Brexit the biggest splash in a wave of populism: Guardian’s Jonathan Shainin

Jaipur, Jan 21 (IANS) The Guardian’s Jonathan Shainin has termed the Brexit vote “the biggest splash in a wave of populism” And why not, if you consider that British historian, author and commentator Timothy Garton Ash, the morning after the vote, noted: “Britain cannot leave Europe any more than Piccadilly Circus can leave London.”

“Europe is where we are, and where we will remain. Britain has always been a European country, its fate inextricably intertwined with that of the continent, and it always will be. But it is leaving the European Union. Why,” he wondered.

In a well-attended session on Saturday at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), leading writers on either side of the debate — Garton Ash himself, A.N. Wilson, Andrew Roberts, Linda Colley and Surjit Bhalla compared Brexit notes with moderator Jonathan Shainin.

“Brexit is athe most divisive issue in Britain,” according to Shainin, and that was all too evident in this panel at the JLF. Last June, 17 million Britons voted to leave the European Union, and 16 million voted to stay evoking Shainin’s “biggest splash” moniker, which he suggested “started in India in 2014” with Narendra Modi becoming the Prime Minister.

He first turned to historian Andrew Roberts, who has described Brexit as “more impressive than the French Revolution”. Why so? “Because no one died,” Roberts said. “I believe democracy in the UK was being undermined by the EU, especially by the European Commission, which is unelected. There was a democratic deficit.”

“Now, we have taken back control of our laws and borders. We may make mistakes, but at least they are our mistakes,” Roberts contended.

Garton Ash, meanwhile, described Brexit as “the biggest defeat of my European life”. He said that the EU created a better life for Europeans than ever in their history, particularly by ensuring peace.

“The Brexiters are naive utopians. They think that if Europe is once again a collection of independent nations, they will just trade peacefully. It’s never happened in the past. And if there is a war on the continent, the UK will be dragged back in,” Roberts immediately disagreed, arguing that what had ensured peace in Europe since World War II was NATO and not the EU.

Wilson thought it was a mistake to dismiss the Brexit vote as irrational populism.

“The prime reason was economic. If you’re a bricklayer or a plasterer in the UK, your wages have stagnated over the last 25 years because we have imported cheap labour from Eastern Europe. If you speak to people outside London, they felt utterly rejected by the political class,” said Wilson.

Economist Surjit Bhalla thought globalization and the rise of Asian economies had undermined incomes in the West, leading to a backlash. “It’s inevitable, and leaving the EU won’t change that for Britain.”

Historian Linda Colley thought the vote arose from a long-standing “Euroscepticism in Britain”.

“The UK was not invaded during World War II. While continental Europe welcomed the EU as a fresh start, the UK didn’t have the same feeling,” said Colley.

Ash pointed out that the Leave win was not inevitable. “There were many different reasons why it happened — a weak Leader of Opposition, a relentlessly anti-European campaign by the press. If one of these things hadn’t happened, Brexit wouldn’t have happened.”

Roberts agreed: “It could have gone either way. The Remain campaign created a lot of hyperbole about all the bad things that would happen if the UK voted leave.”

“President Obama also said the UK would be at the back of the queue for trade deals with the US, which led to an upswing of support for Leave. The Leave campaign was much better run than the Remain campaign, which committed mistake after mistake.”

There were also critiques of the honesty of both campaigns.

Roberts criticised the UK Treasury’s fearful estimates of the effects of Brexit on household incomes, while Ash criticised the Leave campaign’s “big lie” that the UK gives 350 million pounds a week to the EU and could spend that money on the NHS (National Health Service).

What are the national and global repercussions of the vote?

Roberts suggested that it has given the UK control of its own immigration policy, which might mean the country can choose more skilled immigrants from India and other Commonwealth countries.

Wilson, meanwhile, said: “The really terrifying repercussion is what will happen in France and across the continent, where extreme right parties like France National are strong. They’re basically neo-Nazis. And President (Vladimir) Putin will be very cheered by the vote. Will NATO stand up to him if he marches in to Estonia?”

Colley warned that the vote could lead to the break-up of the UK, noting that Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to stay.

(Saket Suman is in Jaipur at the invitation of Teamwork arts. He can be contacted at saket.s@ians.in)

–IANS

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