At a conference in Bengaluru recently, i explained to a confused fellow delegate the difference between England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom and British Isles. We were talking about what Brexit meant, and my clarification of these different monikers inadvertently reinforced my point: the country is going through an extended identity crisis.
For the sake of completeness, England, Wales and Scotland are part of an island forming Great Britain, adding Northern Ireland across the sea makes up the United Kingdom. Add a few miscellaneous islands and the Republic of Ireland to that, and we have the British Isles.
The Kingdom today is anything but United. Brexit has laid bare tensions that have been simmering for several decades. It doesn’t help that Brexiteers characterise exiting the European Union as a simplistic, binary choice – either In or Out. Only 51.8% of the country voted to leave, most don’t know how and, increasingly, why. Parliament has not been able to decide in two years what Out really means. But Brexit is not the cause of the country’s divisions, but a symptom.
Once upon a time, the sun could seemingly never set on the British Empire. By 1920, it held sway over a quarter of the world’s population. The pro-decolonisation 1945 Labour government moved to disengage in India, Palestine and elsewhere. In 1951, when the Conservatives returned to power, Churchill continued to believe that Britain’s position as a world power relied on the continued existence of a global empire. But the winds of change were certain, and by 1984 Britain gave up most of its empire.
Britain disengaged with its dominions peacefully but retained its influence thanks to its friendship with the US and being an architect of a global world order. Since the 1990s, Britain’s rule in an increasingly multi-polar world has steadily diminished, although its people have benefited from globalisation. Bank of England governor Mervyn King once described the 1990s as “nice”, or “non-inflationary, consistently expansionary”, thanks largely to China’s rise in global markets.
I was a young immigrant to global Britain in the 1990s, and learnt that being British meant accepting others for who they were, being a beacon for democracy, human rights, the right to vote, rights for women and being outward-looking. My school and university classes were a smorgasbord of different ethnicities and cultures. I never once felt treated any less because of who i was.
To me, this sense of shared values made Britain Great. Today, the mayor of London is the son of a Pakistani bus driver, its deputy mayor an immigrant from Indore. Which other city in the world can claim to be accepting of such diversity?
At the same time, Westminster started to concentrate more on London and less on the disaffected parts of the country. The chief architect of the Brexit divorce, Nigel Farage, founded the UK-Independence Party in 2006. Scotland’s 2014 referendum asking voters “Should Scotland be an independent country?” lost only narrowly. On PM David Cameron’s watch, Scotland nearly left the union and the country narrowly voted for Brexit.
People like Farage argued that migration had changed Britain’s complexion: eastern Europeans steal low-skilled British jobs and the EU is a bloated, bureaucratic mess that remains more an abusive husband than an equal life partner. This narrative has worked because, when times were good, Britain did not see fit to fix the underlying problems a changing society were causing.
In school history lessons, i learnt only about the World Wars. There was no mention of the Empire, break-up of the Soviet Union, the Opium Wars or Partition. London grew because of the influx of Chinese, Russian and Indian money, and the spectacular expansion in banking and professional services jobs in the 2000s. Most of these jobs went to skilled foreigners able to pay for expensive university degrees, and aam admi in smaller towns felt they lost out. The EU provided massive development grants to such areas, but because successive generations of British politicians took credit for that development, voters blamed the EU rather than thanking it.
And so politics today has become more binary. Fifteen years ago around 70% of Indians voted Labour, today they vote Conservative. Pakistanis vote Labour. Jews vote Conservative. Younger people vote Labour. Older, rural British vote Conservative.
In certain Conservative sections in Westminster, the idea of reviving the Commonwealth as a post-Brexit engine of growth to serve British interests has gathered steam. The country craves a new belonging and relevance – it was once the Empire, then a post-WWII rules-based global order, then EU membership and now, the Commonwealth again.
Whatever you think of Brexit, on the ground it is a huge distraction. The British people have identified fundamental problems in the direction of their country, most of which are lying unresolved because policy makers’ time is monopolised by Brexit. When the next recession comes, Britain will not have the policy tools it had last time to respond, and the voters that have most voiced disaffection will be the ones to lose the most.
Britain will become a less important player in a multi-polar world today than it was a few decades ago and it just has to accept that. Its economic influence may diminish, but the shared values that made my generation proud to be British should stand steadfast.