Keep calm: Democ­racy, not im­pe­ri­al­ism at work

Though some com­men­ta­tors have claimed that delu­sions of em­pire in­formed the Leave vote, the be­lief that Brit­ta­nia can rule the waves is held by few, ar­gues John Lloyd

Irish Examiner - - Analysis -

BRI­TAIN is mov­ing to­wards an exit from the Euro­pean Union on March 29, pos­si­bly with no agree­ment, and thus court­ing — ac­cord­ing to the Bank of Eng­land — an 8% drop in GDP and a 7.5% rise in un­em­ploy­ment.

A drear prospect, at­tended by match­ing drear com­men­taries on the stu­pid­ity of the 52% of the British elec­torate who voted for Brexit in 2016.

Some ob­servers have seen the vote as ev­i­dence that im­pe­rial urges still dom­i­nate. In March 2017, Wash­ing­ton

Post for­eign af­fairs re­porter Ishaan Tha­roor wrote of British peo­ple “har­bour­ing delu­sions of em­pire (while)… the fan­tasy of Bri­tain’s past col­lides al­most far­ci­cally against Bri­tain’s present”. As this year be­gan, he re­turned to the im­pe­rial theme, warn­ing that, for British peo­ple “the old colo­nial hubris” is om­nipresent, but “along with im­pe­rial nos­tal­gia comes a fair amount of delu­sion”.

It’s one of the most com­mon fan­tasies presently ped­dled about the mind­set of the UK — that it is mired, hope­lessly, in a mourn­ing of great­ness gone, and a dream to re­gain it.

British jour­nal­ist Paul Ma­son writes of “the self-de­luded nar­ra­tive that has guided the whole Brexit strat­egy: The idea that ‘our’ for­mer colonies will want to form a new, white, English-speak­ing trad­ing area — nick­named Em­pire 2.0 — to re­place the EU.”

Ir­ish Times writer Fin­tan O’Toole be­lieves that the English think that if “Eng­land is not an im­pe­rial power, it must be the only other thing it can be: A colony,” see­ing him­self, with nostal­gic shiv­ers, threat­ened once more by a resur­gent Ger­many.

Yet no body of opin­ion, no or­gan­i­sa­tion, no in­di­vid­ual ca­pa­ble of thought wants an em­pire. Gov­ern­ment min­is­ters, charged with car­ry­ing out the will of the elec­torate, talk up, prob­a­bly over-op­ti­misti­cally, the chances of a net­work of trade agree­ments, many with for­mer colonies such as Aus­tralia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US.

One of the big­gest boost­ers is UK busi­ness sec­re­tary Greg Clark, who in­vokes “fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­ni­ties for the fu­ture” for “a coun­try that is su­perbly well-po­si­tioned in most of the big trans­for­ma­tions that are tak­ing place across the world to­day”.

He’s rou­tinely mocked as a fan­ta­sist, but he’s do­ing what any politi­cian who be­lieves in a course of ac­tion does — he’s talk­ing it up. His rhetoric isn’t a sign that he be­lieves Bri­tan­nia can again rule the waves, or the con­ti­nents.

The charge of im­pe­rial nos­tal­gia which Brex­i­teers are sup­posed to nurse is of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by grim re­ports of a coun­try tear­ing it­self apart.

The Spec­ta­tor com­men­ta­tor Stephen Dais­ley laments that “the House of Com­mons, once re­spected around the world as the gold stan­dard of po­lit­i­cal de­bate, has be­come a source of na­tional em­bar­rass­ment, a sym­bol of a frac­tious and di­rec­tion­less na­tion”.

The UK par­lia­ment has been in sev­eral re­cent up­roars, both in­side the cham­ber, where the Speaker was ac­cused of abus­ing his neu­tral­ity by break­ing a rule to favour those who want to re­main in the EU, and out­side, where a mob of largely young, male pro-Brex­i­teers screamed “Nazi!” and “fas­cist” at Re­main­ers.

This is what is called democ­racy and po­lit­i­cal de­bate — if not the gold stan­dard, cer­tainly an up­set­ting, but al­ways vivid, ex­change of views.

Jour­nal­ism, which lamented the bland­ness of pol­i­tics, now has its wish for pas­sion, and ap­pears to hate it. These deeply con­se­quen­tial ar­gu­ments, in both the UK and the US, ap­pear to have re­mained, just about, within a non-vi­o­lent frame.

They have not in France, where at least nine peo­ple have died as protests spread across the coun­try. This is not bloody rev­o­lu­tion. The vi­o­lence, fright­en­ing as it is, has been largely con­fined to build­ings and cars. Rather, what come to the sur­face are el­e­men­tal is­sues of pol­i­tics: Un­em­ploy­ment, in­equal­ity, marginal­i­sa­tion, fear of the fu­ture. These are is­sues au­thor­i­tar­ian states sup­press with beat­ings, shoot­ings, and in­car­cer­a­tion (for a hideous ex­am­ple see Venezuela). In democ­ra­cies they must be heard and seen.

Brexit is not likely to have been a trig­ger for a wave of racism and ex­treme na­tion­al­ism sweep­ing over the UK. It’s a pop­u­lar, though not a uni­ver­sal, trope with rad­i­cals in the uni­ver­si­ties — for ex­am­ple, David Gill­born of Birm­ing­ham Univer­sity, who be­lieves that the Leave cam­paign was “com­pa­ra­ble to Nazi pro­pa­ganda and just straight­for­wardly racist”.

UN spe­cial rap­por­teur on racism and xeno­pho­bia, Ten­dayi Achi­ume, did a 12day tour of the UK and con­cluded that the pre and post-Brexit en­vi­ron­ment has made “ra­cial and eth­nic mi­nori­ties more vul­ner­a­ble to ra­cial dis­crim­i­na­tion and in­tol­er­ance”.

A de­tailed re­port by the Civ­i­tas think tank shortly after the 2016 ref­er­en­dum, how­ever, cast some doubt on that.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing that there had been an ap­par­ent rise in harass­ment, the re­port noted a cli­mate where many crimes were as­sumed as hate or Brexit-linked, “even when there is no ev­i­dence to sug­gest that they are”.

Ten­sions and racism are not ab­sent in a coun­try where the (Labour) mayor of Lon­don, Sadiq Khan, is the son of a Pak­istani im­mi­grant fam­ily, as is the (Con­ser­va­tive) home sec­re­tary Sa­jid Javid; where ev­ery man­ager of the top five Premier League foot­ball teams is non-British, as are be­tween a third and half of the play­ers; where all po­lit­i­cal par­ties of any size con­demn racism and seek to at­tract cit­i­zens of colour as mem­bers; where the white British are a mi­nor­ity in Lon­don and will be a mi­nor­ity in Birm­ing­ham by the next cen­sus in 2021. But they did not de­fine British so­ci­ety be­fore Brexit, and do not now.

The UK is un­der­go­ing a wrench­ing con­vul­sion which is likely to make it, at least for a while, poorer than it might oth­er­wise have been. It is do­ing so be­cause of a vote of its cit­i­zens.

The im­per­a­tive is to recog­nise that large, demo­cratic fact, and, as a famed British gov­ern­ment poster in 1939 told a pop­u­la­tion fear­ful of air bom­bard­ment: “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters In­sti­tute for the Study of Jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford.

“Brexit is not likely to have been a trig­ger for a wave of racism and ex­treme na­tion­al­ism.

Pic­ture: Daniel Leal-Oli­vas/ AFP/Getty Images

Pro-Brexit pro­test­ers wear­ing yel­low vests take part in a demon­stra­tion in cen­tral Lon­don on Satur­day.

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