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Brexit, present and future

When intolerance is tolerated…

Brexit, present and future

An ecstatic Nigel Farage, leader of the extreme right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP), told his elated supporters that June 23 should go down as Britain’s Independence Day. But the general mood of at least half of Brits is not that euphoric.

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has caught many by surprise, because quite a few people in the vicinities of London, South of England and in regions like East Anglia anticipated that the Leave would outnumber Remain on that ‘fateful’ day.

David Cameron did all he could to stop the Eurosceptics, but could not prevent disaster from happening. Accepting the people’s will to Leave, Cameron announced his resignation. With Europe as the foundation stone of Cameron’s foreign and economic policy, logic calls for the establishment of a new administration to sketch out a future course of action, consistent with new Brexit ideals.

But all that is evident is chaos, since there are no ideals, no policy and no orientation about post-Brexit Britain.

Jeremy Corbyn’s future too hangs in balance. The pound has tumbled, investment decisions are suspended, and firms are talking of moving operations overseas. Many are resigning; among them is also Jonathan Hill, Britain’s EU commissioner. Markus Kerber, head of the German industrial association, said he expects bilateral trade to “nose-dive” and German direct investment in Great Britain to grind to a halt.

There’s a gaping vacuum in British politics. Chaos and confusion is reigning supreme in the mother of (parliamentary) democracy.

At the head of the Leave campaign were a triumvirate of dubious repute: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the latter two were members of the Cameron government. Farage is a cartoon character, a gurning fool with a tale to tell. It is a tale about the 1940s and 1950s, about a world that no longer exists. It is (to quote Shakespeare) “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. His party has one MP (and it is not even him), and it has just won a referendum.

Gove is currently the Justice Minister. When economists predicted problems, should the Leave vote win, he compared them to Nazis. When academics from a number of fields — International Relations, Economics, Politics, the list is long — gave considered reasons why the UK should stay in the UK, he said, “People in this country have had enough of experts”.

As for Boris Johnson, he joined the debate after waiting long enough to work out which side would suit his career best. He’s the man who said the exact opposite as the mayor of London a few short months ago. But, on the day the referendum result was announced with him as the chief architect of Leave, he was silent. As markets tumbled, currencies fell, racists attacked, Johnson played cricket and said nothing.

These three are responsible for spreading outright lies that were refuted by experts within hours of the result. But the UK has had enough of experts!

In Cambridge, where I have been for the last seven days, people are talking about Scotland holding a second referendum, which may call for independence this time. Northern Ireland’s peace settlement too seems to be in jeopardy. Worryingly, mounting evidence suggests a spike in racist and xenophobic incidents directed at immigrants, particularly the Polish and Romanians.

In Huntingdon, a small town near Cambridge, schoolchildren of Polish origin received cards with a Polish translation, calling them ‘vermin’, who must leave England. Aditya Chakrabortty reports in the Guardian, “from Barnsley, a TV correspondent notes that within five minutes three different people shout, ‘Send them home’.” In East London, while an acquaintance was trying to catch up on some sleep, he heard someone bellowing outside his open window, “We’ve got our country back and next I’ll blow that ****ing mosque”.

When intolerance is not only tolerated, but indulged and encouraged, such a mindset strikes roots and socio-cultural exclusion becomes a part of collective psyche. Michael Keith at Oxford University’s Migration Research Centre very rightly says, “The unspeakable became not only speakable, but commonplace”. Chakrabortty reported a university academic sharing with him casually, “I am scared to tell a taxi driver that I am Polish”.

One must be aware of the fact that issues other than migration or Europe — like, extractive elites in politics, business and finance, a badly lopsided economy, “a state that stuffs London while it starves the rest of the nation” — all worked in favour of Brexit.

Britain will face severe recession if racism and the far-right swell get its way. The current uncertainty prevailing in Britain will push big businesses away, and no serious investment will come. Sterling is likely to become a backwater currency. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of the England, asserted once that Britain relies on “the kindness of strangers”. My Cambridge friend Mirza Yousaf Baig consoles himself by saying that in 1985, too, Britain sunk into recession and the king of Brunei Dar us Salam bailed it out. It may happen this time too.

But with xenophobia and racism on the rise, will such a bailout be forthcoming. This is a big question?

Britain’s decision to Leave the EU had many detractors, but it did evoke admiration from a few quarters. Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s right-wing populist Northern League, eulogised, “the courage of the free citizens of Great Britain” and demanded a similar Italian referendum. Marine Le Pen, who leads France’s anti-European National Front, described the outcome of Brexit as a “victory for liberty” and reiterated her call for a referendum on an exit for France. Geert Wilders of Netherland’s anti-immigrant Party for Freedom expressed same sentiments when he said, “The Europhile elite has been defeated”.

Eurosceptic marginal voices have been reinvigorated and are moving to the centre-stage. In view of the current situation, the future of the European Union does not look very promising, to say the least. With such elements gathering force, the values manifested in liberalism and multiculturalism will find it hard to sustain. Nationalist, populist and protectionist forces in the rest of Europe are surely feeling encouraged. An EU shorn of Britain’s deregulating influence is a troubling portent for the liberal world order.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

2 comments

  • remarkable comments

  • Dr Rizwan Hasan

    Dr Kamran has clearly described the rise of the new populist fringe leadership and the hijacking of the public’s mindset by sloganeering which is far from the real truth. Mr Farage has managed to get support for his ‘leave Europe’ campaign from the very section of community which will be hit the most i.e. the unskilled workers and the old age pensioners. Unskilled workers will be much poorer in a contracting economy and the pension pot will also be smaller. The younger age group had a much lower turnout although they will be affected most by the result of the referendum. Their apathy with the political process my be a reflection of the shenanigans of political elite who have allowed inequality to grow whilst their nests are feathered with Panamanian down.
    It would be interesting to see the US tilt for popular leadership as well as this will further point the direction of the future for the West itself.

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