Annie Paul | The Divided Kingdom
"Cured toothache by severing head #Brexitin5words," tweeted literary agent @JohnnyGeller, pithily summarising the predicament not-so-Great Britain finds itself in today. "Brexit: verb. To declare loudly that you are leaving a party, and then stand on the porch, begging the hosts to invite you back in," stated another tweet, examples of the jokes flying back and forth on Twitter at the prospect of a Kingdom formerly known as United, now irrevocably divided.
Great Britain, which famously perfected the art of divide and rule, profitably applying it across swathes of the planet it colonised, has now fallen victim to its own stratagem. An episode of the 1980s British TV series Yes Minister, which seems tailor-made to explain Britain's bewildering exit by referendum, is also making the rounds on social media. Says Permanent Secretary Humphrey Appleby: "Minister, Britain has had the same foreign-policy objective for at least the last 500 years: to create a disunited Europe. We have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it's worked so well?"
Forty-eight per cent Sense and Sensibility; 52 per cent Pride and Prejudice goes another social media meme circulating on Facebook. The steady stream of jokes is relentless, though for many, this is hardly a laughing matter.
Brought back memories
Personally, the fateful referendum in which a slim majority of Britons decided they wanted to leave the European Union - Brexit - has brought back memories of growing up reading Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie, with an insidious distaste for foreigners and all things foreign encoded into the delicious texts we avidly consumed. A Spaniard or South American would be described as 'swarthy' with 'greasy' hair (irretrievably beyond the pale apparently), a Frenchman was excitable and faintly ridiculous, while the lower classes spoke ungrammatically and often said 'gah' and 'goo', according to these popular English writers. Blyton, for instance, explained the motives of thieves simply by proffering the 'fact' that they were foreign.
"This is going to be a referendum that's won on perception rather than fact," a BBC commentator said as the results started coming in last Thursday, while The New York Times tweeted, "One thing we've learned from the vote, when it comes to immigration, feelings trump facts." And to me, this, in a nutshell, is the most significant aspect of the Brexit dilemma.
Significant because there is an all-round tendency to favour facts and facticity above everything else, in the belief that this is the only thing that matters to people in decision-making. Economists, in particular, are infamous for insisting that people make rational decisions based on facts, but Brexit firmly relegates such views to the rubbish bin where they belong.
As The New York Times article points out, all concerned had been warned about the economic fallout if Britain voted to leave the European Union. "... It is clear from polling data and interviews with voters that those who voted for Brexit had been well warned about the economic risks. They just cared more about something else: immigration. For many people, identity trumps economics. They will pay a high price (literally, in this case) to preserve a social order that makes them feel safe and powerful."
Immigration under attack
The article argues that this tendency is not unique to Britain, or to this referendum. It is playing out in democracies around the world, and immigration has become its focal point. Although a study by Britain's National Institute of Social and Economic Research indicated that immigration had increased the country's gross domestic product and had lowered the cost of government services like health care and pensions, a June 20 poll revealed that 47 per cent of voters planning to support Brexit said immigration had been bad for Britain's economy.
Brexit is the backlash against the gains of policies such as multiculturalism, which tried to make English identity more inclusive, a project Jamaica-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall was integrally involved with. It is a revolt against the hegemony of 'global' values, the same revolt one sees in Jamaica against homosexuals, for in times of social and economic stress, cultures turn on the 'aliens' among themselves, seeing them as an imposition and as conduits of alien values, alien ways of living, producing and reproducing. Immigrants - in our case, homosexuals - are portrayed as veritable threats to the stability of the nation, narrowly defined.
Brexit announces the irreversible arrival of a new era presaged by the pushback against liberal values - secularism, tolerance and equal rights for all - that brought in Hindu fundamentalism in India, White fundamentalism in post-Obama United States, and now English (synonymous with white) fundamentalism in the UK, all outcrops of free-market fundamentalism. Who will deliver us from this mess?
- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @anniepaul.