Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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Britain's Brexit travails

THERE IS ONE facet of the never-ending Brexit crisis in the United Kingdom that both fascinates and intrigues, and which is hardly mentioned in weighty tomes on the subject: the level of popular panic.

In India, we are accustomed to disruptions. There are disruptions from festivals, rallies, processions and bandhs; there are disruptions arising from shortages and power cuts; and there are disruptions caused by epidemics and nature. We take disruptions in our stride. We agonise over it for a few days, perhaps even point accusing fingers at some people, and then get on with life. In time, we even forget it happened.

Brexit isn’t a disaster or a catastrophe. It is an outcome of a decision the British people took voluntarily in a free and fair referendum that witnessed a very large turnout. The compulsions of people who said ‘No’ to membership of the European Community may have varied from the rational to the irrational. But it can hardly be said to be a coercive decision brought about by evil bankers or internet hackers who, as we now know, are capable of disrupting normal life and creating chaos.

There are fears that British ports will be jammed with uncleared goods. There are fears that there will be a severe shortage of medicines and there is also concern that drinking water will be in short supply. Consequently, what we are witnessing is people stockpiling medicines, tins of baked beans or worse, and gallons of drinking water. Soon, people suspect, this process of hoarding will create shortages and trigger a real panic. For those interested in disaster tourism, Britain may be a good place to visit at the end of March when Brexit kicks in.

From a distance, the growing concerns seem a little contrived, much like the Y2K panic 18 years ago when alarmists put it out that all computers and software- driven household items would crash. In the end, nothing happened, and the world entered the new millennium in a drunken stupor. I suspect that Brexit—a hard or soft one—will be a relatively smooth transition. Yes, the immigration queues may be a bit longer if all the EU passport holders are herded into the ‘other passports’ category. But then, as anyone who has landed at Heathrow after a flight from China or the United States is aware, delays are in the order of things while entering the UK. It is part of the travel experience.

The contrived panic and concerned expressions on the faces of otherwise sensible Britons often makes me wonder how this island nation built the largest Empire in the world and stood resolutely against Hitler after much of Western Europe had succumbed. It is just over seven decades since the end of World War II and only 100 years since the Armistice ending the Great War of 1914-18. Both wars had tragic human consequences for Britain. The Great War in particular led to the elimination of an entire generation and, in effect, along with the subsequent war, sapped Britain’s resolve to maintain the Empire. Yet, adversity was borne with sadness and fortitude. People these days snigger over the ‘stiff upper lip’. I think its return in the age of Brexit would do Britain a world of good.

AS A RULE, I don’t like being judgmental about the internal affairs of a foreign country, especially since being in Parliament also involves being more ‘responsible’. However, I am struck by the fact that the British Establishment— it is difficult to define it, but you know it when you see it—is so terribly uncommitted to the idea of Brexit, despite the exit from the EU having a full democratic mandate. I can understand the Guardian- reading liberals mocking the idea of a go-it-alone Britain, since lots of Empire and Churchillian imageries are involved in the process. However, what I fail to gauge is why the middle-of-the-road types who had spent the past three decades or so rubbishing the over-zealousness of a very undemocratic bureaucracy in Brussels should now feel that it is better to be in rather than out.

Brexit is a huge gamble, but it is a gamble worth persevering with if you believe Britain needs a distinct identity and must chalk its own independent destiny.

That calls for vision, but it also calls for nerves. I don’t see either in evidence these days. But who knows? Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum.