A.N. Wilson, Andrew Roberts, Linda Colley, Surjit Bhalla and Timothy Garton Ash in conversation with Jonathan Shainin
By Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Guest Blogger Jules Evans
Brexit is ‘the most divisive issue in Britain’, according to Guardian journalist Jonathan Shainin, and that was all too evident in this panel at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival.
Last June, 17 million British people voted to leave the European Union, and 16 million voted to stay. Shainin called it the biggest splash in a wave of populism which he suggested started in India in 2014 with the election of Nahendra Modi.
He first turned to historian Andrew Roberts, who has described Brexit as ‘more impressive than the French Revolution’. Why so? ‘Because no one died’, Roberts said. ‘I believe democracy in the UK was being undermined by the EU, especially by the European Commission, which is unelected. There was a democratic deficit. Now we have taken back control of our laws and borders. We may make mistakes, but at least they are our mistakes.’
Political thinker Timothy Garton Ash, meanwhile, has described Brexit as ‘the biggest defeat of my European life’. He said that the EU created a better life for Europeans than ever in their history, particularly by ensuring peace. ‘The Brexiters are naïve utopians. They think that if Europe is once again a collection of independent nations, they will just trade peacefully. It’s never happened in the past. And if there is a war on the continent, the UK will be dragged back in.’
Roberts immediately disagreed, arguing that what had ensured peace in Europe since World War II was Nato, not the EU.
Why did people vote for Brexit? Author A.N. Wilson thought it was a mistake to dismiss the decision as irrational populism. ‘The prime reason was economic. If you’re a bricklayer or a plasterer in the UK, your wages have stagnated over the last 25 years, because we have imported cheap labour from Eastern Europe. If you speak to people outside London, they felt utterly rejected by the political class.’
Economist Surjit Bhalla thought globalization and the rise of Asian economies had undermined incomes in the West, leading to a backlash. ‘It’s inevitable, and leaving the EU won’t change that for Britain.’
Historian Linda Colley thought the vote arose from a long-standing Euroscepticism in Britain. ‘The UK was not invaded during World War II. While continental Europe welcomed the EU as a fresh start, the UK didn’t have the same feeling.’
Garton Ash pointed out that the Leave win was not inevitable. ‘There were many different reasons why it happened – a weak leader of the opposition, a relentlessly anti-European campaign by the press. If one of these things hadn’t happened, Brexit wouldn’t have happened.’
Roberts agreed: ‘It could have gone either way. The Remain campaign created a lot of hyperbole about all the bad things that would happen if the UK voted leave. President Obama also said the UK would be ‘at the back of the queue’ for trade deals with the US, which led to an upswing of support for Leave. The Leave campaign was much better run than the Remain campaign, which committed mistake after mistake.’
There were critiques of the honesty of both campaigns – Andrew Roberts criticized the UK Treasury’s fearful estimates of the effects of Brexit on UK household income, while Garton Ash criticized the Leave campaign’s ‘big lie’ that the UK gives 350 million pounds a week to the EU and could spend that money on the NHS.
What are the national and global repercussions of the vote? Roberts suggested that it has given the UK control of its own immigration policy, which might mean the UK can choose more skilled immigrants from India and other Commonwealth countries.
Colley warned that the vote could leave to the break-up of the UK, noting that Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to stay.
A.N. Wilson, meanwhile, said: ‘The really terrifying repercussion is what will happen in France and across the continent, where extreme right parties like France National are strong. They’re basically neo-Nazis. And President Putin will be very cheered by the vote. Will Nato stand up to him if he marches in to Estonia?’
Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill