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Brexit: a view from afar

July 28, 2018

I’ve been living outside of the UK for more than 7 years, although I doubt am any less informed or confident about what lies beyond March 2019 – post Brexit – were I to have continued living in South West London, rather than shifting to Vietnam, as I did, in early 2011.

I was in Da Nang listening to Radio 4 when the Leave Campaign victory was announced. I’d not managed to organize an overseas vote in time, yet was one of the first to hear the result at 6am local time here. This was followed by a majority of my old school friends waking up back home and immediately affirming their dissatisfaction and shock at the new reality.

Appreciating the indulgence of writing about a decision that I was unable to organize myself to participate in originally I have, nonetheless, followed the foreboding sequence of Brexit shenanigans over the past two years.

An inherent sense shared on the day of the result was that there had been a melding of different persuasions, which conspired to produce the unexpected outcome: some voters swayed by ‘red-top’ immigration propaganda; some by a sense of wanting, once and for all, to be heard through the ballot box midway through the tenure of a government administration who were cockily prepared to bet their Notting Hill mortgages on the final numbers; others by a more considered and ultimately frustrated feeling of sustained economic unease, exacerbated by the centralized powers of Brussels policy makers; or, an equally frustrated commitment to vote nostalgically for a societal and political construct which more resembled the UK’s former standings in the world.     

In George Orwell’s essay ‘England Your England’ he caricatures what could be said to describe an important aspect and backbone of the Leave camp (in some cases consciously, in others, perhaps not so). Although Orwell’s reflections were mainly about one of the UK’s constituents, rather than them all, I think the comparison still holds true:

“…the vast majority of the people feel themselves to be a single nation and are conscious of resembling one another more than they resemble foreigners. Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism.”

It seems to me that the United Kingdom’s diversity should be its strength, rather than its weakness. Furthermore, that there are ways diversity in society need not dilute an identity that I think many Leave voters were trying to preserve.

I am convinced still that there must have always been (and continues today to be) ways for the UK to engage in a changing world dynamic – on all levels – that needn’t recalibrate the sacred national DNA that Orwell describes.

Of course, many parts and people of the UK have held up high the opportunities and benefits of global citizenship and involvement. Brexit perhaps need not change this, however since a Brexit vote is essentially a vote for a form of economic retrenchment rather than for participation and collaboration with our European neighbours (a vote that I recall, also, represented only 1/3 of the eligible population at the time, and which is “irreversible”) the notion of the UK smoothly and innovatively commandeering its global citizenship, since 24 June 2016, has irrevocably been made more complicated and fraught.

Added to this, the slobbering egos of those publicly paraded men and women elected into government, and conducting negotiations on behalf of UK citizens, do very little to invoke a sense of confidence.

But then, as we all know, the current Government does not represent the diversity of its population. On the contrary. And neither would the opposition were they to have the misfortune of swapping sides of the House of Commons in the not too distant future. To hope for something more nourishing and compassionate in our MPs, history would remind us is, at best, blind faith.

That many of the Leave campaigning politicians jumped onto the bandwagon for personal political gain also seems to be a mute point. To sit red-faced as a member of the public, when confronting these pallid realities, equates to being informed upfront that a TV programme “contains adult images of an offensive nature” and then writing in to complain about them afterwards.

There will always be opportunities for politicians – flawed, as all humans are – to act in their own self interests. The mainstream media will then always sell stories based on weeding out the worst of these culprits, whilst newspaper owners covertly (or even blatantly) carry on representing the very Establishment their articles are so often supposedly seeking to defame.

Brexit, sadly, offered up the perfect storm of an opportunity for all these actors to take part in once-in-a-career performance. And don’t pretend, in their positions of power, you or I would have handled things any better. The script itself might be open for re-write but the roles of the protagonists are fixed, and always will be.

So, what of the some of the elements and arguments of this script?

I am prepared to be schooled by any of the Leave Campaign who can help make the argument, economically, as to why this route out, was and is preferable to continuing to be “in” and with a seat at the table, and how that route out offers up the chance to contribute meaningfully as a global player.

I want to understand the persuasion here and to be on board. The counter argument is also no less technically clearer to me. Right now, in fact, I’d take the emotional salvation, were the case convincingly made, and be prepared to wave the Leave flag, in spite of all the instinctive preconditions I’ve felt when writing this post and visioning the UK as a meaningful global force.

The thing is that Brexit was not conceived as a vote for how staying in or pulling out would actually materialize. The public was asked to vote Leave or Remain. So, it’s no surprise there has been fallout. However, ask anyone in the UK what is actually happening and what will actually happen with Brexit and no one – no one – knows.

And this is the part that is currently so bewildering to watch play out.

The fleeting distractions of a Royal Wedding, a World Cup tournament, Donald Trump’s farcical visit, the novelty of complaining that it’s too hot, or the juggling of summer holiday commitments, can only hold off the moment for so long. At least all these distractions have an easy to imagine endgame and a predictability about them (even if England reaching the semi finals made for a teasing exception to the rule, this time round).

A second “People’s Vote” is gathering steam (Gary Lineker now holding sway over the country’s emotional barometer setting it would seem) and maybe this makes sense – a vote based on the question of “how” not the question of “what” – yet can anyone tell me if the concept of a follow up referendum is anything more than just a smoke screen?

I don’t think they can. There is no clarity, there is no leadership. Only smoke.

Orwell’s reflections offer up one concluding suggestion:

“…The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies. It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture.”

As someone who chose to leave the UK, and who has up until now chosen not to return, I’d ask to be allowed a final indulgence in this post, which is to ask: “can Brexit be not the ‘great disaster’ – as Orwell puts it – that destroys our national culture but, instead, and in a multitude of possible ways, be its liberation”?

Answers on a postcard (to Saigon) please.

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