Brexit: not just a story of racism and greed
Britons have a history of standing alone and finding their own way in the world
One of my most enduring memories from Mr. Holmes’ grade nine history class is of the time he pulled down a wall map of the world at the height of British colonial rule, around 1900. Everything under British control was coloured pink. If Britain was the size of a pinky finger, then its empire was the size of a corpulent torso. There was pink everywhere. I was stunned. How the hell did they do it?
The simple answer is boats. Being an island is so often portrayed as a lonely, isolated thing, but for Britain, it has long been an advantage. Not only do scores of towns and villages sit right on seaports, the island itself is full of rivers and for hundreds of years it was riddled with well-travelled man-made canals. It was only natural that, with water and boats being a constant in British life, the British navy would become such a force to be reckoned with. In fact, if it weren’t for the British navy we might all be speaking French right now: the navy’s victories in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) led to the treaty that finally put an end to France and Britain’s North American skirmishes and put Canada under British rule, period.
During both World Wars, England was one of the safer countries in Europe precisely because it was an island. It’s not that the Brits were untouched — thousands of them died on battlefields and enemy territory, and the Blitz was devastating — but that the Channel provided enough separation that the majority of British civilians were much safer than, say, the French or the Polish.
The reactions to Brexit have generally blamed the Leave vote on xenophobia and greed. In other words: people voted to leave the EU because they wanted there to be fewer immigrants landing on British soil, and because they thought it would lead to more money in British coffers to be spent on British social services. Neither of these themes are ever going to reflect particularly well on a population, especially now, when they echo the repulsive strains of Donald Trump’s campaign to build walls and close borders. One commentator on CBC radio opined disapprovingly that “No nation is an island.” Yes, actually! Britain is an island! And it’s worked out pretty well for them!
A very strong current of selfishness and racism ran through the Leave campaign — no one could deny that — but when public discourse suggests that these were the only things that motivated 17.5 million people to vote “leave,” it’s both ignorant and unfair. The truth is that there’s a lot more going on.
Since 2010, the British Tory government has slashed social spending to the bone — nay, to the marrow. The disabled have lost almost $9,000 of support per year; the poor (20 per cent of the population) have lost $4,000. Benefits to working class families have been cut by over $2,000, and then there are all the cuts to social programs that have led to a harsher daily reality for the bulk of the population. Really, why would they want to vote in line with such a government’s wishes? Especially when that government is singing the praises of all the prosperity enjoyed by partnership in the EU? What effing prosperity?
Second: from 2010 to 2013, British business owners were saddled with over 3,000 new EU directives and regulations — 600 to do with fruit and vegetable production alone. Because British farmers haven’t been doing a good enough job of producing fruit and vegetables for centuries? Heavens no, I can’t imagine them being PO’d with all the new red tape Brussels has sent them! Brussels, home of the most disgusting vegetable in the history of vegetables! As if!
Third: the island. In no way do I want to suggest that the brutality of British colonialism — vast theft, slave-trading, massacres, famine deaths, detention camps — is anything to be proud of. What I do want to suggest is that the power of that tiny island, and the advantages the Brits wrought from being an island, are deeply embedded in the British psyche. Britons are not afraid of being alone. They are not afraid of being separate. Indeed, over the course of a history when their geography has so often been their destiny, the island has been their strength. And, as David Cameron recently found out, hoist so gloriously with his own petard, they want some of that strength back.
One commentator ... opined that “No nation is an island.” Britain is an island! And it’s worked out pretty well for them!
A taxi driver waves a Union Jack flag a day after Britain voted to leave the European Union. The historic decision has rattled the Continent, rocked political establishments throughout the West and will reshape the nation’s place in the world.