London’s No to Brexit has lessons for Mumbai

  • Smruti Koppikar, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jun 30, 2016 00:13 IST
British Prime Minister David Cameron arrives at the EU council headquarters for the second day of a European Union leaders summit addressing the talks about the so-called Brexit and the migrants crisis in Brussels, Belgium, February 19, 2016. (REUTERS)

These are post-Brexit days even in Mumbai. In sleek board rooms and tony drawing rooms, in the financial district and the share-bullion markets, the historic referendum in the United Kingdom to remain in or leave the European Union would have generated interest. But when Brexit and its impacts are recurring themes in political-policy talk and commuter chatter in suburban trains, it is evident that the referendum result has found resonance in Mumbai.

Defying poll pundits and common sense expectations, 52% of voters opted to leave the EU believing that the vote would enable to “take back control” of Britain and “make it great” again.

Read: Brexit referendum: A lot of sighs between ‘leave’ and ‘left’

The 42% who wanted to carry on in the EU, reports said, were mostly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but also in cities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Norwich and London. It was the vote in London that made for vibrant discussion in Mumbai, two cities with commercial and cultural ties that go back centuries.

London, of course, had voted against the trend with the majority 60% of its voters and 28 of its 33 boroughs choosing to remain in the EU. In the post-Brexit confusion, London’s mandate was not all that surprising. Liberal urban world-view may have had something to do with it, but self-interest definitely did. Beyond all history and culture, London is nothing if not Europe’s capital for money.

London generates $60 billion for the UK economy as a financial and legal powerhouse, and trade gateway to Europe; its staggering $800 trillion a year trading in foreign currency makes it the hub in this business; it is also the centre for ship insurance, brokerage, commodity trading, according to the BBC. The City of London or the gilded square mile, London’s financial district, shuddered as the implications of the Brexit result sunk in.

Globalisation and its jobs, London’s development as Europe’s financial powerhouse, meant a class of people — migrants and residents alike — were deeply vested in that urban economy. The outskirts of London, like the majority in the country, deduced that that economy had taken away their jobs and ruined livelihoods, as journalists have been documenting. There was talk, loose talk, about whether London could exit England.

The divide between the urban working class and elite was never sharper; the former felt they had no stake and no place in this booming economy.

Mike Carter reprised the momentous 35-year-old People’s March for Jobs from Liverpool to London last month. “Stafford, Cannock, Wolverhampton. Different towns, same message: ‘There’s no decent work’; ‘the politicians don’t care about us’…Nobody used the word humiliation, but that’s the sense I got,” he wrote in The Guardian.

This aspect of the Brexit vote, this divide, should be sobering for policy wonks and politicians whose next mega project is to turn Mumbai into an international finance centre. The city always had its wealthier and poorer areas, but recent policies to make it maha-attractive to global finance meant that selected areas received special and lavish attention. Think Parel and Bandra Kurla Complex. The opportunity cost was paid by areas such as Govandi, Cheetah Camp, and slums that badly needed the investment.

“Two distinct cities exist within one,” stated the Human Development Report for Mumbai prepared by the UNDP six years ago. It found the “two segments, rich and poor (parts of Mumbai), occupying completely different economic, physical and social spaces even as they share a geographical territory”. The divide has sharpened since then.

It is no surprise that the class of Mumbaiites yoked to the world economy has periodically argued that Mumbai should be separated into an autonomous or self-governing zone — to loud and often violent recriminations from parties such as the Shiv Sena. It is not a coincidence that the Sena advocates a strong anti-migrant policy centred on jobs in Mumbai. The irony that this is against the working class perhaps escapes its leaders.

However ill-informed or misguided the Brexit vote, it exposed an economic divide, that was and continues to be exploited by racists and bigots. The “trickle-down effects” of the global finance and services economy did not trickle down, after all. If Mumbai’s growth is based on this template, it is time to wake up.

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