Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brexit - Britain and its Discontents.

So Britain is out (or at least on its way out) of the EU and both Britain and the EU face an uncertain future.  

Personally I think that the British voters made a mistake, but I can understand why many chose to vote for an exit.  

I think there are three aspects of the EU which have led to disillusionment with the institution among a majority of British voters and among significant numbers in other EU countries.  They are:

1.  The right of free movement of workers within the countries of the EU;

2. The establishment of the Euro; and

3. The project of enlarging the EU to include countries formerly in the Soviet Bloc.  

The first goes back to the founding Treaty of Rome (1957) but was formalized and extended in 2004.  The second and third are part of the 'deepening' and 'widening' which took place subsequently.  The core founding members Germany and France were in favour of deepening. Britain, always leery of yielding too much sovereignty, promoted widening as an alternative. Together these aspects have led to the crisis which the EU now faces.

In the Brexit campaign the main issues seemed to have been immigration, immigration and immigration.  To a lesser extent people seemed to have been concerned about an unresponsive and rule-obsessed bureaucracy in Brussels;  about the Euro; and to have had the customary British indignation at foreigners interfering in British affairs.  But immigration and more generally globalization were the main issues - not dissimilar to the things which brought Donald Trump to the top of the heap in the Republican Party nominating process. 

As I have maintained for a long time, the issue of immigration was one that was never really put before the voters.  Since the war, all of the major parties have been in favour of immigration to a greater or lesser degree.  It is only recently, with the rise of UKIP, that the Conservative Party sought to really tighten up on immigration.  But in some ways it was too late because various British governments had signed on to the EU protocols allowing free movement of citizens of member states.  So while the Government could appear tough on keeping out refugee claimants, there was nothing it could do to stop immigrants from Poland, Romania and indeed from any country in the EU, entering quite legally.  

In the days prior to the Maastricht treaty and the Schengen Agreement to argue against immigration was to be accused of racism - most of the immigrants then were non-Europeans coming from the Commonwealth (at first the West Indies, Pakistan and India; later from Africa, Hong Kong etc.).  I recall Conservative MP Enoch Powell giving his Rivers of Blood Speech in which he warned of future violence if coloured immigration continued apace.  On looking it up I discovered he didn't actually say 'rivers of blood', but alluded to Virgil's Aeniad saying "As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood.'"  (Powell was a classics scholar and in those days -1968 - politicians might make such allusions, although I don't suppose many more of his listeners then were familiar with Virgil than would be today).  

But anyway Powell was thoroughly trashed in the press and parliament for what was considered an incendiary and racist speech.   He was forced out of the Shadow cabinet by Opposition leader, Edward Heath while  then Prime Minister Harold Wilson referred to him as a "parliamentary leper".  This effectively shut down any public discussion on immigration for a very long time.  

It seemed to work too.  Rivers of blood did not flow and overall Britain seems have done quite well in absorbing its new citizens.  Certainly it has done a lot better than France and most other European countries. Nearly fifty years on from Powell's speech, Britons of Caribbean, South Asian or African descent, seem to be part of the fabric of British society - no less British than those whose descendants were there when William the Conqueror landed.  It probably helps that many successful sporting figures are from such groups (many members of the English national soccer team are black or part black, while south Asians have added strength to English cricket teams). Wolverhampton (the constituency of Enoch Powell) now proudly considers itself one of the Curry Capitals of England a rival to neighbouring Birmingham's Balti Triangle.  So just as the Commonwealth immigrants have adapted British ways, so have the British adapted to and adopted many of the ways of the immigrants.  This is no place more evident than in food, even to the extent that Chicken Tikka Masala can be claimed as a, or the, quintessential British dish - it is said to have been invented in a Bangladeshi  restaurant in Glasgow.  

Many Brexit voters seemed to have expressed a fear of more Muslim immigrants.  But the fact is that very few Muslim immigrants to Britain have come from the EU - most are from the sub-continent (Pakistan, Bangladesh and India) with much smaller numbers from African countries, Malaysia etc.   But some on the "Leave" side unscrupulously made the prospect of Turkey's entry into the EU seem imminent, so that in their hyped-up fear mongering 80 million Muslim Turks were soon to be allowed to move about freely within the EU.  Nonsense of course but it probably gained the "Leave" side quite a few votes.  

In a similar way Nigel Farage of UKIP had images of streams of refugees plastered on the sides of his campaign bus.  These were of last summer's exodus of Syrians, Afghans and others who had crossed from Turkey to Greece and were heading north west.  Virtually none made it to Britain, but it served as a good way of ramping up the fear and hostility to refugees and the EU.  

It is something of an irony that while Britain has successfully absorbed large numbers of non-European immigrants, it is the prospect of European immigrants - Poles, Hungarians, Romanians etc.  - that seems to be the main bogey now.  It is to some extent a consequence of Britain's promotion of widening, rather than deepening, the union - a policy that seems to be coming back to bite now.  I suspect that the widening policy was as much about geo-strategic concerns - peeling the countries away from the Russian orbit - as it was about economic ones.  It has certainly been successful from that point of view, but the cost to Europe has been high.  Rather unpleasant parties with scant regard for democracy seem to be taking over the governments of Poland and Hungary, while the movement west of workers from these much poorer countries seems to be generating a great deal of resentment and hostility in the UK and elsewhere.

I said above that I could understand why many Britons chose to vote for leaving the EU.  It is no coincidence that some of the strongest 'Leave' votes came from the poorer former industrial parts of the country.  For example, Sunderland, once a prosperous shipbuilding town and one of the earliest reporting constituencies voted 61% to leave, much higher than polls had predicted (53%).  This led to an immediate drop in the value of the pound.  And so it went on with strong 'Leave' votes from many languishing former industrial towns and cities.  But not only former industrial areas recorded high votes for leaving.  The highest proportions of 'Leave' votes (over 70%) came from a group of constituencies in East Anglia and Essex, primarily farming regions with strong connections to Europe.  Here apparently there is massive  resentment against newcomers who are preferred by employers in food processing and agricultural work.   

It is reported that many people in the poorer regions of England feel a strong sense that globalization and the European project have not helped them at all.  Rather, over the last couple of decades they have experienced high unemployment, declining wages and competition for jobs with recent immigrants, who reportedly will work longer and more inconvenient hours often for lower pay.  Is it any wonder that they feel a strong sense of resentment?  At the same time the government has forced austerity on all, with widespread cuts in services, especially to the more needy. And it is widely believed that these cuts are in place to pay off the huge debts incurred by irresponsible banks.  Along with the cuts the Government has reduced  taxes on the super rich.  Who wouldn't feel angry and resentful?

There is a good piece in the Guardian by John Harris
which describes some of the attitudes he and a colleague experienced while travelling the country trying to assess the national mood.  It describes the fury that many feel.  The fury of being demeaned and ignored by London and by the mainstream political parties.  It is not a comforting read.  It tells of a country split and angry, and he predicts a forthcoming sharp turn to the right - a right of the super-Thatcherism type.  This sounds unpleasantly reminiscent of what happened in Europe in the nineteen thirties, when the Great Depression and high unemployment led to the accession of nasty parties of the extreme right.  Coupled with the vilification of minorities - Muslims and immigrants  - it is all sounding depressingly familiar.

Another aspect of a Britain outside the EU which worries me is the fact that the country will be much more vulnerable to exploitation by multinational corporate power.  Even within the EU the British government has been unwilling to regulate the banking industry, and has given way to corporate pressure for privatization of everything from schools to health services.  It has faced prolonged and relentless attacks on the BBC and NHS.  Europe-wide regulations have provided some defence of environmental and health and safety standards, but in the future there will be very little to stand between corporate power and the greed and ambition of elected politicians.  Especially with a government wishing above all to attract investment in order to create jobs, the pressure will be on to trim the rights and protections of workers and to abandon or finesse environmental and health safeguards.  A policy of Divide and Rule works just as well for corporate power as it does for state power.  

I suppose in some ways all of this is a consequence of the shift in industrial and economic power away from Europe (and even from North America).  Globalization with its attendant free trade treaties has meant that most manufacturing has moved away from its Atlantic origins.  While globalization has led to rapid economic growth and an improvement in living standards for many, it has not been an unalloyed good.  There have been many losers, not least those who used to hold well-paid manufacturing jobs.  Perhaps it was inevitable in the long run.  But we certainly shouldn't be surprised if the losers in this process start to kick back.  If the mainstream 'establishment' parties ignore their interests, we should not be surprised when outsiders, like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, both with some very questionable policies, or chancers like Boris Johnson choose to become their champions. 

The future does not look good.   But in some ways I think it is true to say that we have had this coming to us.  


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