Brexit-era Britain, like Donald Trump’s America, attempts government by nostalgia
Kevin Rafferty says the push for Britain’s departure from the European Union is, like much other anti-immigration sentiment around the world, driven by frustration with globalisation and memories of an idyllic time that never existed
In the heart of London’s Oxford Street, outside John Lewis department store, a man in his early 30s stood at an electronic organ under the shade of a large Chinese flag, playing China’s national anthem.
Outside Selfridges, Oxford Street was jammed with cycle rickshaws and locally called pedicabs – many sporting Middle Eastern flags – seeking tourists, whom the unrestricted drivers charge up to £200 (about US$250) for a 10-minute ride.
London is full of tourists, a babel of languages, a hustle of hijabs and a frenetic kaleidoscope of designer bags. Even in the wasteland of Docklands, we had to fight for breakfast buffet bacon and coffee with 53 schoolkids from Shanghai.
“Bloody bad-mannered foreigners, they think they own us,” grumbled the inevitable London taxi driver, his speed reduced to that of the pedicab ahead.
Britain, wrestling with Brexit, faces a deep resentment of foreigners, and simultaneously great dependence on them. Bluntly, Britain needs its tourists, who contribute almost 10 per cent of its income and provide more than 10 per cent of employment. In addition, foreigners do a vast range of jobs that Britons can’t or won’t do. This is a worldwide trend.
A reception manager at one of London’s “gentlemen’s clubs” (though they are now open to women), whose members are the elite of Britain’s ruling elite, noted that 90 per cent of staff are non-British. He holds a British passport, though he is of Indian origin.
Brexit debates, especially over immigration, hark back to a pure, golden past when life was better, safer, healthier, without foreign intrusions and when decisions could be made on Britain’s own shores. It is as if nostalgia has stolen the future.
Britain is not unique. US President Donald Trump’s determination to deter immigrants boasts the populist claim that foreign intruders make the country poorer and less safe. It is tragically ironic when the United States is a nation of immigrants, including Trump’s own mother and grandfather.
Meanwhile, in the former East Germany, the vogue is Ostalgie, the claim that the communist German Democratic Republic offered security and regular employment as well as public order, conveniently forgetting the repression of the Stasi.
Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker found that majorities in many countries, including Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, the UK and the US all believe that life is getting worse instead of better. The only large country where a majority of people are optimistic is China.
The US 50 years ago was embroiled in the Vietnam war, with protest riots breaking out, race riots in many cities and ghettoes of poor people. Today, poverty, crime and drug abuse are all down, and unemployment is at record lows.
However, the very existence of human life on Earth is being threatened by climate change, where Trump, almost single-handedly, is trying to reverse the limited efforts to grasp the threat. Trump is also trying to blow up the established global rules-based order and substitute his own whims, fancies and sometimes fantasies.
What is special about Britain is that it stands on the verge, or cliff edge, of leaving the European Union. This makes nostalgia a dangerous guide. Brexit offered a land of pure fantasy, where a mythical sovereignty would be recovered, along with economic dreams plus an extra £350 million a week for the health service.
When did this idyllic land exist? Not in my lifetime. During my childhood, nine of us lived in a damp three-bedroomed terrace house with an outside lavatory not connected to the electricity supply, no heating apart from the kitchen fire, no telephone, no television until I was 16 and no car.
My father rode a bicycle to work as an upholsterer and carpet-fitter and worked until late at night, but never earned enough to pay income tax. I was the first in the family to go to university. My mother was as sharp as a tack, and my father’s brother became the leading canon lawyer in the English Catholic Church; but they had to leave school at 14 to work.
The only – pretentious – claim to greatness that Britain could make 50 years ago was its empire on which the sun was rapidly setting. Empire has long gone, and the EU has allowed Britain to play a global role above its weight as the ninth-biggest economy in the world (only 24th in income per person).
Ardent Brexiteers admit that Britain will suffer economically by leaving the EU. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new darling of the right, says it may be 50 years before the benefits of leaving are felt. There are dire predictions that disruption of supply chains will lead quickly to critical shortages of food and medicine.
Politicians are blinded by the fog. Brexiteers threaten that “democracy” demands that the narrow decision of June 2016 be respected for all time, without a chance for a change of heart after realising that nostalgia doesn’t solve real problems.
It amounts to saying “Stop the world, I want to get off” – when the world will go on, and the foreign workers and even tourists will realise you cannot live off the past. British tourism and hospitality businesses, not to mention the beloved health service, would be badly damaged, in some cases devastated, without immigrant workers.
Will the politicians wake up in time to understand that this nostalgia is a dangerous cancer?
Kevin Rafferty recently returned to Britain after many years in Asia