DURING MY YEARS as a Research Fellow in Nuffield College, Oxford, in the early-1980s, I made it a point to unfailingly attend a seminar on British politics that Sir David Butler used to conduct on Friday afternoons. A political buff, David was firmly of the view that a rounded view of politics could never be acquired unless academia got under the skin of the players themselves. The seminar was doubly rewarding because the invited guest would dine at the High Table subsequently and follow it up with a convivial chat until the late hours. The entire proceedings were governed by Chatham House rules that ensured everyone spoke their minds.
It was at one of these High Table dinners that I first met Enoch Powell, a man whose reputation was shaped by the prevailing demonology that surrounded him. By this time, Powell was no longer in the front bench of politics, having deserted the Conservative Party and made a new quasi-retirement home as a backbench Ulster Unionist MP for South Down in Northern Ireland. Powell invariably had a mesmerising effect on his audience. He was an orator in the Roman and Victorian tradition and had a spectacular way with words. A classics scholar who, in his younger days had yearned to be Viceroy of India, Powell had a vision of his country that appeared delightfully quaint and archaic, not least because the United Kingdom was then regarded as the ‘sick man of Europe’.
In another age, Powell may have been regarded as an archetypal Tory imperialist, one who combined paternalism with a sense of national destiny—a replica of Lord Curzon. In the context of the early Thatcher years when Britain was desperately trying to come to terms with the clash between market competitiveness and ‘socialist’ entitlement, however, Powell’s priorities often struck people as a trifle ridiculous.
In 1968, he had sounded the first red alert on immigration by quoting a vivid passage from Virgil—an act of political injudiciousness that cost him his political career and banished him from the corridors of ‘respectability.’ He followed that up with his opposition to the European Economic Community (as it was then called) in the referendum of 1975.
What linked these two seemingly disparate issues was the theme of national sovereignty. When Powell raised the question ‘Who rules Britain?’ during the run-up to the 1975 referendum, he anticipated today’s widespread misgivings—and not merely in the UK—over the growing erosion of authority of national parliaments and the assumption of authority by some unaccountable supra-national authority. Likewise, Powell noted that the post- War immigration from the New Commonwealth was a direct consequence of the British reluctance to accept that the British Empire and the obligations that went with it, not least of which was the notion of the Mother Country, were well and truly over. In an evocative article in The Times of 17 July 1986 on the occasion of a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, he addressed this question by showering sympathy on the nominal Head of the Commonwealth: ‘We have wronged [the Queen] and ourselves, by constructing the pretence of a political entity, the Commonwealth, and acting as if it really existed.’ Over a cup of tea at the delightful St Ermin’s Hotel just off Westminster in 1986, I recall him telling me that this ‘pretence’ had done a grave injustice to both the Brummie and the Punjabi: “Both were equally bewildered in their changed surroundings.”
At the risk of elevating Powell to the status of an unacknowledged prophet, it is worth tracing the political lineage of the Euro- scepticism that contributed to the so-called ‘unexpected’ result of the 23 June referendum. In many of the post-mortems, dejected cosmopolitan liberals have blamed the onrush of xenophobia and an English hatred of the ‘foreigner’ for an outcome that, in the somewhat dramatic assertion by Boris Johnson, saw “more than 17 million people [voting] to leave the EU—more than have ever assented to any proposition in our democratic history.”
When Powell raised the question ‘Who rules Britain?’ during the run-up to the 1975 referendum, he anticipated today’s widespread misgivings
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London’s beautiful people have reacted viscerally to a referendum that saw the opinions of graduates and high-income individuals discounted in favour of the less educated and the low- earning. The residents of the rust belt in northern England and South Wales—of 19th century towns—brushed aside the collective wisdom of successful English cities such as London, Bristol, Oxford, Cambridge and Brighton. Worse, the advice of nearly every section of the British Establishment from the political parties, the Bank of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the eminence grise of the universities and the Confederation of British Industries was swept aside by a campaign mounted by people who have been called ‘liars’, ‘morons’ and ‘jokers’. Never before have I witnessed an act of democracy rubbished in so colourful terms by people who idealised the EU for its cosmopolitan goodness and devotion to rights and entitlements. For some people, it was as if the inebriated ‘mob’ from the terraced stands of football stadiums had seized power and turned the world upside down.
To now claim that the Brexiteers never expected in their wildest dreams to win and therefore went wild with their exaggerated claims and boasts is only partly right. There were enough opinion polls, ‘corrected’ as voting day approached, to suggest that pro- Brexit feeling was real and could even make for a winning combination. It is a different matter that the ‘Remain’ camp chose to first scare their opponents and then talk up their own campaign—a deft approach that had worked well during last year’s general election and Scottish referendum. Indeed, so sure was Prime Minister David Cameron and the entire British Establishment of winning that the mandatory scenario planning by the Cabinet Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office appears to have been dispensed with altogether. At least, judging from the initial disorientation that has grippe the UK, the country’s rulers were completely unprepared for the massive revolt from below.
It is tempting to see this bewilderment over the results as a consequence of half the UK not being in conversation with the other half—the ‘two nations’ Benjamin Disraeli had warned against in the Victorian age. That, however, would be too facile a conclusion, particularly given the relative geographical smallness of the UK and the fact that both parties had a significant measure of cross-party support. No, to my mind, the possibility of Brexit was discounted because this act of audacity went against some of the assumptions of change that had been heralded by the European project over the past four decades.
The first assumption, centres on immigration and its corollary, multiculturalism. Since the beginning of this century or slightly earlier, as the EU member-states experienced a wave of internal migration, there has been a deliberate attempt to suppress the emotional disorientation caused by the breakdown of traditional communities. The UK witnessed a wave of immigration from the Caribbean and the Indian Subcontinent during the 1950s and 1960s. These created some social tensions in London and the Midlands, the creation of some ghettos and even a few race riots culminating in the Toxeth and Brixton disturbances during the Thatcher years. By the early-1970s, primary immigration was recognised as a ‘problem’ and steps to control it were repeatedly taken, culminating in the Immigration Act of 1971. Subsequently, by the mid-1980s, a visa system was introduced for Commonwealth citizens. And by the 1990s, primary immigration from the Commonwealth ceased altogether, except for the entry of skilled workers and professionals in the boom years under Tony Blair.
The reality is that Europe is anxious to pull up the drawbridge and down the shutters to outsiders—reactions that are at odds with its intellectual elite
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Earlier, in the pre-EU days, the human tap could be turned on or off. But with the expansion of the EU to embrace countries of Eastern Europe, internal differentiation ensured a migration from the poorer countries to the rich. This had its benefits for a thriving metropolis such as London and ensured an unending supply of a moderately priced workforce to keep pace with economic expansion. However, it also created resentment among the left-behind ‘natives’ who were unwilling to endure the hardships associated with low-paid jobs located outside their traditional homes.
THE POLITICAL FAILURE to deal with this in Britain was entirely due to the EU’s doctrinaire approach to the problem. Having defined the European Union in terms of seamless trading and the unhindered flow of people between member-states with equal enjoyment of welfare rights, the Eurocrats in Brussels were both unwilling and unable to respond to unforeseen problems. Instead, rather than recognising the immigration imbalance as a real problem, its social hiccups were condescendingly reduced to expressions of bigotry. Just as politicians were confronted with more and more doorstep complaints by ordinary voters on immigration, the political class made the subject almost as taboo as expressions of homophobia. The exasperation of the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown to an ordinary Labour voter’s lament about excessive immigration in 2010 was typical of the wilful denial of a problem whose jurisdiction had been taken out of national parliaments. This rigidity of the EU’s approach and the apparent indifference of the established political parties to the problem gave the space to nativist parties like UK Independence Party (UKIP) to fish in murky waters.
What added to the concern was the refugee crisis that gripped Europe once the ISIS advance in Syria and Iraq after the summer of 2014. By accepting nearly 500,000 or more refugees, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel earned oodles of praise from human rights activists after she opened the doors wide open to Syrian refugees. Her burst of über liberalism was probably occasioned by post-War Germany’s abiding fear of being seen as cold and heartless, and it had very little to do with any diktat from the EU high command. But German generosity exacerbated existing fears of a Muslim invasion of Europe. The Brexit campaign did, in a calculated way, fuel these by referring to the possible entry of Turkey into the EU. But that was just icing on the cake. The reality is that Europe is anxious to pull up the drawbridge and down the shutters to outsiders—reactions that are at odds with its intellectual elite.
For an influential section of the German and French elite, the EU as it exists today is work in progress. What they dream of is a European Union where nation-states have been reduced to the status of provinces in a mega-federation. Over the past two decades, ever since the Treaty of Lisbon, they have pushed hard with their integrationist impulses. In 2015, I attended a conference in Brussels organised by the German Marshall Fund where Germany’s defence minister elaborated on moves to ensure an EU standing army before too long. Moves to ensure a common EU foreign policy are already quite advanced, much to the irritation of countries such as India that prefer traditional bilateral relationships.
Germany and Britain have traditionally represented two opposite ends of the Federal Europe pipedream. Whereas the Germans sacrificed their beloved Deutsche Mark for the sake of a big Eurozone, Britain has kept the Europhiles firmly in check. London stuck to the Sterling and did not participate in the Schengen border control arrangement. The consensus in the UK was that the EU should basically stick to being an old-fashioned Customs Union—something akin to the Goods and Services Act being proposed for India—and avoid trying to be the United States of Europe with a common political centre. The extent to which this wariness of the ‘Continent’ is located in history and the uniqueness of British national identity is an interesting subject that continues to divide historians. In the 1960s, there was a riveting debate in Left circles between EP Thompson and Perry Anderson over the ‘particularities’ of the English and their insulation from ‘Western Marxism’. Many of those concerns were replayed in the Brexit debate as England (if not Britain) demonstrated its adherence to the nation-state and a national identity.
The more articulate of Brexit supporters posited the referendum as an opportunity for Britain to rediscover a sense of national purpose that comes with the assertion of national sovereignty. The Brexiteers were moved by a sense of romance and imagery that had precious little to do with economics. Powell symbolised that, current warts and all, as perhaps did the supporters of Old Labour who traced their lineage to the Chartists and Keir Hardie.
Michael Foot spelt out the sense of romance that underpinned the best of Englishness in a tribute to Powell—a political opponent— penned in 1986: ‘No one of his generation has done so much to check the subordination of the art of politics to the dictates of the technocrats, the managers, the crushing bureaucracies—the modern equivalent of what Edmund Burke berated as the rule of sophisters, economists and calculators.’
In Brexit, the world has witnessed a clash of civilisations. For the moment, romance has prevailed over calculation. The war continues.