Making History with Brexit
History is the result of human actions, but not of human design, wrote Friedrich Von Hayek.
‘Brexit’ bears that out. Globalisation was not supposed to go backward. The Lisbon Treaty of 2007 included Article 50, the option to exit. But that was never meant to be invoked. The British politicians demanded it to sell the treaty at home, but it was always assumed that once done, the British public would always stop at ‘we can go but why should we’ thought.
But 2015 was not 2007. A lot changed, and three things, in particular, wrecked that cosy assumption.
The First and the most obvious one is immigration. The expansive Blair-Bush foreign policy encouraged the EU to expand East and Southwards, adding 10 new countries in 2004. Free movement rights into Britain for the citizens of the new member states sent in, against the plan for a few thousand, a million new migrants.
The second – and the most painful – factor was the 2008 recession. Yet it’s the aftermath that mattered more. As the government handed out money to the banks, schools and hospitals lost funding in the name of austerity. Rich bankers kept paying themselves million-pound bonuses while businesses went bankrupt all over the country. People lost their houses while people with big houses were handed cheap loans and tax breaks to buy more houses.
The third – and most predictable – issue was a complete loss of trust in the establishment politicians. While the country was being forced into austerity, the MPs from all parties were claiming expenses for all sorts of weird, luxurious and illegal stuff, for non-existent houses and even porn CDs.
Since the 1990s, Britain, along with other western nations, settled into a form of ‘consumer democracy’. This was the opposite of ‘what you can do for your country’ moment of the 60s: Instead, this was a Thatcherite dream world of politics-free economy, where getting rich was glorious, being political was bad and economic growth was the sole object of policy. The wrecking ball of recession undid part of this arrangement: the unfamiliarity of immigrants, the unfairness of the bail-out and the unpopularity of the politicians soon converged in a perfect storm of public disgust.
The totemic figures of Syrian migrants and European bureaucrats were invoked and subjected to social media equivalent of public burning; frivolous promises of directing public money to Britain’s beloved NHS were made out of hand. With no-one credible to tell the truth, everything was possible and anything could be true. The Brexit rallying cry of ‘Take back control’ gave the voter a feeling of sticking two fingers up at the powerful, and let him gain, even if for a fleeting moment, the control of his own life.
Therefore, on the morrow of 24th June 2015, the penny dropped.
Churchill once said that if forced to a choice between Europe and the open sea, Britain must always choose the sea. Its history, built on the sea-borne empire and trade, is full of painful engagements in Europe. The island-mind, obsessed with conjured nightmares of invaders across the channel, always wanted to and did keep away. Post-empire, the country still imagined itself as a hub of connections, between the three great economic spheres of Europe, the United States and the Commonwealth. Therefore, its membership of Europe, shaped by cold war politics, was forever fragile, marked by contention and tendencies of exclusivism. That relationship, maintained for geopolitical reasons, needed a redefinition after the Cold War.
Someone should have seen it coming. Princeton’s Dani Rodrik predicted that a country can’t have global markets, nation-state and democracy together; it must choose two, any two, of the three. However, such choice is hard: Democratic governments, which live from opinion poll to opinion poll, love to defer such issues as long as they can. It was only an accidental exercise of direct democracy, made possible by David Cameron’s hubris and imperial nostalgia of the backbencher MPs, opened up the issue.
But, while Britain could leave, surrounded by water as it is, the United Kingdom could not go so easily. All of a sudden, the question of Ireland is back on the table – and even Spain is circling around Gibraltar. Brexit meant Brexit for a while, and then not: After the initial flurry of rhetoric, resolve and deadlines, extensions and fudge took it over.
A thousand Brexits bloom in the meantime. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party leader and a silent Brexiter, sees a wonderful world of nationalised railways and giant public sector companies, not unlike the years before Thatcher, as Britain escapes the restrictions imposed by EU law. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, dreams of a low tax mega-Singapore, a world of no labour rights and truly free global trade, a capitalist Disneyland free from the restrictions of being in a trade bloc like EU. Nigel Farage, with his German wife and French girlfriend, sees a whiter Britain, free of immigrants; Indians, who voted for Brexit, dream of one where the Indian immigrants would replace the Poles and the Czechs. Between everyone’s Brexit hopes and Brexit nightmares, Britain, a country which survived half a millennium with a weak monarch and an unwritten constitution, now looks expectantly to the Queen and its courts to find a resolution.
But, away from middle-class men fretting about their European holidays and Indian migrants waiting for hassle-free supply of ghee from home (free of European import restrictions), the ghost of Brexit-future showed up in a tragic clarifying moment: Right in front of 19-year-old Harry Dunn, in the form of speeding car driving at the wrong – American – side of the road. Harry was killed in the crash and Anna Sacoolas, the US intelligence officer’s wife who forgot which side to drive, left the country using her diplomatic passport. President Trump expressed sympathy, not with the victim but the runaway American, saying ‘we have all done it’!
Britain now finds itself on the wrong – American – side of the road, not knowing what’s coming its way. In this end time of ‘consumer democracy’, opportunists galore and the conversations fracture. Through the thousand realities of breaking of times, history is being made.