When Great Britain Met Little England

Published in The Express Tribunecover art by Martin Rowson

‘The British are leaving’ – that’s a phrase you don’t hear more of nowadays, as Pakistan (and a quarter of the world) learnt the hard way.

But it’s perhaps in the nature of things that the Crown was dragged from its colonies kicking and screaming: now that they’ve actually left by choice, the British face a parade of horribles.

#Brexit, what the Tories thought would be a futile exercise – to soothe the ‘nutters’ raising havoc over Polish maids and Pakistani cabbies – was more popular than predicted: 52 to 48 voted for quitting the EU.

Hence the parade: the pound’s gone belly-up. Cameron’s already crashed and burnt. The young are raging, the left is raging, and the Scots – well, the Scots were raging well before all this went down.

And that was just Thursday. By the weekend, more gloom had hit gloomy London: Spain’s coming in to swallow Gibraltar. Thousands of finance sector jobs may vanish in smoke. Mountains of EU legislation will be reduced to piles of paper. And careerist clown Boris Johnson might end up in 10 Downing Street.

Yes, it’s the end of Britannia or, at least, the end of Britain’s entry in the European project. And EU execs – painted for months as nationless aliens pulling the strings – couldn’t resist a parting kick. ‘It is not an amicable divorce,’ sniped European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, ‘but it was also not an intimate love affair.’

Mr. Juncker’s right: as far as breakups go, it’s Britain that’s bound to be sobbing the morning after. Same goes for the PM: before Thursday, Mr. Cameron looked to be the Tories’ finest find since Thatcher.

After years of getting smacked around by New Labour (or the tragicomic trio of Blair, Brown, and Mandelson), Mr. Cameron did much to make the Nasty Party less nasty. The youngest premier in centuries, he beat back Labour and bear-hugged the Lib Dems: smashing both in 2015 with the biggest Tory majority in twenty years.

But though the PM outdid his enemies, it was his friends that outdid him in the end. Mr. Cameron wanted Scotland to remain in the UK, and the UK to remain in the EU – ironic then that he go down in history for breaking both unions.

Like most campaigns built on fear and lies, Team Leave had a Plan B without a Plan A: what if it won? In that case, you get Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The article requires the government formally notify the European Council that it wants to leave.

Only, no one wants to do the deed: Mr. Cameron’s dashed for the doors, Mr. Corbyn’s men are in mid-revolt, and the Lib Dems refuse to recognize the result. If Brexit was one big party, the actual exit is a series of awful choices no one wants anything to do with.

That leaves us Boris Johnson. A man’s known by the company he keeps: by urging an exit, the ex-mayor joins French fascist Marine Le Pen, GOP faves Trump and Gingrich, and the drug-addled zombies that make up ISIS.

But Boris is as much a Eurosceptic as Mr. Cameron, i.e. he tries it when it suits him. In a column from February, the ex-Mayor warned that leaving would ‘[embroil] the Government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country.’

Sweet Boris – sacked from The Times for lying, then sacked again from the Tories’ front bench for lying again – has since reconsidered. Glibness comes easy to BoJo.

Not that he hasn’t other assets. In a party that never moved beyond class and colour, Mr. Johnson knows the power of letting it all hang out: his shirt’s untucked, his hair’s wild, and he’s great at making people laugh.

Sure, he’s written that blacks have ‘watermelon smiles’, that Caribbeans ‘multiply like flies’, that Obama is a ‘part-Kenyan’ with ancestral hate for the Empire. And sure, he’s an Eton elitist that set the bar as London’s laziest mayor.

Bullingdon
Paul Oswell: So amazing that power has shifted so dramatically from the guy third from the left to the guy fourth from the right.

But, as his biographer put it, Boris was born ‘to wage a ceaseless struggle for supremacy.’ By pitting himself against Mr. Cameron and the pro-EU camp, Boris at last distinguished himself from his Siamese twin. That he may succeed the PM, a man he shares school, university, fraternity, and posh vowels with, says much about Britain’s incestuous ruling class – one that Brexit was supposed to be a cry against.

Brexit was many other things as well. The usual suspects – the old, the nationalist, the poorly educated, the Welsh – voted to leave the EU. Some of those segments were linked: the older you are, the likelier you identify as ‘English’ than ‘British’. And the more English you are, the likelier you voted for exiting. In the final round, immigration and identity beat economics.

And it’s a crying shame: consider the idea of the EU itself. After the blood and gore of the World Wars, the EU was the best bet at peace: an alliance between members, cemented by an open market. Yes, there’s regulation and red tape (the EU shouldn’t be dictating the curves of cucumbers) – but it is also a taste of the future: for Asia and the Americas as well.

That project suffered a body blow on Thursday; the first defection in its 60-year history, with the Greeks already mulling over whether Brexit should be followed by a Grexit.

Pakistan too has cause for worry: in the wake of the news, our stock market took a tumble, experts worry it’ll hurt our exports, and (of course) our Panama boys saw the value of their stolen sterling fall through the floor.

But Brexit shouldn’t be the reason we start our own economic soul-searching. Rather, Pakistan’s relative immunity to Brexit – because of how low our exports are – should be the most depressing statistic in this whole story. It’s time the Treasury change that.

Some are calling the referendum the biggest British story since Diana’s death. The fallout will be worse: the old have robbed the young; and Britain has forfeited its stake in a better Europe, and a better world.

Slamming Boris, The Guardian’s Nick Cohen quoted Kipling:

I could not dig; I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

None, perhaps, than the bitter harvest ahead.