On June 23 an event that could reverberate around the world will take place — the British referendum on whether to stay in the European Union (EU) or leave, the Brexit option as it is known. If Britain Brexits, the global rising tide of protectionism will become stronger, within Europe the enthusiasm for the EU, already on the decline, will diminish further, and trumpery, defined in the Oxford dictionary as rubbish, will have conquered once again. Yet so far India doesn’t seem to have taken much interest in the referendum. So, as I am in Britain at the moment, it seems appropriate to try to arouse interest in it.
The politics of the referendum campaigns are an amazing spectacle that makes the politics of India’s Janata movement look orderly. Prime Minister David Cameron is heading the stay-in campaign, but some members of his cabinet are leading the Brexit campaign, along with the most charismatic conservative politician, Boris Johnson, until very recently mayor of London. Cameron is refusing to debate with the Brexiteers of his own party on the grounds that he doesn’t want “blue on blue fights”, blue is the Conservative colour. But he is prepared to appear on the same platform as prominent opposition politicians supporting Europe and blue-on-blue fights are breaking out daily. Labour, the main opposition party, is also officially committed to Europe but its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a veteran EU opponent.
The result of the referendum should not be in doubt if the prominent supporters of each side are measured against each other. For the EU are the prime minister, of course, and the leader of the opposition, the governor of the Bank of England, the Confederation of British Industry and the Trade Union Congress, the World Bank and the IMF, along with Barak Obama and other international leaders. On the opposite side are those the New Statesman describes as ‘the Brexit Odd Squad’. Odd indeed are the supporters of Brexit portrayed in the cartoon on the cover of a recent edition of the magazine. In the back row are Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Putin and Nigel Farage. Farage is the leader of the small extreme-right UK Independence Party (UKIP). Other members of the Brexit campaign are not happy associating with Farage because his party’s policies are widely perceived as racist.
Although the balance of informed opinion is so heavily in favour of staying in the EU, the polls fluctuate between the two sides, with a very close result forecast. It’s trumpery that is attracting the ‘Out’ support. Like Trump, the Brexit campaigners are concentrating heavily on immigration, saying Britain must regain control of her borders by ending the free movement of EU citizens. They play the nationalistic card demanding “give us back our government”. They produce daily examples of powers that have been lost to Europe. One of the latest is the claim that EU regulations are preventing the deportation of dangerous criminals living in Britain. They are jingoists telling voters not to be afraid of opting out of Europe because Britain is great enough to stand on its own. Johnson has reminded voters that Britain was once so great that it ruled the largest empire ever known. Some Brexiteer claims are questionable, to put it mildly. One Brexit poster says Turkey is joining the EU, which it is not. A Conservative MP has just resigned a Brexiteer campaigner, saying the claim that Britain pays 350 million pounds a week to the EU, which could be spent on the National Health Service, is ‘simply isn’t true’. The Brexiteers haven’t offered an alternative plan for Britain’s economy. If trumpery wins Britain will lose its privileged access to the market, which accounts for almost half its exports.
If the ‘Out’ campaigners persuade the Britons to go over the top, one of the casualties is almost certain to be the unity of the UK. The Scottish Nationalists say they will demand another referendum on getting out of Britain if the Brexiteers win. For India there will be economic consequences. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said Britain is India’s gateway to Europe. Indian investors will suffer. Their investments are valued at 1.89 billion pounds sterling.
A Brexiteer victory would demonstrate the growing dissatisfaction threatening the present world economic order and the globalisation that goes with it. It would show there is as yet no answer to that except trumpery.
The views expressed are personal