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Britain’s self-inflicted political turmoil

The Winding Stair Bookshop on Ormond Quay in Dublin City Centre with books in the shop window, including a poetry book from Donald Trump and one on Brexit.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

As this writer strolled through the Inner Circle of a sunny Regent’s Park in central London, spring was in the air, clearly, but there was something more. Everywhere conversations on the U.K.’s great divorce with the EU were floating through the collective consciousness of the denizens of this land, thick like fog, confusing at times yet imbuing them with a sense of destiny and purpose.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the eclectic bookstores of London, for example Waterstones in Piccadilly, where entire shelves have been dedicated solely to Brexit — books that sought to decode and demystify, explain and justify, and as often as not, excoriate and lampoon.

For many Britons, an entry point into the debate might well be a trip down memory lane, a journey that takes them back to basics: the Ladybird series that has for generations thrilled children on the cusp of discovering the power of reading. The Story of Brexit - Ladybirds for Grown-Ups by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris is a brilliantly satirical caricature of a complex national-and-transnational negotiation. It reflects the frustrations of people on both sides of the argument when it says, against a drawing of a lady in a yellow pullover reading a newspaper in her back garden, “The day after the referendum, Helen woke to discover that she shared her country with millions of simply awful people she had never met who thought the exact opposite of her about most things. Helen wonders if there could be a referendum on those people leaving instead.” In a similar vein one may peruse The Penguin Book of Brexit Cartoons, to find a cartoon of a solitary lettuce with a deeply anxious expression, holding up a sign that says, “Vote Romaine”.

A scathing take

A more serious, if scathing take on what some consider “Brexiters’ fantasies” is 9 Lessons in Brexit, by Ivan Rogers, the U.K.’s former Ambassador to the EU. In this no-nonsense summary of the major takeaways from the tortuous negotiations between London and Brussels, he argues as he did in a speech delivered in December 2018, that outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May’s formula for Brexit puts “ending free movement above other objectives, and frictionless trade in goods above the interest of the U.K. services sector,” even though there may be entirely different interpretations of the referendum result. “Both fervent leavers and fervent remainers as well as No 10 seem to me now to seek to delegitimise a priori every version of the world they don’t support,” Mr. Rogers says.

There is a plethora of other explainers to choose from, including Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, by Fintan O’Toole and How to Stop Brexit, by former Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg.

Looking beyond the Brexit bookshelves, it is obviously a topic of conversation among friends and family that has invariably led to cathartic expressions of closely-held views on European immigrants and why Britain needs to restore its former glory without relying on them, or shocked reactions that the liberal world order could so easily be disregarded.

The real question is, how much will history matter? Does the current generation of baby-boomers ruling this land remember how the EU was formed?

In the early 1950s, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman activated a plan by his political and economic advisor, Jean Monnet, calling for a European Coal and Steel Community – the famous “Schuman declaration”. This partnership with a broken but still-dangerous post-war Germany laid the foundation stones of the EU as a means to regional and global peace. Do they have a sense of irony when they reflect on the political rise of far-right elements across the EU today, and even Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the U.K., which seem to be pushing the continent backward through the historical cycle, potentially into the embrace of the psychosis that led to the holocaust in the first place? The outcome of this self-inflicted political turmoil will provide answers. It will be too late for some, but for others retrospective wisdom may be all they can hope for to cope with the aftermath.

Narayan Lakshman is with The Hindu & was in London recently.

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 6:39:40 AM |

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