I apologise in advance if this article appears confusing. Truth is, the situation itself is very confusing. Nope, this is not a political article. This is about human foible and frailty. An article about how greed and selfishness has now led to one of the greatest clusterfucks of our times.
In a nutshell - in a bid to win an election in 2016, one of Britain’s dear former prime ministers promised to give the British people a say about whether they wanted to leave the European Union (EU). The EU membership has always been a bone of contention amongst sceptics in all parties. Between a lot of toing and froing, the membership of Britain has always been retained, the decision to remain made mainly by members of parliament. Political leaders have swayed from one side to another, depending on the mood of the general public and its implied effect on the next election.
Being a member of the EU comes with loads of perks. It means that Britain imports/exports goods from any part of Europe without being charged an arm and leg for it in terms of taxes. It also means we have access to the huge European single market to peddle our goods and services. British people can take up work anywhere in Europe, can live and settle anywhere in Europe without any restrictions. This of course also means that there has been an influx of Europeans to Britain. (When I say Europeans, I mean citizens of non British European countries). As part of the free movement arrangement, Europe is in many ways a global community. For the rest of us, non business types, we can all just up and go and soak up the sunshine on cheap holidays in Spain and pretend to be chic Europeans for a couple of days. After all, who doesn't want to be carefree, sun drenched, wine drunk and bohemian for the weekend? Yes, thanks to the EU, we literally have more for our money on all our dirty weekends away.
The date of the vote, the Referendum was set to 23rd of June 2016 and suddenly there were talks about Brexit everywhere - the news, radio, social media, on the streets. The general public could barely hide their smugness and glee at being given such an important job and a chance to change the course of history. With this glee also came about a shift in the narrative. Of course, immigration was a big issue, especially before the vote. Pretty much in the same way that the Hindu, Muslim nautanki (drama) is conjured up to rear its ugly head for a vulgar performance, to stir up our feelings of patriotism or indignation before every election in India. Certain politicians who seemed to have surfaced overnight, talked about Britain in terms of its glorious past, a past that could be revived. Britain did not need Europe to tell her what to do, the British definitely did not need anymore Europeans in the country, Britain was going to make herself great again.
Leaflets started flying through the doors. They talked about change, big changes and money, big money. Leave Europe and we’ll be able to save £350 million a week, they claimed! That is approximately 3,171 crores a week. I don’t know about you, but that seemed to be an unbelievably, ludicrous amount of money to be paying as a membership fee to be part of the EU club. To allay my suspicion, then came the Brexit buses, driving through London, big and bright red, screaming out the figures in big bold letters. Social media and Facebook exploded as people took sides. The Remainers (people who wanted to stay in Europe) called out the other side as bigots. The Brexiteers (people wanting Britain to exit the EU) were affronted. How dare they be called racists?! They were dreaming big, wanting Britain to regain its former glory. “We are going to start manufacturing again,” said a few. “We can become the next China,” quipped others.
The media covered the common person's reaction. People couldn't wait to get their hands on the £350 million per week, which was apparently going straight back into the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS is a wonderful thing. It's basically a free health service for anybody in Britain. Yes, any disease, accident, plague, misery, the NHS sorts it out for free. The service is funded through the taxes that we pay and there are no extra fees required for doctors, hospitals, ambulances, medical tests, reports, hidden charges. My Indian relatives asked in wonder, “What if you have a baby?” I reminded them of having had my two children on the NHS. “What about twins?” Still a yes. “Fractures?” Yes. “Cancer?” Yes. “Stroke?” Yes, yes, yes. As the morbidity of the condition increased so did their amazement. What kind of treasure was this? And the NHS truly is that, a treasure. And who wouldn't want to pump an extra 350 million into it every week? As the not so subtle move is increasingly being made to privatise the NHS to replace it with a more capitalistic insurance scheme, the lure of the extra funding was a game changer in the campaign to leave the EU.
My elderly family friend, or as we call every elderly woman in India, Auntie, said that it would be fair again, British jobs would finally be there for British people. The Europeans were undercutting the British labourers, it needed to stop. All good, till I add the little fact that Auntie gets a Polish lady to come in and do her cleaning as “she is a lot cheaper than them locals through the posh cleaning agency.” Few of my Asian friends said that it might be a good idea to leave the EU, as that would leave Britain with no other choice than to strengthen ties with the Asian countries. Which in turn would relax immigration rules, which meant our parents could all immigrate, live with us and look after our children. It surely was a win win if childcare and Brexit were both sorted in one fell swoop. Some of my other immigrant friends also thought that leaving the EU might not be a bad thing. After all we were different to the other immigrants that we knew. We were the hardworking bunch, but we needed to pull up the drawbridges to prevent letting the riff-raff in. I was in a small independent shop one morning, when an elderly Englishman came in asking if he could use the toilet. The manager apologised saying that the toilet was only for the staff, insurance wouldn’t cover any accidents involving the public as the toilet was up a flight of steep stairs. “This is why we need to leave the EU and do away with their silly health and safety laws,” huffed the old man as the poor unsuspecting manager looked baffled, not quite sure how a query about her toilet had led to that conclusion.
My eldest, a then curious six year old read all the political leaflets that came through the door. I spent an afternoon calming my worried three and six year old who were convinced that I was going to be shipped back to India ASAP after they’d read one particularly ‘interesting’ leaflet. I assured them that it was a tiny number of people who felt that way and it was never going to come to that. They didn’t look convinced until I added for good measure, “Does it look like anybody would mess with Mummy?” That did the trick - they were more scared for the people coming for their Mummy after that. It might sound funny, but the talk of leaving the EU made me do something I thought I’d never do. I gave up my Indian citizenship after living in the UK for over fourteen years and became a British citizen.
The people voted and the result of that vote was that Britain decided to leave the EU. It was a close result. Well, what was done was done, surely we had a plan and we could just get on with it. But hang on, the prime minister was not prepared for this. He might have promised a Brexit vote to increase his popularity, but never in his wildest dreams did he think that it would lead to this political knot that would require a genius to untangle. In short, he did not want the job anymore. He was followed by a few hopefuls for the top job, who made Donald Trump look good and that’s saying something. Until, we then ended up with our current prime minister who did not want to leave the EU in the first place but now had the uphill and awkward task of managing Brexit negotiations. Looking for some clarity from the opposition party - their leader did not originally want to leave the EU, now he does, as he knows that there is no way he will come even close to winning the next election otherwise. That change in his strategy might have come a little too late.
It has been almost three years since we voted to leave the EU, but we still have not managed to come to an agreement that pleases all parties. Britain for some reason thought they would be given a warrior’s farewell from the EU, bestowed with gifts and all their previous privileges intact. They would pull the drawbridges up only letting them down routinely to bring in all their chosen, handpicked benefits from the EU. The EU would understand the need of the once colonial superpower to make their mark on their own and be truly supportive of their brave move. But guess what, surprise surprise, the EU council is not happy, oh no. Instead of the lavish heartwarming farewell party, Britain has been sternly told in polite terms that if they want to leave, they need to sort their shit out, sharpish. To agree to terms and conditions of the EU without expecting any preferential treatment, or go back to eating baked beans on toast. Forget all the French wines and cheeses, olives, Parma ham and duty free cigarettes.
To complicate matters further, now it seems that the British public are not sure about wanting to leave the EU anymore either, because unsurprisingly, they have discovered that they were lied to. Dejected people on political forums are pleading guilty to having made a misinformed choice. The prize money of £350 million a week seems to have vanished, along with the charismatic politicians who made those tall claims, into thin air. Immigrants who voted for Brexit, now realise that their relatives are not going to be invited to Britain with open arms after all. If anything, their holidays are probably going to cost more now, because of the added expense of visas that might be required for travelling to Europe.
Forget manufacturing, most multinational companies are threatening to leave the country, taking their swanky offices and their jobs with them. If they don’t get special rates and first dibs at the huge European market, they are frankly not interested in Britain, great or not. Sadly, we are not going to be metamorphosing into China either. I am not quite sure how we could work that one out anyway. China has a population of 1.36 billion, that’s roughly twenty times the population of UK. Even if we were to volunteer our entire family, including our children for child labour I doubt we’d be able to match China in its manufacturing capacity. If we do say goodbye to our human rights, a lot of which might disappear with our EU membership anyway, I doubt any of us are going to be happy ‘manufacturing’ for 20p a day, just saying. Local businesses are upset, how will they ever pay the huge taxes that will be levied on the goods that they import? How will they survive? How will any of this help? Expats in sunny Europe, in their sprawling sunny villas, living the dream, are terrified that they will be sent packing, back to cold and grey Britain. Definitely no more sunshine. Everyone will have to resort to fake tans again. A lot of my English friends mutter bitterly, “Karma is a bitch. This mess is the curse of our colonial past.” My friends, from countries that were colonised in the past are hooting in delight, “Karma is a bitch, serves you guys right.”
I have lived in Britain for almost seventeen years now and even though I’m aware of its checkered past, I’m amazed at how tolerant and welcoming it is as a society. Britain is a fantastic melting pot and it truly breaks my heart to see it in its current state. I have made friends for life in this country and I have never felt judged for my ethnicity. We are humans after all, and just like everywhere in the world, I feel the British public on both sides of the argument have been manipulated. By exploiting sensitive issues, by feeding them half baked facts and theories, the greed of staying in power for a few extra terms has compromised the future of the entire country, its economy and its legacy.
On the 23rd of March, just over a week ago, around a million people from all corners of the UK, of different ethnicities, colour and creed came together on the streets of London asking for another vote. A close friend joined the demonstration. “What if nothing comes of this?” I asked desolately. “Well, you best then start stocking up on toilet paper,” he chuckled. Britain is the largest importer of toilet paper in Europe. We are now supposedly on the last ten days of extension from the EU to sort out Brexit negotiations. If we end up Brexit-ing, we might not even have enough paper to clean this shit up, figuratively or otherwise. I suggest in that case, avoid the baked beans. Toast it will be then, all the way.