unnaturally, these factors have reignited anti-immigrant sentiments that were expressed in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Less quantifiable factors include what Black calls ‘cultural dementia’. This is a harking back to a mythical past that conservatives want to resurrect. In the United States, for example, the ‘50s and ‘60s are seen as a golden era when the middle class expanded rapidly, good manufacturing jobs allowed millions to have their own houses in suburbia, and unemployment was low. Never mind that blacks were openly discriminated against, and many were denied entry into many restaurants across the country. This is the period Trump so successfully evoked in his presidential run.

In the UK, nostalgia for Empire is visible in the popularity of TV serials and movies about the Raj. By taking Britain out of the EU, conservatives hope to strike trade deals with its ex-colonies, imagining that they would flock to oblige their ex-colonial masters. But they might find that these days, money talks while bull--- walks. And countries like China still remember how it was forced to allow British opium traders to force the drug into their country at bayonet point. Victory in the Second World War is another triumphalist moment that is regularly invoked as proof of British prowess.

Then there is the delusion of English exceptionalism. This is a conviction that Britain deserves to sit at the top table, along with more powerful countries. This has resulted in the country spending far more than it can afford on aircraft carriers and Trident nuclear submarines. Many British conservatives are convinced that their country is capable of punching above its weight.

Black blames the “playing fields of Eton” for much of the Brexit mess. David Cameron, the architect and prime mover of the referendum, is first in line for having first promised the vote in 2009, and then delivering on it as he caved in to pressure from the right wing of his party. Boris Johnson is another Eton alumnus who played a key role in securing a Brexit majority with his hyperbole and outright lies. A cartoonish figure, his ambition outruns his abilities. Another caricature from Eton is Jacob Rees-Mogg whose main claim to fame are his old-fashioned suits and clipped accent. Oddly, he is being viewed as a possible successor to Theresa May.

Recently, John Major, Maggie Thatcher’s successor after she was ejected by her own party, weighed in with this warning: “The government’s disregard for economic and diplomatic realities have set the country on a trajectory towards calamity.” Predictably, he was castigated by Tory MPs as “an embittered hypocrite, propagandist and traitor”.

This divisive debate over Brexit is likely to continue until the day Britain leaves the EU, and well beyond.

Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2018