With Brexit, the UK takes its last, doddering steps off the world stage and into delusional senility
A Tale of Two Nations
In 1981, Salman Rushdie wrote of a ‘little empire’ within the UK. The British had, he argued, replaced control over external dominions with internal colonies made up of immigrants from its overseas possessions. In so doing, it deferred much of the psychological trauma that might otherwise have followed from its sudden loss of status.
Today, that little empire fell, as England decided that it had had enough of the world and withdrew into a rose-tinted delusion of village greens, cucumber sandwiches and giving those damn continentals what for.
The United Kingdom started as an imperialist enterprise. Ireland was brought into it by force, Scotland by the lure of the profit, particularly in the wake of its own failed attempt to set up trading posts in the Americas. When the profit motive was no longer there, it was only a matter of time before the concord between the peoples of these islands would begin to fray.
Scotland is as good as gone. Just two years ago 45 per cent of its population voted to leave the UK, despite a ferocious cross-party campaign of fear and intimidation. Today, with every single constituency returning a remain vote, it seems impossible to imagine that the 300 year old union between the two kingdoms of mainland Britain will last more than a couple of years.
The country split almost down the middle, with 52 per cent voting to leave and 48 per cent to stay in. Those who voted to leave were overwhelmingly English, provincial and old. Those who voted to stay in, young, multicultural and urbanised. They thought this was their country to shape for the future, but it was ancient grudges against Jaques Delors and a world view that was old-fashioned even in 1979 that carried the day.
Even Jeremy Clarkson voted in.
Bad politics, bad politicians
The tenor of the debate was atrocious. Both sides are guilty of patronising, fearmongering and failing to make a lucid case – in other words politics as usual. But the truth is, this could never have been about the intimate details of the EU charter, it could never have been a cold calculation of cost and benefit, because for the last 40 years our politics has been deliberately dumbed down and the field of acceptable debate narrowed to inconsequential issues.
The referendum itself only took place because David Cameron needed to promise Tory Eurosceptics something to stop them from bleeding to UKIP. The conversation, such as it was, was about sovereignty and immigration. The idea that we might ‘take back control’ was paramount, any ideas of what we might do when we have it, well, the point is we’ll have control and when we have control, control is what we’ll have. Did you know there are 500 EU regulations about pillows?
Many of the strongest arguments against Brexit – protection for workers, the ability for British citizens to work freely on the continent, the stability that comes from belonging to a large bloc – were all off the table because they are almost inevitably anti-Tory. There was much talk of the disenfranchised white working class, but with respect to their whiteness, not their working class identity. Such things are outside the lexicon of our Neo-Liberal consensus and impolitic in a country that did, after all, vote for this government twice.
And so it became about identity. It became about being able to say something, to matter, just once. And nobody made the point that this might not be the best time to rock the boat, nobody said that perhaps it was not Europe that was the source of our woes, but successive generations of British politicians who have pursued broadly the same social and economic policies, doing the same thing again and again in the hope of a different result.
Of course, there were many people who voted leave who were genuinely concerned that the bendiness of their bananas was being regulated or that the money spent on the EU could better be spent on the NHS. But these people did so well aware that the unintended but inevitable consequence of their decision would be the kind of chauvinistic nationalism that had Nigel Farage claiming victory ‘without a shot being fired.’
Even though a shot was fired and a brilliant passionate young MP, a wife and a mother was slain by a man who gave his name in court as ‘Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain.’
A green and pleasant land
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps as a Muslim and the son of immigrants, I have a skewed perspective. Perhaps Europe, and people like my parents, hard-working decent people who’ve helped to drive the national economy are the problem.
Maybe all that needs to happen to #MakeBritainGreatAgain is for the drawbridges to be pulled up, the Poles politely asked to leave and the European working time directive and those pesky human rights to be abolished . Or maybe not, we will find out soon enough.
Jo Cox’s death was horrific, but for me the most poignant moment of the campaign was hearing the TV next door turned on for an hour each night as my Romanian neighbour, a trader with one of the big banks, listened diligently to the back and forth that would decide her fate in this country.
She’s not part of the new Brexit Britain, and neither, I suspect, am I. But I’m sure that England can manage without us and without the hundreds of thousands who will either be forced to leave, or choose to do so having had it made to clear they are not welcome. And that doesn’t even count the young native British who will be wondering how on earth they are supposed to make their way in the world when so much of it has suddenly been cut off to them.
But as we move towards whatever happens next, into a world where an outdated notion of sovereignty matters more than a stable, viable country. It is hard not to see this as the culmination of the process Rushdie described, part of a vast historic arc that began in 1801 and to find it rather fitting that the nation that conquered the world has, in what surely must be its final act, conquered itself.