Brexit: not just a story of racism and greed

Bri­tons have a his­tory of stand­ing alone and find­ing their own way in the world

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - LATHAM HUNTER Latham Hunter is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and cul­tural stud­ies; her writ­ing has ap­peared in jour­nals, an­tholo­gies and print news for over 20 years, and she blogs at The Kids’ Book Cu­ra­tor.

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!

ADAM FER­GU­SON, NEW YORK TIMES

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.

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