Wednesday 26 October 2016

On Europe, insularity and the UK's identity crisis

This is an extended version of an article written for the British Council....before Brexit.

I’m currently away from home. Every morning I log on and read the news headlines, opinion pieces and arts pages in the British papers. From a distance, the UK looks like a tiny little island riven with inequality and lack of opportunity and tormented by suffering, poverty and precarity. On the international or pan-European rankings for social mobility, gender equality, quality of life, political representativeness of the population and a host of other social and political indices it comes up shockingly low.

It is human nature that people who are suffering look for someone to blame, a scapegoat for their pain – preferably a stranger who cannot answer back. The current government, the tabloid media and noisy attention-grabbing outliers like UKIP have taken that urge and focused it, as ever, on whoever is ‘other’, foreign, alien, different. They have managed to conflate unrelated factors to produce a false image of threat and imminent crisis, a phantom danger looming from outside in, making the leap from the 9/11 and 7/7 terror attacks to encouraging Islamophobic ignorance to threatening that Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Daesh are just this moment planning on coming to England to radicalise everyone, along with the millions of refugees who are actually fleeing them and wanting to leech off the state with their nasty greedy foreign ways, along with unscrupulous economic immigrants from beyond and within the EU all coming to steal English jobs and dare to be everything from doctors to waitresses to students to parents, which is why there aren’t enough schools, jobs, homes and hospital beds, because the foreigners have taken them and nasty faraway ‘Brussels’ (the stand-in word for the EU) has said it’s okay, led by mean Ms Merkel who secretly runs the whole show for some evil Germanic reason of her own.

It’s a lie. A toxic, widespread, all-encompassing, all-connecting conspiracy theory that has obscured the facts and poisoned the debate as we approach the referendum like a runaway train heading towards a brick wall. I don’t like getting party political – after all, yuppie New Labour were just as craven in their courting of the rich and famous as any Tory and Jeremy Corbyn is such a male-cronyist bro that he deserves honorary Bullingdon membership. But the present government has a lot to answer for and the present opposition have failed in countering the rhetoric with the facts. Under Cameron’s government, resources have been moved away from education, healthcare, housing and essential social services, kicking those who were already down, robbing at least two generations of a decent future, punishing the poor and disadvantaged, putting the abused at risk and hobbling anyone who isn’t privileged and financially well-supported. It is the same government that has granted asylum to shockingly low numbers of refugees during the biggest humanitarian crisis since the second world war, while allowing the false idea that millions are on their way to the UK to destroy society to flourish. 

It’s as though Britain has faced and failed a challenge to its identity which has played out over recent decades. Following its century-odd of benefitting from its colonial exploitation of 84% of the world, including carving up the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it was painfully made to see the arrogance, greed and racism of its ways. Then came the slowly dawning realisation that England was no longer a great Imperial power and that people everywhere speak English now not because of England but because of America; and that England itself is not important in the political scheme of things despite its cultural prestige which includes Harry Potter, Downton Abbey, Dr Who, Sherlock and the BBC and despite its desperation to pal up with George W Bush and enjoy a random killing spree in Iraq which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and dozens of British soldiers. And despite its past riches including Shakespeare, Milton, King Arthur, the Bloomsbury set, medieval architecture, the plague, The Tudors, Oxbridge, the Elizabethans, The Victorians and all the rest of it. And despite Cool Britannia which Tony Blair so loved. Because the world is a large and varied place, there are more than 7 billion people on Earth, times move on, colonialism wasn’t a great adventure for the colonised and contemporary India, China, Latin America and the protests and demonstrations, civil wars, fragile states, terrorist threats, breakdown in civic life, forced conscription, collapse of law and order and unliveable consequences of climate change in Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Mali, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere just seem more interesting and important at the moment. 

Britain has had to accept that despite its past wealth and power, and despite ongoing cultural prestige, it is no longer a major political player it used to be. Following that, it had a choice. 

One: humbly accept its change in status, recognise that it’s part of a world community and become an involved member of that community, willing to learn and make friendships across nationalities and languages and surface differences, taking a seat at the table in EU summits, contributing wholly and equally as one of a number of participants, being guided by a vision of what is best and fairest for those most in need, gaining in some instances, conceding in others, taking a humanitarian, open, internationalist and collective approach rather than a competitive one. 

Two: throw all the toys out of the pram, keep a vision of white male aristocratic Englishness front and centre (because it was chaps like that who once led Britain to colonial greatness, oh happy days), close the doors against foreigners, close the shutters against dissenting voices, pull up the ladder, pull up the drawbridge, go deep inside and hunker in the aristo-bunker against outsiders, heathens, invaders, meddling foreign dignitaries, homegrown rebels and dirty diseased grasping peasants. Because if you can’t rule the sandpit you don’t want to play.

It made the wrong choice. Now it looks as though Britain will no longer be a European nation but instead an unimportant, unhappy, unhelpful island floating on the north-west edge of the continent. Britain gains nothing from shrinking away from the rest of the world except the likelihood of shrivelling away, eating itself up with inequality and deprivation, starved of the enriching influence of the wider world and the interest and variety it brings, hypnotised by visions from the past. It will develop a worldwide reputation, not of strength and sovereignty, but of xenophobia, jingoism and hostility to those who are in need of sanctuary. It is already gaining that reputation. 

One could argue that Cameron was compelled to hold a referendum into EU membership following pressure from a significant minority of MPs in his own party. Or one could say that the referendum came out of nowhere, cooked up to derail political, activist and media critics of the government’s attitude to refugees and immigrants alike by stirring up the far louder invective of all those Britons who are full of rage, uncertainty and frustration and are looking to pin it on some mythical threat, and the whole thing has now got out of hand. One could add that even if Cameron was challenged on Europe by some of his own ministers, as Prime Minister his role is to handle such challenges within the party and show firm leadership without panicking and throwing the country’s future over to the public on a whim. 

As I said to my mother, “It’s as though David Cameron randomly lobbed a parcel of shit into the middle of his own dinner party and now he’s got to clean it up, only to find that it’s gone everywhere. Now he’s having to get every single one of his high-profile friends from bankers to artists to business leaders to go on the record saying what a disaster it’s going to be if we leave.”

It’s true that the EU is bureaucratic, that some decisions satisfy the biggest power players and (no doubt) various vested interests. That is true of every single major institution and organisation in the world. That’s also what it means to be part of a world community: you don't always get your way, but you do always get to have your say. The oft-repeated complaint that 'Brussels makes all the decisions' is misleading: yes, EU meetings are held in Brussels... and the UK is supposed to play its part, show up and contribute at those meetings as a member of the EU. That's what being in a community means. You have a place at the table and you can say what you need to, in front of everyone else, and they listen to you respectfully and you listen to them respectfully, because you are pulling together with a common purpose which is bigger than your individual desires. Political decisions can be made with a long view, a wide lens and a collective vision; individual states’ leaders are not compelled to make the sudden wild promises or baseless claims that emerge when they’re tied into their own short election cycles and have to campaign amongst an indecisive public for votes. Collective EU membership overrides the pettiness of national process politics. 

This referendum should never have come about and the question of leaving the EU should never have arisen. It signals something dangerous and depressing: England's increasing conservatism, inequality, isolationism, cynicism about multiculturalism and unwillingness to be part of any world community. It's as if, having rightfully been turfed off its colonial victory track and then its warpath, England is now sulking. 

But you can’t stand by and let a great vision die. You have to fight for it, or else those who are the most angry, who can shout the loudest and perform the pernicious psychological trick of tapping into the worst people’s worst fears will win. 

To throw away EU membership is to squander an opportunity to be a part of the wider world of varied languages, co-operation, cultural exchange, mutual opportunity, recognition of common humanity, symbolic sorority and fraternity. Leaving the EU sends a strong message that "we" are better than everyone else and are exempt from the challenges and inspirations of diversity, collaboration and change. Instead of doing to right thing by stepping out, standing alongside our neighbours, acknowledging our responsibilities in a troubled world and making things better by offering sanctuary and humanitarian assistance, we are slamming the door shut, blocking our ears and shouting insults to drown out the cries for help. Leaving the EU will not turn Britain into a strong fortress but into a decrepit prison whose inhabitants will first turn on each other and then waste away.