29 June 2016

Africa: Brexit - an African Perspective


It was never merely a question of "Leave" versus "Remain". Rather the roots of the UK's current crisis are far deeper.

AS an activist in 1990s Britain, I once found myself at a meeting in Liverpool, made up of people aiming to bring together all Black and Asian activists into one representative organisation.

Naturally, the discussions rotated around those things that vex them: immigration controls, education, access to jobs. It was a very left-wing atmosphere.

At some point a middle-aged Pakistani gentleman living in some northern town was brought on to the stage. He was there to illustrate the racism of the British immigration system where his Pakistan-born wife who was trying to join him, was in detention.

He hardly spoke any English, and so a young, female Asian activist had volunteered to part-translate - a task she did most enthusiastically - whenever he faltered. At some point in his presentation, the immigrant described how, while visiting the detainee, he had to phone home and warn his wife that he too, was also being threatened with detention.

I will never forget the look of growing consternation on the young translator's face, as they weaved in an out of English, trying explain to him that he could not have possibly phoned his wife at home, while at the same time visiting her in a detention facility. Once the truth dawned on her: that as a non-hijab wearing, British-born possible feminist, she was advocating for some patriarchal polygamist, she became quite tongue-tied.

I laughed in many languages.

Mass immigration was a key debating point in the EU referendum - christened the Brexit - campaign. Among the political elite and the media that feed off the immigration debate, all across Europe, this has been a wholly unexpected result. People seem to be losing their minds. David Cameron, who called the referendum and campaigned to remain in the EU, has had to resign.

The labour opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who also campaigned to remain, has been formally put on notice that many of his senior colleagues want him out. Morgan Stanley, a big financial institution has announced its intentions to move 2 000 workers to any capital still in the EU zone.

Other people, such as the many African and Asian immigrants, their children (and their relatives back home) are worried that their chances of living and working in, just about, the richest country in Europe may be greatly diminished. But these are the same people complaining about the British being everywhere when they were the premier global power, and demanding that they go home. So why are they unhappy now?

Personally, I am not surprised by all this wrong-headedness.

Much as this development comes with many remarkable features that create a sense of drama, they should not cause minds to be diverted from the fundamental issue, which is that Britain's major political organisations simply do not understand their own people. In fact, ALL of Western politics in power is simply not fit for purpose, vis-a-vis the emerging critical issues.

The general collapse of the Western economies in 2008 has left many people without jobs, pension security, or easy access to a good education as before. Britain's working class communities have been terribly squeezed by the arrival of first neo-liberalism, and then austerity, on their doorsteps - and have revolted against their political leaders.

Much as this development comes with many remarkable features that create a sense of drama, they should not cause minds to be diverted from the fundamental issue, which is that Britain's major political organisations simply do not understand their own people.

British politics has always been a two-part mafia. One side works to contain the extreme nationalists who still remember Empire; and the other to contain the extreme socialists who want the poor to overthrow the rich.

Before this era of neo-liberal global domination, the parties played these roles on behalf of the British economic elite. Now they perform for global capital. The Conservatives contained the extreme nationalists by stealing their arguments, then quietly strangling them in some dark parliamentary corridor.

In holding the referendum, that is all the now departing British prime minister was trying to do: seduce those party members and leaders inclined towards the small but noisy anti-EU United Kingdom Independence party away from it, especially with an eye on the next election.

Even Boris Johnson, the man hoping to take over from him, has just stated that one result allows them to "take the wind out of the sails of the extremists who wish to play politics with the issue of immigration".

As for the Labour Party, it developed a scheme of "imperialism abroad, socialism at home", in which they gave the economic elite a free hand to rob the world, as long as some of the proceeds were directed to their own poor so as to placate them.

Neither of these stratagems works anymore, hence the political meltdown.

The British people are used to hard work, and have good industrial skills. Unfortunately, this was tied to a foreign policy system that gave their exports unfair global advantage. As global politics reduced their power to impose their goods on the world on their terms, their elites found it easier to make money through financial speculation, and so abandoned industry.

This is a revolt among the descendants of the skilled working class in the former industrial heartlands of the north, midlands and the northeast. Historically, these were Labour voters.

They are now disillusioned by the party's ideological decline from managing the politics of the once mighty industrial working class, to a degenerate marketplace for horse trading in identity politics for votes from unreconstructed Asian patriarchs, sexual minorities, careerist women, and the grandchildren of the former passengers on the Empire Windrush.

All their attempts to bring this concern to the leadership's attention were met by denialism and even contempt. As a result, Labour has been losing the goodwill of voters in the former British industrial heartlands. First in Scotland (where a nationalist party demolished Labour's historical hegemony in the last election, and is now demanding separation from England), and now vast areas housing a usually silent majority, outside the relatively affluent South-East.

This is a revolt among the descendants of the skilled working class in the former industrial heartlands of the north, midlands and the northeast. Historically, these were Labour voters.

When a 1990s Labour government let in over 2 million immigrants from then 10 new poor eastern European countries that had just joined the EU in just a few years, this energised their extreme nationalist wing. It is no longer interested in supplying arguments for the leadership to moderate. They now want to be the leadership, and take their chances at making the country stand alone in the world, as they did by sending a navy to fight a war in the far South Atlantic in 1981. Instead of addressing their people's concerns squarely, the political leaders spoke of pan-continentalism as if it was only ever a good thing.

But Hitler also aspired to bring all of Europe under one authority, and started a war that spread all over the world. Cecil Rhodes was a pan-Africanist who brought much of the vastness of Southern Africa under one authority, but the Africans did not like him.

By trying to brow-beat their population with scare stories about the dangers of being alone, both parties only reminded them that they had not been invaded for nearly 1000 years, and had single-handedly thwarted the last attempt when Hitler's air force was defeated over the English Channel. Such people are not easily intimidated.

The issue was never "Leave" versus "Remain". The issue is "whose union"?

Kalundi Serumaga is a cultural activist agitating through theatre, journalism and creative writing. He lives in Kampala, Uganda. This article is reproduced from New African magazine.


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