Brexit and its precursors



What appeared an apparently simple question of whether Britain should join the European Union and lose its special identity has, in the course of the past couple of years, spun out of control and got lost in the desert of myriad issues. There had already been referendums and much heated debates in Parliament and these had yielded almost nothing and they are nowhere nearer a solution. Prime Minister Theresa May seems to be chugging on gamely though and seeking more time.

In the process, almost any issue could be linked to the Brexit, whether it is the voting machines malfunctioning or the misconduct of some lawmakers or even the looming presence of migrants in the country. Even issues like the Irish identity or Scottish nationalism or the special status Wales had been demanding or the Yorkshire accent have been tossed into the cauldron. There has been the problem of flight of capital and even the 300 Indian corporate giants that are thriving there are reportedly having thoughts on shifting to the Continent.

In the process Britain’s vaunted political systems, like parliamentary sovereignty, first past the post polls, a codified constitution, and a referendum on the whim, all of which are designed to help in the smooth functioning of the system, do not appear to be of any avail and are also in the process of sending out wrong signals to Europe, and to the countries like India which have looked up to it for guidance and have fond memories of ‘shared experiences and heritage’.

Analysts might say Brexit is different from the other messes that the country had got embroiled in earlier, say, from the Suez crisis of the Eden years or the Iraq meddling during the Bush and Blair era. In between the Thatcher decade was the worst, that coincided with the with Reagan regime in the US that led to the crises from which both have not extricated themselves. Britain lost its primacy as a manufacturing and skill-developing hub to one run by number crunchers and stockbrokers. The bubbles and the ‘occupy’ agitations that rocked most of Europe and elsewhere were the result of these short-sighted policies. The fall of the Berlin Wall was no consolation, because ten years after that the stock markets began crashing across the capitalist world. And the migrants began arriving from these liberated countries. It seemed the Normandy landing in reverse. This was not the Europe that the rulers and visionaries over the centuries had envisaged.

May recently fired her defence secretary for his part in the alleged leak of a national Security Information document that related to the government’s plan to allow the Chinese telecom company Huawei  to help build the UK's 5 G network. Once a manufacturing hub, England now faces the Chinese telecom giant, that had totally replaced General Electric that once ruled the world.

Likewise once a model health care system, the National Health Service had been driven to ruin during the Thatcher years and the number of general practitioners had fallen steeply. This does not seem to be of concern for the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and if his party is not concerned with even this basic fact there is less hope of the country extricating from this mess.

In the midst of this gloom, however, there is one redeeming feature; the performance of the English football teams in the European and Europa Cup championships. For the first time in history all the four finalists are English teams. But if one looks at the coaches and players the English contribution is minimal, but that is a minor quibble.

Brexits has arrived at its witching hour, lamented columnist David Runciman. ‘Seemingly plausible schemes are being conjured out of thin air and every meaningful question has possible answers.’  Meanwhile many compromises are being worked out to get parliamentary approval with hard-line Brexiteers being offered the choice of not leaving EU at all, and the opposition Remainers the choice of leaving with no deal at all. Both sides are united in loathing this deal May presents. For the Labour party there is the fourth option, that of bringing down the government and forcing an election.

To thicken the plot there is the centrality of Ireland and its 'backslip'. That baseball term seems rather far-fetched in the context of the football metaphors that MPs are bandying about, the shoe horning of feeble Liverpool links that had long lost its reputation as a manufacturing centre.

After leaving office as President of the Czech Republic in 2003, its maverick President Vaclav Havel went on a car ride across Europe with his wife, as he had done so many times during the occupation and after, and he found the familiar autobahns deserted except for the huge trailer trucks that roared past. He discovered that these were transporting cheese to Holland from Italy and olive oil from Germany to Spain. As a playwright he found this amusing as well as symbolic. Was this the autobahn that the latest European unifier, Hitler, envisaged and built? His grand racial scheme had assigned to each nation a special slot; Russia would be the bread basket of the continent with its vast peasantry, and Dutch dairy farms and its milkmaids would provide the milk products for the entire Europe. And, of course, Germany would be the lord and master with its heavy machinery and cars and tanks, the Krupps and the Volkswagens. A couple of centuries earlier, Napoleon had a similar grand vision for Europe and he was the first to build the roadways and networks that strung the continent together.

Despite the racial and even religious affinities, if these efforts had not borne much fruit in all these years there must have been some other fault lines that had prevented the unification of Europe. Havel had also discovered there were Sudeten Germans who were settled in Czechoslovakia and that they were shifted as far away as Romania and Uzbekistan and they were the most pauperised sections of people, a revenge that was taken over a defeated people soon after the war. The other superpower, the United States, on the hand, had chalked out the Marshall Plan that helped much in the reconstruction of war-torn Germany and many other nations. Historian Eric Hobsbawm has described the decade and half after the end of war as the most peaceful and constructive period during the century. The complete reconstruction of Dresden in Germany that was bombed to smithereens was one of these spectacular efforts.

Elsewhere too there were these unprecedented displacements and forced migrations. The Indian sub-continent’s Partition led to the displacement of ten million people apart from the one million who were killed. Soon after that the development schemes carried out, the high dams and fertiliser factories, the new temples, led to the internal displacement of more than 15 million people.

Things have always happened on a scale in this country and earlier the rulers, who also happened to be cartographers, had surveyed the entire country. Thus were the borders of the country made, named after pioneers like Everest and McMahon and Radcliffe and Durand. The earlier borders were marked by rivers or mountain ranges that had no barriers like concertina wires or pill boxes and watch towers. These were like lines drawn on water and sometimes when the river changed course the borders also shifted likewise.

The unique contribution of the British Empire was the clearly demarcated borders they left behind and the division of states into smaller units. When Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal at the turn of the last century, ostensibly for administrative reasons, he had already sown the seeds of partition along religious lines. This is not peculiar to India alone. Britain had subjected Ireland and Cyprus also to this kind of cartographic engineering.