It has been said that the British acquired their empire "in a fit of absent-mindedness".
The UK's recent decision to leave the EU seems to have about it a similar air of confusion- with perhaps similarly daunting long-term consequences as well. We now know that one of the most frequently asked questions on the Internet in the hours after votes had been counted and Brexit was already a done deal was the guilelessly charming: "What is the EU?"
That this little gap in some of their factsheets did not deter over 70% of UK citizens from strongly expressing their opinions on June 23 - exultantly dubbed "Independence Day" by the UKIP leader Nigel Farage - is telling. For those opinions are certain to "reset the dial" of history for a long time to come. Exactly how independent was this "yes/no" vote, though? I am in the UK during this "historic" Brexit week and it is clear even to me, just a random, visiting stranger, that this vote has often been based less on cool, reasoned arguments than on overheated emotional responses. This is a nation that has long felt fooled, frustrated, fed-up.
The EU vote is really a FU vote.
In the aftermath of this unexpected result, analysts have repeated ad infinitum that the UK is a divided nation "split down the middle" with 48.1% voting "remain" and 51.9% voting "leave". But to my mind, this metaphoric "national schizophrenia" seems to have deeper roots. Talking to people here who voted, it appears that each, as an individual, was also internally divided. For these individuals, the answers did not lie in "yes/no"; not even in "maybe"; the answers lay in a dialogue between British political parties and the populace which simply had not happened for a very long time. The EU was, in this sense, a psychological surrogate for the UK's own disengaged political parties.
Condemning the EU "other" amounted to condemning the UK "self". That is why this conflict runs so deep. The "healing" of which all the commentators now speak hinges on grasping the fact that opting out of the EU is far easier than opting out of the UK.
Scotland may still have that choice; most of the rest of the UK doesn't.
The UK will still have to live with itself, its own desires and resentments, its poor north and rich urban, young and old divisions. In this sense, "opting out" has always to be a superficial solution to the sense of an internal wounding. Engagement is required, and the politics of our times the world over, so reliant on media-speak, is strikingly clueless on how to lay out - or even listen to - those "terms of engagement".
My piece today is therefore about that inner emotional palette which all humans share in which the colours of resentment and rage can combine with those of sentiment, hope and love, not to mention gullibility, to change the future of a country big time. Such "voting from the gut" surely holds lessons for all democracies, including our own. When he read about the Brexit result, my father, a young adult back in 1942, remarked cryptically that we on the subcontinent had had the Quit India Movement long ago.
Of course, few in Britain have remotely heard of that great moment of colonial resistance. Had they, they might have realized that "quitting" has an indelible place in the annals of protest. They might have learnt from world history that theirs is perhaps a smaller, obverse mirror image of persistent human responses to "being had" by a distant "other". In the historical Indian case, it was the British who were being told to leave.
India wanted swaraj, it demanded freedom. In the present case, the talk is of "taking back control", being "independent", being free to preserve the UK's democratic rights to decide for itself, not wanting to be remotely run by a superior, faraway, fussy and foreign Brussels bureaucracy. The rhetoric sounds eerily similar, the emotions aroused could share resemblances. Yet these historic contexts could not be more different, the root-causes more dissimilar. The UK's response today appears, on the face of it, to be acutely xenophobic since the debate has centered so disproportionately on "immigration", a motif distinguished by its absolute absence in the Indian reactions to British rule.
On the other hand, what could be deeply shared is the primal atavism of how we react to the presence of strangers in what we perceive as our "own" territory, especially when we see those strangers as predators stealing our jobs, our land, our rights, our voices. What do we do in such scenarios? In my view, there's just one simple answer to this complicated question. We can and must invoke our common humanity. That is what democracies are, at bottom, about: human capital not capitalist choice.
I arrived in London a day before the large rally in Trafalgar Square held for the MP Jo Cox brutally stabbed and shot by a man shouting hate slogans. The mood at this meeting was deeply emotional - somber yet hopeful. And it seemed then that the "remain" vote would prevail, as indeed it did - in London. The costly mistake the political pundits and market gurus, not to mention David Cameron, made was to misjudge the mood of the rest of the country. Ironically, the "leavers" won decisively in Cox's own constituency.
As I write this from the city of Norwich on 24 June when every news-channel is frantically discussing the unexpected referendum result on the UK's membership of the EU, I think of Basil and his sense of the ironies of history. Basil (name changed) is from Norwich which is one of the just five constituencies out of 47 in the south of England which voted "remain" - but Basil is different.
Basil is a staunch "leaver". Once an office worker, then a driver to the celebrity chef Delia Smith, now a taxi-driver with a France-based, American owned "green cab" company, Basil is savvy, knowledgeable, 51 and divorced. He has bought a house in Norfolk so that he can be near his sixteen-year-old twin boys and a six-year-old daughter, who mercilessly call him "old-fashioned and racist". The statistics cobbled together by the TV channels tell us while 75% of those between the ages of 18-24 would likely have voted for "remain" and 60% of those over 65 would chose "leave", Basil's 30-60 demographic could go either way. But which way still depended on a high emotion quotient. Basil does not think he's racist; he tells me he still stands up when the Welsh anthem is sung because his mother was evacuated from London to Wales during the war. He has respect for all nations; his brother lived a year in India and he wants to visit one day; his foreign-owned company is extremely fair and decent; and he drives a car cross-country because he loved the freedom of it. This is not the profile of a xenophobic man. It is the vote of someone worried and afraid that no one is listening. Basil's vote is against what he sees as the erosion of basic freedoms. His main objection is to being ruled by an EU that decrees, according to him, that the garbage be put out once every two weeks rather that one, so that the smaller-sized British bins overflow! - and so on and on. Basil's list shows me how tiny micro-irritants can turn into the giant macro-influences that shape history under unnatural constraints such as bare a "yea/no" referendum. If India ever holds its own referenda, it should pay due attention to this crazily amplifying emotional factor.
(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books.)
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