Cultural, Environmental, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Travel

Brexit – the most pointless masochistic step in UK's history

It’s done. A triumph of dogged negotiation by Theresa May then, briefly, Boris Johnson, has fulfilled the most pointless, masochistic ambition ever dreamt of in the history of these islands. The rest of the world, presidents Putin and Trump excepted, have watched on in astonishment and dismay. A majority voted in December for parties which supported a second referendum. But those parties failed lamentably to make common cause. We must pack up our tents, perhaps to the sound of church bells, and hope to begin the 15-year trudge, back towards some semblance of where we were yesterday with our multiple trade deals, security, health and scientific co-operation and a thousand other useful arrangements.

The only certainty is that we’ll be asking ourselves questions for a very long time. Set aside for a moment Vote Leave’s lies, dodgy funding, Russian involvement or the toothless Electoral Commission, consider instead the magic dust. How did a matter of such momentous constitutional, economic and cultural consequence come to be settled by a first-past-the-post vote and not by a super-majority? A parliamentary paper at the time of the 2015 Referendum Act hinted at the reason: because the referendum was merely advisory. It “enables the electorate to voice an opinion”. How did “advisory” morph into “binding”? By that blinding dust thrown in our eyes from right and left by populist hands.

We endured a numbing complicity between government and opposition. The door out of Europe was held open by Corbyn for Johnson to walk through.

What did we learn in our blindness? That those not flourishing within the status quo had no good reason to vote for it; that our prolonged parliamentary chaos derived from an ill-posed yes-no question to which there were a score of answers; that the long-evolved ecology of the EU has profoundly shaped the flora of our nation’s landscape and to rip these plants out will be brutal; that what was once called a hard Brexit became soft by contrast with the threatened no-deal that even now persists; that any mode of departure, by the government’s own estimate, will shrink the economy; that we have a gift for multiple and bitter division – young against old, cities against the country, graduates against early school-leavers, Scotland and Northern Ireland against England and Wales; that all past, present and future international trade deals or treaties are a compromise with sovereignty, as is our signature on the Paris accords, or our membership of NATO, and that therefore “Take Back Control” was the emptiest, most cynical promise of this sorry season.

We surprised ourselves. Only a few years ago, asked to list the nation’s ills – wealth gap, ailing NHS, north-south imbalance, crime, terrorism, austerity, housing crisis etc – most of us would not have thought to include our membership of the EU. How happy we were in 2012, in the afterglow of our successful Olympics. We weren’t thinking then of Brussels. It was, in Guy Verhofstadt’s famous term, a “cat-fight” within the Tory party that got us going. Those cats had been fighting each other for decades. When they dragged us in and urged us to take sides, we had a collective nervous breakdown; then sufficient numbers wanted the distress to go away and “get Brexit done”. Repeated ad nauseam by the prime minister it almost seemed impolite to ask why.

In the early days of the referendum campaign we learned that “on the doorstep” it was all about migration; but we also learned that it was the UK’s decision, not the EU’s, to allow unlimited migration from the accession countries before the permitted seven years were up; it was the UK’s choice to allow EU migrants to stay more than six months without a job; it was the UK that successfully campaigned to enlarge the EU eastwards; it is the UK, not the EU, that lets non-EU migration continue (and why not?) as EU migration declines. We also learned that the UK, not the EU, opted for our maroon rather than patriotic blue passports. Though, as I look, my old passports seem almost black.

There is much that is historically unjust about the British state, but very little of that injustice derives from the EU. Brussels didn’t insist that we neglect the post-industrial towns of the Midlands and the north; or demand that we let wages stagnate, or permit multimillion handouts to the CEOs of failing companies, or prefer shareholder value over the social good, or run our health service, social care and Sure Start into the ground, close 600 police stations and let the fabric of our state schools decay.

It was the task of the Brexit campaign to persuade the electorate otherwise. In the referendum they succeeded with 37%, enough to transform our collective fate for a generation at least. To cause sufficient numbers to believe that the source of all their grievances is some hostile outside element is the oldest trick in the populist handbook. As Trotsky was for Stalin, as the USA is for the mullahs of Iran and Gülen is for Erdoğan, so Brussels has served its turn.

Hedge fund owners, plutocrat donors to the cause, Etonians and newspaper proprietors cast themselves as enemies of the elite. More magic dust. The claim that the Northern Ireland issue has been settled is a dangerous pretence. We have witnessed reasoned argument’s fall from grace. The Brexit impulse had strong elements of blood-and-soil, with hints of Empire nostalgia. Such spooky longings floated high above mere facts.

We acquired an argot. “Article 50”, “frictionless trade”, “just in time”, “the backstop” – how they tripped off the tongue. We learned to respect an “invisible border”. Before it all began, only a very few knew the difference between the customs union and the single market. Three years on, not much has changed. A survey last year showed that quite a lot of us thought that “crashing out” was the same as remaining. If only.

The Brexit leadership and the leader of the opposition were always in a hurry to start article 50’s two-year stopwatch. They feared that leave voters might change their minds, that those who didn’t vote last time were 2:1 for remaining, and that young voters coming on to the rolls would be mostly pro-EU. The Brexiter generals reasonably feared a second referendum.

At least, we can all agree that we will be a bit poorer. As one of my school teachers used to say, if a thing is really worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Theresa May could never bring herself to say that Brexit would make us better off. She wouldn’t even tell us if she would vote to leave in a second referendum. We should credit her honesty. By contrast, Boris Johnson, laying his post-Brexit vision before parliament, promised he would narrow the UK’s wealth and opportunity gap between north and south, and make it the home of cutting-edge battery technology. He forgot to mention that the EU never stood in the way of either project.

Redefining our new trade relations with the EU will preoccupy us for years. As for the US position, take a long walk in the American mid-west and you’ll go a month across a monoculture desert and not see a wildflower. To compete, our own agriculture would have to welcome the hormone hypodermic. Our farmers will need to divest of inefficient hedgerows, boundary trees and three-metre field margins – museum pieces all. When it was in trade talks with the EU, the US wouldn’t contemplate higher standards of husbandry, food standards and environmental protection, even though they would have granted access to half a billion consumers. American farming corporations will not be changing their ways for a nation of a mere 65 million. If we want a deal, it is we who must downgrade.

We sense damage and diminishment ahead. In a dangerous world crowded with loud-mouthed “strongmen”, the EU was our best hope for an open, tolerant, free and peaceful community of nations. Those hopes are already threatened as populist movements have swept across Europe. Our withdrawal will weaken resistance to the xenophobic tendency. The lesson of our nation’s history these past centuries is plain: turmoil in continental Europe will draw us into bloody conflicts. Nationalism is rarely a project for peace. Nor does it care to counter climate change. It prefers to let tropical forests and the Australian bush burn.

Take a road trip from Greece to Sweden, from Portugal to Hungary. Leave your passport behind. What a rich, teeming bundle of civilisations – in food, manners, architecture, language, and each nation state profoundly and proudly different from its neighbours. No evidence of being under the boot-heel of Brussels. Nothing here of continental USA’s dreary commercial sameness. Summon everything you’ve learned of the ruinous, desperate state of Europe in 1945, then contemplate a stupendous economic, political and cultural achievement: peace, open borders, relative prosperity, and the encouragement of individual rights, tolerance and freedom of expression. Until Friday this was where our grown-up children went at will to live and work.

That’s over, and for now the force is with English nationalism. Its champion is Johnson’s Vote Leave cabinet whose monument will forever be a special kind of smirk, perfected back in the days of the old Soviet Union. I’m lying, you know I’m lying and I know that you know and I don’t give a damn. As in, “The five-week prorogation of parliament has nothing to do with Brexit.” Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg were masters of the mocking grin. The supreme court’s inconvenient judgement that this prorogation was illegal clearly still rankles. Recently, the ex-home secretary Michael Howard was set on to murmur against the judges. Extending political control over an independent judiciary would be consonant with the Johnson-Cummings project. Victor Orbán of Hungary lights the way.

The remainers held out for a kinder sort of world, but we were always the herbivores in this debate, with our enormous, good-natured and derided marches – “a hate-filled crowd”, the Sun; “an elite”, the Daily Telegraph. If 16 million remainers are an elite, then we may rejoice that the UK is a model of meritocracy.

We were, in truth, the left-behinds. By the grace of Corbyn and his grim lieutenants, we had no effective voice in parliament. On her first day as prime minister, Theresa May promised outside No 10 that she would govern for us all. Instead, she threw half the country to the dogs to appease her party’s right wing. Initially, Boris Johnson’s elevation was decided by a tiny, ageing constituency, the majority of whose members told pollsters that they wished Donald Trump ruled Britain and that they longed for the return of hanging. In similar spirit, Johnson found fresh depths of populist vulgarity when he spoke last June of pitchforking the EU incubus off the nation’s back. He has realised his dream.

As for the outer extremes, the occasional milkshake aside, we never violently assaulted a Brexiter in the street; we only rarely inclined to sending anonymous death and rape threats such as came so abundantly the way of Gina Miller, Anna Soubry and many female MPs. However, the antisemitic emails from within the Labour party were a disgrace. So too was the bullying mob jeering outside the Rees-Mogg home. But we remainers did not slyly exhort our compatriots to riot in the event of a second referendum going against us. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate did not vote to leave; most of business and the trade unions, agriculture, science, finance and the arts were against the Brexit project; three-quarters of MPs voted to remain. But our representatives ignored the evident public interest and shrank behind party cabals and “the people have spoken” – that bleak Soviet locution – followed by “get Brexit done”, the mind-clouding magic dust which has blinded reason and diminished our children’s prospects.

Ian McEwan is a Guardian columnist (published in the Guardian on 1 Feb 2020)

Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

Isn’t Great Britain in existential threat?

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

It may sound utterly surreal – a country with long and admirable tradition of tolerance, inclusiveness, multiculturism and parliamentary democracy is now in utter disarray due to onset of intolerance, bigotry, populism and ugly nationalism that may well lead to disintegration of British unionism. Decency, honesty, fairness and truthfulness are all attributes of the distant past. Ideological arrogance, spinning of facts to meet one’s selfish ends are more in keeping with the reality of Britain today, particularly with Tory political elites, than with the traditional virtues. In the pursuit of selfish benefits, the interests of the country and people had been blatantly abrogated. These are the sad realities of Britain today.

One may say, leaving the EU on its own volition is the beginning of Britain’s decimation. Nothing could be furthest from the truth. Leaving the EU (with or without a deal) may be the symptom but not the cause. The real cause is more deeply rooted and strongly anchored in the psyche of the British people – more accurately, the English people.

One must look at the inner causes that led Britain to opt to leave in the first place. What was so abhorrent in the EU that Britain, after over 40 years of association, had to leave the EU? Was that a genuine reason or a manufactured reason by some opportunistic political leaders? Was there an aspiration, an unfulfilled ambition of ‘English Elites’ that could not be met by being in the EU? Was it the ideology that the second era of British Empire, another ‘Golden Age’ of British Imperialism, thwarted by the EU can be fulfilled by leaving? All these unfulfilled ambitions, dormant aspirations were confluenced to arouse British people to go for it.

The present predicament could be seen to have started more than 100 years ago – from the beginning of World War I – when Britain was at the height of Imperial Power. Britain was ruling the waves of seven seas, Sun never set in the British Empire . A tiny island at the western fringe of Europe was ruling nearly half of the world. That mighty Empire was lost since World War II and, surely, it can be regained! This aspiration of a certain section of the British people, aided and abetted by delusional ‘Imperialist Elites’, became so vivid that it found expressions in the EU referendum in the form of ‘take back control’, ‘establish sovereignty of the parliament’, ‘day of independence’, ‘future is bright’ etc. The uninitiated general public fell for these deceitful pronouncements of the opportunist politicians.

The WWI did damage Britain significantly, not only militarily and economically but also reputationally. The mighty Empire was found by the colonies not to be invincible. Then came the World War II, only about 20 years later, when Britain hardly had had enough time to recover. The end of WWII in 1945, even with a victory, was the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Within short two years, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire – India became independent – followed in quick succession in other parts of Asia and Africa.

The USA did come to the rescue of Britain but extracted a high price for it. On high moral grounds, the USA demanded Britain should forgo its colonies and offer freedom to all nations. A new world order was established – USA would lead the western powers and Britain would follow it subserviently. This is what was dubbed in British diplomatic circles a ‘special relationship’.

The waves in the seven seas are still there, but there is no single power to rule them anymore. However, USA is gradually taking over the role vacated by British Empire and it is now called America, comprising the central mainland of 50 States and hundreds of overseas territories, protectorate and sovereign lands with their military bases. America’s overseas territories are almost as big as the original USA mainland, both in terms of territorial size and population!

When given the opportunity in the EU referendum, the deprived underclass of Britain blamed the EU for the demise of British power and opted to leave the EU in the vain hope of regaining the bygone glory of ‘British Empire’. Of course, they had been incessantly fed by the opportunistic, populist politicians the messages that getting out of the EU would usher in the opportunity of regaining world power without the shackles of the EU, Britain would ‘take back control’, Britain would be ruled by ‘elected representatives’, Britain be ‘sovereign again’, Britain would make better trade deals with countries etc. Those deceitful politicians claimed (egregiously) that £19 billion that is paid to the EU as annual fees would be given to the NHS – £350 million per week extra! None of these claims is true. But the unpretentious general public did fall for such mendacious claims and voted to leave.

But the question is, why did this bunch of politicians mislead the public with downright falsehood to leave the EU? Apart from personal financial gains – most of these politicians are wealthy tax dodgers and supporters of overseas dwellers of tax havens – they had the agenda of getting back the second era of British Empire! The EU was, in their minds, the only impediment. Once free from that shackle, they would be able to go around the world, make trade deals with various countries and everything would be just hunkydory.

Those delusional Tory politicians started going around the Commonwealth countries to make trade deals which would be needed post-Brexit. Liam Fox, ex-International Trade Secretary, went to India to draw deals under the guise of Commonwealth fraternity. But he had been told bluntly by India that any future deal would be made on purely commercial basis, no amount of Commonwealth or past Imperial flag waving would cut any ice. However, special relaxation of travel restrictions, residence requirements etc for Indians might persuade India to come to a trade agreement! In other words, India would extract special price for any future trade deal. Of course, the same practice would be applied by other Commonwealth countries. The delusional Tory Brexiteers thought making new deals would be a breeze with their imperialist past! Liam Fox said before the EU referendum that making new trade deals would be ‘the easiest thing in the world’!

Leaving the EU, the largest trading block (44% of all exports from the UK goes to the EU), without a deal would leave Britain so severely damaged that other countries would definitely try to extract heavy price for any export-import relationship. No country would even come to make a fair-trade relationship with a lame duck country. After all, Britain under the British Imperialism, did the same thing! Now the hunter has become hunted and that is by choice!

Another sinister issue is the likely disintegration of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Why would Scotland be dragged out of EU against the will of their people by England, when 62% of Scots voted to Remain? Where is the democratic accountability and fairness to the constituent countries of the United Kingdom? In the EU, every Member States (MS), no matter how large or small, has equal say. A small country like Malta (population 500,000) or Luxembourg (population 600,000) or Cyprus (population 1.2 million) has equal say as big countries like France (population over 67 million) or Germany (population 83 million) on all matters of interest. And here is Scotland with a population of over 5.4 million has no say at all in the union with the United Kingdom. This is creating a great deal of strain in Scotland and the demand for its independence from the United Kingdom is growing ever louder. The same narrative goes for Northern Ireland which voted 56% to Remain in the EU.

Gordon Brown, the ex-prime minister of Great Britain, said in an article in the Observer on 11 August 2019 that Britain is sleepwalking into oblivion fuelled by destructive, populist, nationalistic ideology deployed by Boris Johnson. This is not an alarmist view; it is an honest view of a senior politician. When the idea of inherent unfairness will go into the minds of people of those countries within the United Kingdom, it would be extremely difficult to put a stop to it. The strident calls by delusional Boris Johnson to ‘do or die’ and ‘come what may’ will come to haunt him as the disintegration of the United Kingdom rolls on. History will come to look in utter amazement how a country which ruled over half of the world came to smithereens in just about seventy to eighty years!

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist