Delayed Gratification or ‘Brexit Interruptus’?

Today marks an inflection point in the graph of global politics: As elections begin in India, the EU has just agreed to give the UK until October 31st to ratify or reject Brexit.

Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, plagued by Parliamentary deadlock over how (and one can read that to mean whether to) leave Europe, at a tense meeting in Brussels, had originally asked for an extension until June 30th. Sceptical that hardly three months would be sufficient time for the fractious British parliament reach enough of a consensus to tilt definitively in one direction, her counterparts across Europe gave her more time than May says she needs. But since taking office some two years back, May seems utterly oblivious to the reality that the people of the UK want another definitive vote on the EU.

Unfortunately for the public, while Labour has the clout (if combining with other parties) to make this happen, their leader, Jeremy Corbyn who voted against joining Europe in the first place and seems to have never changed his mind in the intervening forty-four years (opposing both the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties and backing a referendum in 2011 to withdraw from the EU in 2011) is quite bent on opposing a second referendum, which has come to be called the ‘People’s Vote’. In fact, although Corbyn officially campaigned for the Remain campaign (and that too with the enthusiasm of a corpse) he attacked the Remain campaign just before the vote. In its aftermath, he thoughtlessly called for immediate ratification of Article 50 even before the UK Supreme Court had weighed in. Not long back, this would have been heresy in the Labour Party but the ‘us vs. them’ psychology that has sharpened political dialectics across the globe, has also permeated party lines in the UK.

Following the announcement of the extension, European Council President Donald Tusk said Britain could use the time to finally ratify May’s withdrawal deal or could opt for a new strategy, making changes to the political declaration, which sketches out the sort of relationship it will have with the EU in the future. It could even “cancel Brexit altogether” he said. This was as clear a message to proponents of the People’s Vote that a second referendum would be tantamount to putting the UK and Europe in a time machine, erasing all the negativity of the past two years.

 

But it won’t be that easy.

 

While low voter turnout was a key factor in the Brexit result in 2016, scant little has been done by politicians to open the arms of isolationists who feel, despite all hard economic data predicting that leaving the EU under any circumstances would be a kidney punch to the UK economy, Brexiters believe that leaving will give them more control, prevent more immigrants from coming to the UK if not expelling those who are already residing within its borders, and bring about some kind of miraculous renaissance in Britain to make it stronger – and ‘great again’. It’s irrational of course – but beliefs are seldom based on quantitative data – they are formed around emotion.

 

That’s where the challenge lies for Remainers – how do they reassure those across the divide? These are the people they’ve vilified as morons, zealots and bland as traditional English food. While some of these characterizations may be spot on, it’s a time for reaching out rather than digging in. That said, few political movements are leaning towards any form of moderation, these days.

 

Indeed, the psychology behind die hard Brexiters will be hard to overcome. Anyone with the barest sense of history knows that Britain was once the preeminent power in the world. This position was gained through domination, and led to a superiority complex that is evident in the colonial culture, Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’ being a prime example.

 

Weathering the storms of World War II under the leadership of history’s most lauded racist, Winston Churchill, ingrained in certain Britons a sense of otherness – that Britain was best in Europe on its own. Forget that, along with determined English soldiers were Scots, Irishmen, Canadians, Indians, Americans, the French Resistance and others. For the Brits as with the Americans, they had won the war.

 

The unintended consequences of such a heavy and sustained conflict is that called into question the imperial narrative. After all, having railed against the racism of Hitler, how could Britain continue a policy of racial domination? It no longer seemed a just cause. What was once a story about ‘civilizing the natives’ had evolved into a dark tale of subjugation and exploitation.

Theresa May (left) and Donald Tusk (right) in Brussels

The Commonwealth of nations, a union, which emerged to link the former colonies under the influence of a patronizing British progenitor, served to keep Britain ‘special’ in the eyes of its citizenry. Britain still mattered – and continued to matter against the scourge of Soviet imperialism right up until that empire fell, too. With the map of Europe being redrawn in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Europe becoming stronger at the expense of its member states, Britain began its grey dissent into become a country like any other, devoid of its international clout – it’s specialness.

 

With Britain’s decline in the world came her sputtering as an industrial nation with Germany and Japan, erstwhile enemies having emerged as economic powers after World War II and the crumbling of the Soviet Union.

 

The people of Britain could be aptly described as proud, hard-working folk who long for a brighter future. They also live in a country with a large working class, which has seen the gap between themselves and the elites widen since Britain joined the EU. That this is a simple case of Post-hoc ergo proctor-hoc (after therefore because of) isn’t something that’s easy to explain, especially with a media in the UK, owned by anti-EU zealots, feeding the public half-truths and fantasies.

People who are unhappy and angry often don’t attend to the long-term consequences of their actions. Crimes of passion, by definition, lack the premeditated thinking-it-through that tends to keep people out of trouble. Still, crimes and emotionally driven actions are often the outcome of a history of emotional dissatisfaction. People don’t just get angry one day and stab their partner. They get angry, and then they get angry again, and then they stomp their feet for a while, and then one day they get really angry and they happen to be holding a sharp object – and then…

One of the fantasies floated by the Leave campaign involved making deals with former colonies like the USA, India and Canada. The promise of forming a trading block with these nations projected Britain as, once again, having influence over the territories of her erstwhile empire. Holding out he hope of establishing this pseudo-empire, indeed, would seem to resonate with those who thought Brexit would make Britain great again. What could be greater than establishing ‘empire-light’ under the auspices of trade? The Commonwealth might actually turn out to mean something closer to what the word suggests!

Of course, the UK failed to even get her former colonies talking. Why would a country like India, for instance, whose middle class eclipses that of the UK, give anything away in a trade deal with her former oppressor? It is neither good business nor good politics. Variations of the same thinking cause the dominos of the pseudo-imperial fantasy to fall one after another.

Then there are those who felt that the UK could negotiate a deal in which all the economic benefits of a free trade zone would be realized while the negatives such as cost and free flow of people could be avoided. Have these Leavers ever heard of the phrase, “having our cake and eating it too?” That this is another fantasy is evidenced by the fact that Britain has failed to negotiate an acceptable deal for leaving the EU, and faces down the reality of a ‘no deal’ scenario.

That Leavers are dominated by people aged in a bracket that will scarcely realize the consequences of their decision is a frustration for the young who will have to live with the consequences for decades. The same leavers recall WW II, and feel some sadistic sense of suffering in isolation as being a virtue – and just like how London got through the Battle of Britain, somehow, Britain will persevere and finally thrive. This is no less unrealistic than the latter two scenarios.

PROJECT FEAR

Elucidating the very real risks of leaving the EU was described as ‘Project Fear,’ and summarily dismissed by politicians and media analysts alike. But the real ‘project fear’ was the alarm stoked by the Leave campaign that seventy-six million Turks, for instance, were getting ready to storm across the border into the UK, once they join the EU (a foregone conclusion as per Brexiters). Fear of the other, immigrants – you know, the job-stealing, wage-undercutting, foreign language speaking, closet terrorists with diabolical plans to make polish sausage the national dish and impose Shariah law on all Brits – these enemies must be stopped! And, that is how Britons will take BACK control.

Of course, seventy-six million is actually the entire population of Turkey, and by no means is their becoming part of the EU a fait accomplish. So unless Turks are capable of overrunning legal boundaries to abandon the whole country for the chance of opening a falafel cum fish and chips stand in Camden, the notion should have been rubbished as absurd. But it wasn’t. Again, this is a failure of the media.

Unfortunately, Angela Merkel’s humanitarian immigration policy was a severe impediment for the Remain campaign. It was portrayed as opening a door for undesirables that in a soft-bordered Europe could see the UK as the ultimate haven for them. The problem with this thinking is that for many, Germany offers much more opportunity with its superior economy than a Britain in decline. This argument wasn’t palatable for Leavers because to state the reality of Britain’s slump would be to question the special nature of the Briton – and that cannot simply be done. To let hard numbers rain down on British dreams seemed then to be downright unfair. So the fantasies were indulged.

And then there are the lies. No need to rehash them here; The Guardian listed them quite entertainingly in this article: 11 Brexit promises the government quietly dropped. I particularly loved the 350 million pounds a week that the UK would save by Brexiting and reinvesting in the NHS, this being espoused by politicians who have been eating away at the NHS for decades.

The new project fear is being invoked by PM Theresa May who has said it could threaten the UK’s “social cohesion” and “set a difficult precedent” and that the implications for the country were serious. Other MPs have called it a “losers’ vote” and thereby undemocratic.  Sufficed to say that George Orwell must be turning over in his grave!

Canada, which faced a referendum on the succession of its majority French-speaking province, Quebec, and nearly lost the country when a razor thin one percent margin over a vague question (that many understood was not about secession) prevented the country from spitting apart, decided to pass a law called The Clarity Bill that defined the conditions under which a province could secede. This pre-empts any vague question being posed to the electorate that they might misinterpret. That the first referendum did not ask a question that clearly communicated that exiting the EU could mean a completely isolated UK with no trade agreements with any EU country, has now become crystal clear. That the Leave campaign lied about key aspects of Brexit has is also known and accepted. Democracy being premised on the notion that the electorate are informed, was subverted by the first leave vote. This and the fact that Brexit turn-out was so low makes a second referendum on a clear question much more democratic than the 2016 vote.

Indeed, some see the recent decision by the EU to grant double the time requested by Prime Minister May to extend Brexit as leaving enough of a window open to hold a new vote. Indeed, European Council president, Donald Tusks statement that a decision to undo Brexit is a viable option indicates that the EU would much rather go back to the way things were.

According to The Guardian, while citizens are split over whether to hold a second vote, if one were held with the options of accepting Theresa May’s deal or remaining in the EU on the ballot paper, 46% said they would back remain, against 36% who would vote to leave on the terms of the prime minister’s proposal.

This figure only tilts in favour of remain the longer uncertainty lasts. Already, demographics due to deaths and eligibility of new voters since June 2016, make a 2nd referendum likely to return a result in favour of staying in the EU. With Brexiters being elderly and Remainers being younger on average, time does not favour Brexit.

Time is what the EU has given the UK.

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