Friday, 24 June 2016

Brexit

What a nightmare.

There’s only one aspect I want to comment on.

I have noticed emerging from the posts and articles shared by friends on Facebook a common tendency for Americans to assume that the root of the Brexit vote is racism. That White English people don’t like Black people in general and Black foreigners in particular, and are so allergic to racial difference that they can’t even cope with Europeans now and want them all to go away.

I’d like to offer a corrective to that.

First thing, only half (52%) of the British people who voted (and loads of people didn’t) wanted to leave Europe. 48% voted to stay. So that dilutes by half the strength of the assumption in the first place

Second thing, the reasons for voting to leave the European Union were varied.

As I understand it, everywhere in the world is racist in some sense or other, and certainly racial discrimination and racial hatred exist in the UK. White privilege is definitely a thing here, too. Institutional racism and racist culture are still rife here in Britain, even among people who are so used to it they don’t think they’re racist at all.

However, I have never anywhere personally observed racism as extreme and overt as friends from the US describe in American society. I suspect that in assuming the Brexit vote to be about racism, US friends are projecting onto the UK the agenda that would be running if we were an outpost of America.

So here are some of the things that might have encouraged UK people to vote “Leave”.

Where I live, in Hastings, there’s a fishing fleet that goes back to Tudor times. Its particular speciality is cod fishing. As you know, cod stocks are over-fished, so the EU has imposed restrictions – below a certain size, you have to throw it back. It’s also imposed quotas. This has had the odd result that Spanish fishermen can catch more fish in waters easily accessible to the Hastings fleet than our own fishermen. There’s probably a sensible reason for that, but you can see why it might foster resentment.
Much of our legislation about trade and industry comes from the European Union – health and safety, vivisection, environmental protection, working hours, industrial standards; that kind of thing.

The point of such legislation is to make a single marketplace practical.

Here’s the kind of thing that happens without such regulation. A couple of years ago, an American friend commissioned my daughter Alice to make her a stained glass panel. Shipping a glass panel to Minnesota was quite a challenge, as it obviously needed to be certain to arrive intact. After much research into methods and materials, a crate was made and the international courier picked it up. When it arrived in the States, it was detained in customs. The wood from which the packing crate was made had nothing wrong with it, but it lacked a particular certification stamp required by US law that we didn’t know about. So they sent it aaaaaaalllll the way back to England. And we had to make a second packing crate and send it all over again. Couldn't have arisen if it had been shipped to Europe. If a country belongs to a single market, such things can’t happen because the regulations are all the same; the wood you buy at the lumber yard to make a crate will bear any required standard marking required to ship to Europe without you even thinking about it, because it's part of your own country's regulatory system as well.

However, if you, the voter, have never had to put your mind to how helpful these regulations therefore are, they might understandably feel exasperatingly irksome and restrictive. "EU regulations interfere with our freedom" has become a bit of a legend in the UK. It’s incorrect – the regulations are in fact the thing that extend our freedom, make it possible, at least in terms of trade – but people don’t always realise that.

So, many voters wanted out of Europe, not because they don’t like people of other races but because they mistakenly believe we shall be more self-determining in business matters such as trade and employment, out of Europe. What they haven’t grasped is that, as we shall still need to trade in Europe, we shall necessarily be bound by their marketplace regulation; we just won’t get any say in shaping it.

Here’s another reason some people voted to leave. Through the winter, UK residents in their thousands sent money and goods across the Channel to help the refugees stranded in Calais – tents, sleeping bags, clothes, food, blankets; all sorts of stuff. And scores of folk went as volunteers to help the cold and traumatised people arriving in crowded boats, fleeing war zones. The general perception has been, among the volunteers whose posts I’ve seen, that the French – both the ordinary people and the police and other public service officials – have been inhospitable to an inhumane degree to the refugees. I have seen several such volunteers from the UK posting online that they voted to leave Europe out of a desire to distance themselves from what they perceived as cold-hearted inhospitality in the French. Being British and volunteers themselves (and all their friends the same), they had formed the view that the British loved the refugees and the French hated them so if we left the EU we’d be free to welcome in the refugees. Na├»ve, yes – but not racist in the sense that US observers have imagined.

And there were many other reasons people voted out – some felt our membership of the EU had made the world of trade and business far too complex. Some felt that when we joined it was the Common Market, but has since then grown out of all proportion and become something we never imagined when we signed up. Some members of the party in opposition to the government voted to leave (against the recommendation of their own party leader) because they don't like our Prime Minister and hoped he'd resign (he has) if we left against his clearly expressed views.

I personally voted to stay in, and I am dismayed – absolutely dismayed – by the victory of the Brexit campaign. I think those who voted out cannot possibly have dreamed of the stark economic austerity likely to result from this – quite apart from the question of how we will run our hospitals and builders’ yards and restaurants and any number of other businesses and institutions, without foreign nationals on the staff. The ramifications are immense – cultural, political, economic, and the immeasurable impact of sheer human heartbreak, the uprooting of people settled here from the communities to which they now belong.

But though I regard the Brexit vote as a disaster, can I please underline for US friends, this is not necessarily anything to do with racism (though racist rhetoric has certainly played a part in the Brexit campaign). It’s not a black/white thing, and not even an anti-European thing. It’s more about the British bulldog spirit – the wilful determination of British people to do everything on their own terms and in their own way.