Originally Published 2016-06-14 10:29:03 Published on Jun 14, 2016
Brexit’s bearing on history and the future

George Galloway is to the extreme Left of British politics. A fringe MP of the Labour Party — which he subsequently left — he has been famous for accusing India of illegally occupying Kashmir, for backing Saddam Hussein, condoning laws against minorities in Iran and being so supportive of the Palestinian cause that he is often charged with anti-Semitism. Nigel Farage is the polar opposite of Mr. Galloway. He is leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, a small but growing political force centred on issues of British identity and distrustful of immigration.

Mr. Farage is schooled in the political tradition of Conservative leader Enoch Powell and broke away from a Conservative Party he sees as compromised.

As the referendum to decide whether Britain stays in or leaves the European Union (EU) approaches its < class="aBn" tabindex="0" data-term="goog_509776820">< class="aQJ">June 23 date, the Brexit issue has made Mr. Galloway and Mr. Farage co-advocates of the proposal to exit the EU.

Mr. Galloway has compared this unlikely partnership to Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill coming together during World War II, to defeat Germany. The analogy is pointed, though Mr. Galloway probably sees himself as Stalin rather than as Churchill. The EU, of course, is perceived as a German-driven project, one that has upturned the political reality of 1945.

Brexit is rooted in a complex mix of motivations. There is the historical memory of an age when Britain dominated the world and continental politics. Today, it finds itself as an adjunct to a larger European project and to a bureaucracy in Brussels that evokes strong feelings. On terrorism and immigration — and thanks to the refugee crisis from Syria and West Asia, the two concerns have got enmeshed — there is a sense among those who want the leave the EU that European entanglements are coming in the way of the UK’s own well-being.

Some of the “leave” advocacy has been plain zany. The cricketer Ian Botham has recalled the many happy hours he spent playing against teams from India, Australia and the West Indies and called for closer business and trade relations with those countries, rather than with the EU. More matter-of-fact observers have pointed to the bizarre logic of shunning one’s closest geographical neighbours — the bulk of UK trade is with European countries across the Channel — and chasing the hope or even the mirage of a trade association with territories that are oceans away. While the second idea is evocative and has a precedent in imperial history, it probably ignores today’s reality.

Those who want the UK to remain in the EU base their case on two factors. First, there is enough turmoil in the world — from a global economy that has not recovered from 2008 and, more recently, from the Chinese slowdown, to the conflict in West Asia and the Arab world. The moving away of the UK from the European endeavour will add an unknown and imponderable dimension to the international situation.

Second, while Britain does not share a visa system and a currency with the rest of the EU, it nevertheless is part of many of the Union’s compacts and treaties. As President Barack Obama and others have warned, if the UK walks out, it will have to negotiate many international agreements — whether with the US or India or anybody else — on its own, well after agreements between those countries and the EU have been finalised. In short, Britain would go to the “back of the queue”.

While this is conventional wisdom, the polls are suggesting a volatile mood in Britain. When the Brexit campaign started, it was indicated by surveys that Britons would vote comfortably in favour of staying in. Now the numbers suggest the “leave” camp is gaining and may be ahead. Certainly, the “leave” corner is getting media coverage, with the Galloway-Farage handshake as a compelling photo-op.

Having said that, it is also true that a significant section remains either undecided or simply refuses to participate in the endless series of online polls. It is a fair argument that the middle-ground voter would prefer the comfort of the status quo and would be appalled by the maverick Left and the maverick Right coming together — with zero chance of a common post < class="aBn" tabindex="0" data-term="goog_509776821">< class="aQJ">June 23 road map.

Some caveats need to be entered here. For a start, pre-election polling in Britain, as the British general election of 2015 revealed, has had its failures. What was once a strictly bipolar polity, easier to map in terms of pre-election surveys and exit polls, has now fragmented into two parties in the middle (with Labour under Jeremy Corbyn probably more left than middle), and breakaway groups in the extreme Left and Right (from the Greens to Mr. Galloway’s Respect Party to UKIP). There is also the Scottish National Party.

The Conservatives themselves are a party of England. While Prime Minister David Cameron wants to stay in the EU, the fact is many of his colleagues disagree. If the UK leaves the EU and if Scotland leaves the UK, then Conservatives could be unbeatable in the rump that remains — England and Wales. On the other hand, if middle-ground voters overwhelming go with the safer option — which was the case in 2015, when Mr. Cameron and the Conservatives won a decisive majority in the general election — then the EU should be safe.

Will the UK sign away its future if the Brexit vote is in favour of leaving? The facile answer is “yes” but it comes with a massive assumption: That the rest of the EU will stay an organic, integrated whole and continue to be united. As opinion polls across Europe point out, economic discontent and the refugee and immigration question has made the EU less popular in not just Britain but a host of countries, from France to Greece to Spain. What if a Brexit vote that takes Britain out of the EU has a domino effect and results in other countries choosing a similar route?

In that case, those who worry about Britain being at the “back of the queue”, may need to contemplate a future without any queue in the first place.

This commentary originally appeared in Asian Age.

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