Monday, June 27, 2016

Divided Kingdom: Brexit and its consequences

They say immigrants steal the hubcaps
Of the respected gentlemen
They say it would be wine an' roses
If England were for Englishmen again

--- “Something About England,” The Clash

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING, what just happened in Britain looks like a lot like an image from a scene in the Wachowskis’ “V for Vendetta” – when all hell is breaking loose at the end of the movie to the sound of the “1812 Overture,” and the terminal threat to the established order is brilliantly distilled in a single shot:

As the city skyline glows with fire ... Big Ben explodes at the stroke of midnight.

The vote on Friday to take Britain out of the European Union after 40-plus years of common continental identity may be that “shot heard ‘round the world,” the one that we Americans like to think presaged the American revolution. But the Brexit referendum and its outcome weren’t just apocryphal events, they happened. This shot literally was heard around the world — and a far smaller and thoroughly more interconnected world than the one of the 18th century.

And the national, regional and global repercussions of this could be monumental. Brexit was a reaction to a loss of British autonomy on matters of trade and finance in an increasingly interconnected Europe. But at the end of the day, it was also — and most viscerally — a deep bow to a cultural and racial isolationism that's hardly isolated itself.

The vote breakdown (52 percent Leave, 48 percent Remain) can be interpreted as Britain’s at-least temporary surrender to a nativist streak, a mood against immigration, a fear given expression in previous and more graphic examples of life in other countries.

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LIKE GERMANY, where neo-Nazis have made and continue to make life hell for immigrants. Or Austria, where a neo-Nazi who threatened to kill refugees was recently arrested. Or the Netherlands, the former home of Anne Frank, where attacks on Islamic mosques have become too commonplace. Or Italy, where patience with immigrants is wearing thin. Or the United States, where the very foundation of our immigrant history has been overlooked in a new rush to xenophobia. Or Britain itself.

David Milliband, the former British foreign secretary, and now the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he wasn’t really surprised.

“I think that for Americans, it's worth understanding that this referendum was really an up or down vote on the European institutions, which are at best unloved and undervalued, and in some ways derided,” Milliband said Sunday.

“I mean, there's been 20 years of very poisonous attacks on the European Union. The current issue was immigration from other European countries into the U.K. And so in an up or down vote on an institution that is unloved, in a way it's not surprising that you get a downvote. The trouble is you have to live with the consequences. And I always say to people, ‘Populism is popular until it gets elected. And then it has to make decisions.’ And that's when the trouble starts.”

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Milliband was no less straightforward when assessing the question of how Britain was taken to the brink, and then pushed beyond it. “I think that the failure of the European Union to construct an adequate response to the Middle Eastern refugee crisis, alongside the continuing travails of the Euro, meant that there was a really difficult backdrop. ... the European institutions were seen to be struggling to master the challenges that were being presented to them. And that presented a very difficult backdrop.”

Milliband continued: “As I said earlier, the major immigration issue was about Poles, and Bulgarians, and Romanians, other European countries coming to the U.K., contributing, I have to say. The unemployment rate among Poles in Britain is lower than the unemployment rate among Brits, which itself is very low at five percent on the American level.

“But the backdrop of the refugee crisis certainly colored this situation. Obviously for the U.S., you're in a very different situation because the blessings of geography mean that you can pick and choose which Syrian refugees you want, unlike in Europe where over probably three quarters of a million people have arrived across the Aegean Sea in smuggled rafts and boats.”

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THERE MAY BE some perverse upside to Brexit — though in real terms, “upside” means looking for a way to make a shit sandwich taste like foie gras. The narrow victory of the Leave campaign hardly suggests a mandate; winning by 4 points is close enough to indicate the broad sentiment of those on the losing side (just not broad enough to win). That ain’t nothing.

And the practical implementation of Brexit won’t happen for a while. After Britain invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty — the European Union’s regulatory mechanism by which formal separation from the EU can be undertaken — it’s expected to take perhaps two years before this geopolitical divorce is finalized. And anything can happen in that time.

But make no mistake: Britain’s already crossed a Rubicon here, and sent a signal to the world that the domestic patience with Britain’s demographically ecumenical policies and practices has apparently, finally, loudly run out.

Somewhere in hell, Enoch Powell is smiling.

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GIVEN THE vituperative nature of American politics, you can guess what’s coming on this side of the pond. The American nativists powered by the arch conservatives of the Republican Party are set to have a rhetorical field day.

Donald Trump, multimillionaire attention addict and the presumptive GOP nominee, is already working to leverage the Brexit vote as a vindication of his own xenophobic immigration policy ideas. To be fair, the Democratic campaign of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s rival for the presidency, has started to do the same thing, just with a lot less strident posturing.

But it isn’t likely to work as seamlessly as Trump or Clinton might have the American public believe. Any attempt to superimpose Brexit on the United States for partisan political purposes runs head-on into the obvious: We Ain’t Them.

◊ ◊ ◊

Helene Cooper of The New York Times understands. “I would caution ... about drawing too many parallels between what happened in Britain and what is going on in the United States,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” [T]hese are, at the end of the day ... two fundamentally different electorates and two fundamentally different countries. And the United States looks a lot more like London than it does like ... anywhere else that voted to leave.”

Gregory Krieg on CNN brought the difference between the two countries into even sharper relief.

“According to the CIA World Factbook, the British population was more than 87% white in 2011,” he wrote Sunday. Other estimates put the ratio at higher than 90%. Meanwhile, a Pew survey from earlier this year found that ‘the U.S. electorate (in 2016) will be the country's most racially and ethnically diverse ever.’ More than 30% of eligible voters will come from a racial or ethnic minority group.”

Distinctions between Britain and America couldn’t be more night and day.

As this mess unfolds financially (the Dow is down almost 900 points in the trading days since the vote, and $2 trillion+ was erased from global equity markets on Friday alone) and electorally (almost 4 million Britons have called for a new vote on the referendum), it’ll curious to see how Brexit tests or changes the contours of the “special relationship” shared by the United States and the UK. Culturally, we’ve shared a lot over previous generations. But whatever our special relationship is with our biggest trading partner, it pales in comparison with another relationship that matters more, now more than ever: Britain’s relationship with itself.

Image credits: Big Ben explodes in "V for Vendetta": ©2006 Warner Bros. Milliband: NBC News. Trump: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images.

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