“Welcome to British Politics!” says Anand Subhuti while clarifying the present situation in the UK.
It used to be simple. When I was a political reporter in the Houses of Parliament, many moons ago, the Conservative and Labour party politicians faced each other across the floor of the House of Commons like soldiers in two armies on a battlefield.
Yes, there were rumblings and grumblings in the ranks, but everyone knew who the enemy was and how the fight would proceed. Usually, the Conservatives won. Sometimes, though, Labour enjoyed the sweet taste of victory.
When a leader made the mistake of losing an election, the remedy was swift and brutal. Edward Heath, having lost touch with his backbenchers, was quickly thrown overboard to allow Margaret Thatcher to lead the Conservative Party. Then she dominated British politics for a decade, keeping her backbenchers tightly in line, while Labour resigned itself to its familiar role as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
How different the political scene looks today! Fragmentation is the name of the game. Uncertainty is no longer confined to the British weather but has entered the Palace of Westminster and may herald a permanent climate change. And two political parties that, even a couple of months ago, were both maintaining an illusion of solidarity are now being torn apart.
Let’s look at the Opposition first. There has always been an uneasy relationship between the Labour MPs who sit in Parliament – the “P L P” or Parliamentary Labour Party – and the ranks of working-class socialists who make up the bulk of the grass roots party membership.
Britain, as a whole, doesn’t like socialism – at least, not in recent years. Tony Blair understood this and managed to side-line the party’s Left Wing, steering Labour into the mainstream in order to gain power.
But when his successor, Gordon Brown, lost an election to David Cameron, the Left took its revenge. It surged back to dominate the party and appoint its own favourite son, Jeremy Corbyn, as leader.
Corbyn is a nice fellow, sincere in his socialist beliefs, but a bit of a wimp and sadly lacking in any kind of public charisma. He looks a bit scruffy, a bit sad and a bit old. You might, out of compassion, buy a used book from him at a Sunday afternoon car boot sale in aid of unemployed politicians, but it’s hard to see him as the next leader of Britain.
Unfortunately for Corbyn, the majority of Labour politicians in Westminster share the same view as me. They don’t like him. They don’t want him. But it’s hard to get rid of him because he was elected by the rank-and-file of their own party, not by the PLP itself.
Meanwhile, across the floor of the House of Commons, another leaderless party faces an uncertain destiny. Up to now, the Conservatives, with an almost animalistic instinct for domination, have always been good at pulling together and adopting policies that keep them in power.
But Europe proved too much even for these survival specialists. It was the Conservative backbenchers, especially those from the English shires, whose hostility towards the bureaucracy in Brussels – smouldering and burning for decades – pushed David Cameron to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership.
Cameron thought he could win. He thought he could shut up his renegade Tory MPs with a “Remain” victory. It was a gamble, a spin of the political roulette wheel, but it was a gamble he lost.
Afterwards, Cameron made it clear, in his resignation speech, that he didn’t want to be the one who has to sort out the political, diplomatic, economic and bureaucratic mess the referendum result threatens to create.
Exasperated, he walked back into No.10 Downing Street, after addressing the nation, and told his friends “Why should I do all the hard shit for someone else, just to hand it over to them on a plate?”
It’s nice to know that even Prime Ministers can be human.
The job might have gone to Cameron’s rival, the flamboyant former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who jumped on the “Leave” bandwagon, thinking it would take him to No.10 Downing Street. But after his referendum victory there was a nasty surprise for Johnson: very few Conservative MPs would back his leadership bid and he had to withdraw from the race.
Neither Cameron nor Johnson are blameless for the UK’s exit from Europe.
Cameron was popular enough as Prime Minister that he could have ignored the anti-EU faction within his own party. He didn’t have to go for a referendum. He did so, because he thought it would appeal to the British public and help him win the 2015 general election.
Johnson didn’t have to abandon Cameron and join the Brexit camp. He did so because he wanted power and thought this was the best way to get it. How ironic that Johnson’s support for Brexit may have tipped the referendum in favour of “Leave”, while denying him the prize he craved.
This is how politicians meddle with people’s lives, switching policies to further their own ambitions.
Across the English Channel, European politicians look on with a mixture of shock and relief. Britain has never been a very enthusiastic member of the European Community, so our imminent departure is welcomed in many places – especially in Brussels.
But the UK’s breakout has left a hole in the EU fence. Who else may now consider walking through it? That’s the prospect that sends shivers down German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s back, hence her immediate meeting with French President, François Hollande, and their joint declaration that they are in “full agreement” on how to handle the Brexit fall-out.
In reality, I suspect, they are groping in the dark, like everyone else. But, out of sheer necessity, Merkel and Hollande agreed to say they agreed, in order to show they were in agreement – if you see what I mean. They needed to reassure the rest of Europe that they are working together and on top of the situation. In other words: don’t panic!
Nobody likes uncertainty, but that’s the name of the game right now.
“Leave quickly,” says European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, to UK leaders.
“No hurry, take your time,” says Peter Altmaier, Angela Merkel’s Chief of Staff.
The pound sterling goes up and down like a yo-yo on the international markets. Other currencies are shaken. Stock markets tremble, not knowing how to interpret Brexit consequences.
Meanwhile, British voters may be pondering over the rashness of their actions. At the last general election, they strongly backed David Cameron and the Conservative Party because they were afraid that, if the Labour Party won, a Labour Government might make a deal with Scottish Nationalists and allow Scotland to become independent.
Now these same voters have chosen to leave Europe, while people in Scotland voted to remain. This has given a powerful weapon into the hands of the Scottish Nationalists, who can point out that, once again, England is preventing them from doing what they want.
It would be truly ironic if, by leaving Europe, English voters triggered the breakup of the United Kingdom – “From Great Britain to Little England,” as one commentator put it.
But the truth, as I said before, is that nobody knows what is going to happen. That’s what people dislike – the uncertainty, the unpredictability.
It was a deep feeling of insecurity, triggered by television news pictures of desperate refugees from places like Afghanistan and Syria, running into the Channel Tunnel and illegally entering the UK, which fuelled the drive to quit the EU.
Many people in Britain thought that independence would make them feel more secure, with the UK government exerting more control over its borders. But will it? Or is it simply another illusion, fostered by the advocates of Brexit?
Everyone seems to agree that immigration is out of control, running at 330,000 new arrivals in the UK per year. But the swift, sleek powerboats that race across the English Channel at night and deposit strangers on our shores, sometimes on the beach just down the road from my mother’s house, aren’t going to stop when, or if, a British politician triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, officially initiating the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
So far, nobody feels more secure and almost everybody feels more confused. For people like myself, who have long since embraced insecurity as a way of life, it doesn’t make much difference. But for the British public, it’s very unsettling.
Looking on the positive side, a shake-up like this is good because it forces people to think, questioning their own identity.
“We’re not British, we’re Europeans!” proclaimed the banners of the young protesters who marched through London after the Brexit vote. And even those who consider themselves “English” might wonder if it feels so great, when they see Scotland sailing away to self-determination and renewed EU membership, while they are left out in the cold.
The upheaval may also encourage people to review another favourite British habit: complaining. When you love to blame Brussels for your woes, and then, by your own hand, Brussels disappears, then you’d better find another scapegoat quick, or you might need to look at yourselves.
And finally, there is “the war”.
“Don’t mention the war!” declares John Cleese in the classic TV comedy series Fawlty Towers, when German tourists come to stay at his little English hotel. But then his prejudice bursts out and he does an outrageous Nazi goose-step, marching right through the dining room.
It’s a hilarious spoof, but it points to an underlying, nationalistic prejudice: we didn’t win the war to have the Germans tell us how to live our lives.
However, if things go badly for Britain, then five or ten years down the line from now, we may have to go back to the Germans, and all the other EU members, and ask to be readmitted to their European club. You can imagine what a comic scene John Cleese would make out of that.
So, the question is: what to do? If you ask me, my advice to the people of Britain is:
This is a great time to take a vacation. Lying in the sun on a Mediterranean beach, things will look a little less serious. And that’s one aspect of Europe that British voters of all persuasions have no trouble accepting: the sheer joy of leaving behind the British weather and basking in the EU’s sunshine, on the EU’s beaches, spending their EU euros on beer and chips.
That’s what European cooperation and harmony is all about…right?
This article has been updated on 1st July 2016.
Anand Subhuti worked as political correspondent for ‘The Birmingham Post’, being a constant presence in the chambers of the House of Commons in London. He took sannyas in 1976 and lived at the ashram, in Rajneeshpuram and then again in Pune until Osho left his body. He mainly lives in Europe yet visits India every year, the country he loves. He is also author of My Dance with a Madman, a chronicle of his life in India with Osho. anandsubhuti.com, Facebook Fan Page
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