By Bumpy Walker
On Saturday, two days after the United Kingdom electorate had, by a small majority, voted to leave the EU there was an amateur youth dance recital in a small market town in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands. While classified as amateur, simply because of lack of remuneration to the performers, most of the performances, the organization and original choreography were of the highest standards.
The opening piece was a contemporary interpretation of Michael Jackson's Thriller by a dance troupe. By my parentally biased assessment, the principal dancer in the first piece, a graceful Lassie of Jamaican/ Guyanese extraction, gave the performance of the evening. The backing dancers, dressed as Haitian Zombies were principally native Scots but included a young dancer of West African parentage.
Yes there were the bagpipes, Highland reels, flings, thistles and Tartans. There was also an extract from Sleeping Beauty the ballet by the 19th century French Maestro Marcus Pepita, with music by the Russian, Tchaikovsky. [i] The finale of the show, danced below a projected image of the Taj Mahal, was a homage to Indian musical cinema, with twenty Scottish dancers dressed in colourful saris, including a couple of young ladies of obvious Indian extraction. This brought the roof down in terms of appreciative applause
On the Periphery
That young Scots, this far from the centre of metropolitan London, feel comfortable to incorporate these international influences with their own expression of local culture was reflected in the referendum results. Sixty-two percent of the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the European Union. Indeed the Scots’ Celtic cousins, the Northern Irish electorate, also voted to stay in the European Union.
What the above demonstrates is the internationalisation of society in the United Kingdom since and because of the age of empires. The multilateral exchange of people and ideas by former empires such British, Roman and Viking has happened, so much so that, even in this small isolated town, there is a French and a German cafe that serve food from these EU members. A societal omelette has been created and the majority of the Britons will now seek to unscramble.
Hubris of the EU / EEC
The idea of the EU was to unite and integrate the countries of Europe after the Second World War. The aim was to intertwine the national economies to such an extent that war would no longer be a viable or desirable option. The original six nations of Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, Netherlands and Luxemburg evolved from a post war Coal and Steel Agreement into the European Economic Community (EEC). The United Kingdom was prevented from joining till 1973, principally due to the intransigence of General De Gaulle, who it is claimed still bore a grudge from slights he had suffered at the hand of the British and US political / military leadership when he led the resistance to German colonial rule of France during the Second World War.
Over the years the EEC acted in a seemingly high hand fashion. It evolved almost mysteriously into the EC, which then morphed into the EU in 1993. Each time these changes happened it was done, for the most part, without a referendum. To the British, especially the English who voted in a referendum in 1973 to join the EEC, this took the appearance of being anti-democratic, given they had agreed to join essential a free trade bloc not a political or economic union.
The EU continued its core mission of ensuring European peace through economic and market integration. It brought in new members only after ensuring that the liberal democratic values of independent judiciary, fair elections and general commitment to the rule of law were enshrined into these countries’ political system. In addition it introduced common high standards in working conditions, workers’ rights, the use of high health safety and environmental protections to all their societies. It also introduced the free movement of goods and labour throughout the union.
Despite these radical changes there was dissent. There was a perception that when there was a referendum that disagreed with the EU political leadership, political jutisu was performed to continue on the original intended path, rather than change the direction.
It allowed member states to break the basic budgetary rules, especially the fundamental debt-to-GDP ratios. This led to the Greek and Irish economic meltdowns.
The fact that a small majority of Britons has voted to leave seems to have demonstrated that the EU mandarins and the political class in London never serious entertained one of the two possible outcomes of the referendum. They seemed to have been caught as unawares as a deer in the middle of the road caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.
There is similar opposition to the EU, as was the case in the UK, in a number of countries, principally those which had functional liberal democracies prior to joining this expanding club of nations. It can be noted that there is a feeling that, though the EU is for plurality and democracy within its members’ borders, its functioning is obscure. The low turnout in European elections is evidence of this disdain. It should be further highlighted that countries which evolved later into democracies - those like the countries in the Iberian Peninsula and those which were locked into the Warsaw Pact -tend to view the EU with less suspicion, as the EU has helped to develop their democratic systems and their transformation into market economies.
The consequences of this 24th of June referendum will be analysed and debated for centuries to come. The root causes offered are: the perceived unfairness of net contribution to the EU coffers on the part of Britain, xenophobia, older voters harking back to the age of the British Empire, disaffection among the North England voters who have been left behind financially, ignorance among voters, misinformation spread by the “Leave” campaign, low turnout among the youth vote. In time deep academic analyses will be written. But suffice it to say that once again the opinion polls got it wrong.
Political anarchy in Westminster
The result of this referendum has had an immediate, dramatic and astonishing political impact in the United Kingdom; the first being the resignation of Prime Minister Cameron on the morning after. He had staked his political reputation with the “Remain” campaign, unlike the majority of his Conservative Party voters.
Within forty-eight hours there was a political bloodbath in the leadership of the opposition Labour Party, with mass resignations from their front bench. These leading politicians were never enamoured with the leadership of the leftist Jeremy Crobyn. They seemed to have taken the opportunity to pounce, given his apparent half-hearted support of the Remain campaign. Jeremy stood firm, fired the principal dissenter Hilary Benn and immediately appointed what will be perceived as second best choices to the front bench. Then he lost a vote of confidence among his fellow Labour MPs. But up the point of writing, he’s standing firm, since he was elected to that post by the larger membership of the Labour Party.
North of the border in Scotland where the SNP forms the local government, its leadership appears to be setting the pieces in place to seek a second independence referendum despite denying it.[ii]The SNP lost the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 but won a huge mandate to govern Scotland in the election of 2016. It has consistently been the most Europhile political party since the 1980’s. This desire to stay in Europe as well as within the United Kingdom by the Scots does present some interesting constitutional challenges.
There is little formal opposition to being in the EU from the other political parties in Scotland, including a surprisingly resurgent Conservative Party under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, and a near invisible, seemingly demoralised Scottish Labour Party and the tiny SDP. There will have to be a constitutional realignment of the relationship with UK at best, or a ‘Scotexit’ will happen. It is illustrative of the tension that exists that a greater proportion of the Scottish electorate seems to want to remain in Europe than remain embedded with the English!
One interesting aspect of the referendum was the result in Gibraltar (The Rock). Historically, the UK’s claim to Gibraltar comes with the 18th century Treaty of Utrecht, which along with The Rock receiving a monopoly to supply slaves to the Spanish Empire[iii]. Spain has over the centuries expressed a desire to reintegrate it into Spain.
Despite an overwhelming desire to stay British, an astonishing 96 % [iv]of voters expressed a desire to remain within the EU! (Had this been Jamaica we would call Gibraltar a garrison!) Within 24 hours Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo expressed a desire to have joint sovereignty over The Rock.[v]
Fortunately for the United Kingdom, the next day an election brought a new government to Spain. This government that will have to contend with the desire for various regions in Spain, principally Catalonia, to secede while remaining part of the European Union. This is the template that the SNP seems to be currently exploring in Scotland.
Don’t Cry for the Malvinas, Argentina
Back in the 1980’s the United Kingdom fought a short, sharp, successful war to win back its colony the Falkland Islands which had been occupied Argentina. To the amazement of the world, the British dispatched a fleet of warships, including two creaking aircraft carriers and in a narrative worth of C. S. Forester fictional character Horatio Hornblower, and won back their colony by guile and force of arms.
The repressive Argentine regime then faced an economic and political meltdown which brought a sustainable democracy to that military coup prone country.
Since then these remnants of the British Empire have become desirable bits of real estate, due principally to the Falklands’ rich fishing grounds, in addition to which they will soon begin exporting oil and gas. The democratic government in Argentina still retains the desire to regain these lands, as expressed repeatedly by former Presidents Kirchner[vi] .
Given that the military capability of Great Britain is less substantial than in the 80s, (it currently has no operational Aircraft carriers) in the event that a similar territorial grab is undertaken by the Argentines the ability of the United Kingdom to regain this territory is doubtful. And an Argentine appeal to the EU would certainly meet with greater sympathy than thirty years ago. After all, the United Kingdom would be seen as a rival by the EU with a diminished political leverage.
As the music and excitement of the Brexit fades into history its long term economic impact will be interesting to live through. My belief is that the Scottish government in Edinburgh will have gained further leverage and will re-enter the EU as an independent nation. Whether this is as desirable as the SNP believes is debatable as the genie of break-up of the EU has been let out the bottle. With the larger net contributors such as Germany, France, and the Netherlands having to pay a greater proportion to support the union, this will be less politically sustainable.
If the United Kingdom can close it borders as the Leave campaign promises, this will further push more immigration from the newer nations as well as refugees into these countries with more developed economies. I am in no doubt that in the short to medium term the Brexit will lead to a smaller UK economy, but in the long term I doubt that, even without Brexit, the EU was sustainable in its current form, with its current role.
It has to be said that the EU has been a force for positive political change. The sad truth is the Leave campaign offered nothing firm, no plans, no strategy to build a better tomorrow. It is thus sad that those English politicos who wanted to remain could not convince the majority of this simple truth.
The xenophobic fear of strangers, the inherent insecurity of that is at the root of the English and Welsh decisions to vote in the majority to leave is a lie that the Scottish, in their acceptance of outside culture by that local amateur dance troupe, shows up. This, coupled with the fact that the Gibraltarians who have lived under a near constant fear of invasion for nearly 300 hundred years, voted in the majority to remain, does suggest that this English fear of continental strangers is unfounded or the EU alleviated the prospect of war to settle political and border disputes. But, as the Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times”
[i]The greatest performance of the Prince in “Sleeping Beauty” was given by our Cuban Cousin Carlos Acosta. I was privileged to see Acosta perform this role twice so that was the only aspect of the dance show that I found lacking. It was performed by a young teenager!