Politicians who think they are in control of events can make a sorry spectacle a few years down the line. Winston Churchill believed in 1940 that the British Empire might last for a thousand years. Jawaharlal Nehru assured people in 1946 that when the British left, “there will be no more communal trouble in India”. At Partition in 1947, Mohammad Ali Jinnah kept his house in Malabar Hill since he assumed the border between India and Pakistan would be fluid and he could return regularly to Bombay. Once the chaos kicked off, political leaders on all sides were left wondering what on earth to do next.
As in Asia in 1947, in Europe in 2016 inept politicians are being assailed by forces they have unleashed but are unable to control. After the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, we the people simply do not know what the future holds. Anger between the “leave” and “remain” camps is hardening. The British prime minister David Cameron, who has always been a tactician rather than a strategist, thought he could mend an internal dispute within his Conservative party by holding a popular referendum, and the public slapped him in the face. The initial outcome has been a $2 trillion fall in global markets, a sharp devaluation of sterling, the end of Cameron’s term of office in 10 Downing Street and a potential unravelling of the United Kingdom.
We didn’t vote for Brexit, the people of Scotland are saying, so why should we be dragged out by the votes of the English? Let’s have another referendum, back Scottish independence and stay in the EU. In Ireland, one of the most carefully constructed peace deals of modern times, in the wake of decades of terrorism, risks coming apart. Let’s hold a poll on a united Ireland, say the Irish nationalists, rather than turning the border between north and south into an international boundary between the EU and the fissiparous UK.
On the continent of Europe, internationalism has fallen out of fashion and right-wing parties are emboldened into calling for referendums of their own. Everyone wants to go it alone, regardless of the consequences. In Europe today, as in large parts of America, a “stop the world — I want to get off” populism is the new politics. The UK faces a tribal conflict that will not be easily healed: Between young and old, between metropolitan and rural, between the comparatively successful and those who feel utterly left behind. It would be a mistake to think that anyone gains from this breakdown in trust and the enduring structures of society: England’s loss is not Asia’s gain.
A month ago, I drove across rural England from Cambridge to Salisbury and was struck on the journey by the number of signs and banners attached to haystacks or bridges demanding “Leave Europe”, “Get out of Europe” and other such geographical impossibilities. A friend in Wiltshire wrote on social media after the result: “Talking to people up here on the farm I think the voting in my village was 679 votes to leave and 1 vote to remain.” Yet the irony is that the village in question, which I know well, has barely been affected by European legislation or mass immigration. This part of rural England has been changed rather by globalisation and modernity: Farms are mechanised and their workers can no longer afford to live locally, the village shop has closed, jobs are scarce and house prices are inflated by rich émigrés from London. People feel their way of life is under threat and Britain is not the same place their fathers and grandfathers fought for in World War II.
Nostalgia may be alluring but it can also be fatal: A similar process is playing out across much of the northern hemisphere. For decades, the unelected, faceless bureaucrats of the EU have been blamed for the state of affairs, and now that they are to be removed from the picture, England will need a new scapegoat. Already, abuse ranging from graffiti to name-calling has been meted out to Poles, Muslims and the non-white on the streets of Britain. As a society that has in many ways been successful in recent years in dealing with integration, this is extremely damaging to the UK’s reputation for tolerance and stability. It is certainly not the case that all “leavers” are xenophobes and racists, but xenophobes and racists have been enabled and encouraged by the vote for Brexit and see themselves as the victors.
The leadership of the EU has been goaded for years by the scabrous end of the British press. They have no reason to do any favours to the UK in the painful divorce that is now coming up, and will do all they can to maintain the solidity and survival of their own institution. As an example to others, they may decide to set the UK adrift on the flimsiest of economic life rafts. In the unscrambling of a 40-odd year relationship, the UK has few cards in its hand. So far the only hint of a strategy in London has been to say it might delay triggering article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, under which a member state of the EU secedes from the union. A new, impromptu British government could then press for better terms and — conceivably — put them to a second referendum. If as seems likely this does not succeed, the UK will have to negotiate continuing access to the EU single market for its world-leading banks and businesses, and make fresh trade deals with dozens of countries around the globe (or fall back on WTO rules, which place it at a massive financial disadvantage compared to the position it now takes for granted).
The new political proto-leadership that intends to take us to these glorious sunlit uplands consists of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, a pair of trenchant opinionators from the world of journalism who have seats in the House of Commons. They appear shell-shocked by a surprise victory in a game of brinkmanship they did not fully understand. They do not object to the neo-liberal economics that has changed the UK so significantly, and Johnson, in particular, appears to have no interest in delivering the huge cuts in migration that his boisterous “leaver” supporters now take as their right. Populism, Trumpism and anti-politics are part of the new global order. Where will the crowd lead the British government? Johnson and Gove have no idea what Brexit means any more than Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten knew what Partition meant when they signed up for it on June 3, 1947.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Stop the world…’)
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