By Swapan Dasgupta
As a rule, settled and reasonably prosperous societies prefer the known to the totally unknown. It is a commentary on the extreme exasperation of British voters with an arrangement that had endured for 43 years that they chose a high-risk departure from the European Union over a troubling dispensation that had conferred some prosperity but denied them political dignity.
The outcome of last Thursday’s referendum on the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU came as a surprise to those who control the levers of global capitalism, a reason why the markets saw extreme turbulence. But the verdict was not unexpected, only that those entrusted with taking a call had chosen to not to go beyond their comfortable echo chambers. There was enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that a very large section of British society were becoming deeply troubled by the type of change they were experiencing. What exaggerated the disquiet was the realisation that they were powerless to do anything about it.
The unease was partly a consequence of the demographic transformation of the UK. In the past four decades the human landscape of urban Britain has changed beyond recognition. Today’s London is a more cosmopolitan city than at any time before. It is also materially more prosperous and culturally vibrant. Unfortunately, there was an unintended social cost of a globalisation that was backed up by an indulgent welfare state. The rise of British competitiveness, a post-Thatcher phenomenon, rewarded successful professionals and moneybags but it also drove the less adept to the margins. On top of this, the free flow of migrants from the newer member-states of the EU depressed wages and curtailed opportunities. A substantial portion of the No vote came from the left behind sections, mainly traditional Labour voters who disregarded the party line.
However, class resentment tinged with a measure of anti-foreigner sentiment was part of the phenomenon. More far-reaching was the defence of national sovereignty—the call to rescue decision-making from a remote bureaucracy in Brussels—that lent intellectual weight to the pro-Brexit campaign. Maybe it was David Cameron’s inability to control immigration from Eastern Europe and the European Court’s spat with the British Home Office over ‘human rights’ of undesirable extremists that underlined the growing redundancy of Westminster. But the reality was also the inclination of some European politicians to constantly extend the reach of the EU. Britain had stayed outside the Eurozone and hadn’t joined Schengen—in hindsight, both sensible decisions—and now it was confronted with demands for a common EU foreign policy and even common defence forces. In other words, what had begun as a Common Market had gradually expanded into a Super State that, according to Brexit’s main campaigner Boris Johnson was “now responsible for 60 per cent of the law that goes through Westminster.”
Globalisation, including regional arrangements, has always implied ceding elements of national sovereignty to a multilateral body. The World Trade Organisation is an example of how rule-based trade has curbed the economic autonomy of member countries. Today’s EU, crafted on the noble belief that the grim history of the 20th century must not be repeated, took the process many steps further and ended up negating democracy itself. Last year, there was the pathetic example of Prime Minister Cameron pleading to the EU to restore some of the UK’s sovereign rights on matters of immigration and criminal justice and being rebuffed. Maybe after the June 23 vote, the high priests of Europe may recognise that it is imprudent to force nation-states to swallow more than they are capable of chewing. Brexit has certainly put the brakes on rampaging globalisation.
The more lucid advocates of Brexit are incorrigible romantics. Their view of a reinvented post-imperial UK becoming a Japan of the Western world has struck most cosmopolitans as being impractical and a recipe for a retreat into Little England. The possibility of regression shouldn’t be discounted, particularly if the post-Cameron leadership proves inept. But should the UK recover its sense of national purpose—missing since the end of Empire—it offers opportunities for re-forging historical links on a more equitable basis.
For India, ‘independent’ Britain offers an opening to build a vibrant economic gateway in the West. In the coming days, the UK will need India as a special partner—a point emphasised by the Brexit lobby. India too could profit from a benign partnership that comes without the political baggage of either the EU or the United States. Having rediscovered ‘independence’, Britain may India’s strategic autonomy appealing.
Times of India, June 25, 2016