Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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A United Kingdom in the throes of permanent angst

IT IS ALMOST 43 years since I first came to the UK. Having lived in that country for nearly 10 years and having visited it each year since the mid-1990s at least a couple of times, I can say without any exaggeration that it is the only country, apart from India, I know well.

It is only in the past few years that each visit tells me this country is in the throes of permanent angst. This has precious little to do with politics or which party—Labour or Conservative—is in power. It has everything to do with newer and newer social and, by implication, political attitudes that engulf a slice of ‘educated’ British society.

It has been a choppy, rollercoaster ride these past three years. First there was all that excitement over the Brexit referendum—an issue that was, frankly, becoming a bore and needed a final closure. Intellectual grandees believed that the vote would approve the UK remaining a part of the European Union and would pave the way for the UK’s gentle stroll into greater integration. Even if it remained outside the Eurozone, all those familiar gripes about fishing rights, agriculture subsidies, EU justice and the influx of Poles and Romanians would become history.

Alas, for smug intellectuals and the editorial classes, the outcome of the vote was a shocker. Since then, educated Brits and particularly academia and the media have been obsessed with trying to figure out how to subvert a democratic decision taken in a referendum with a high turnout of voters. There has been incessant talk of how the vote was based on ignorance, prejudice and narrow mindedness, and how a bunch of bigots shouldn’t be allowed to jeopardise the glorious cosmopolitan future of the enlightened classes. There have been gleeful plots to ensure that Scotland becomes a breakaway nation, that Northern Ireland returns to its old troubles and that the bureaucrats in Brussels make the separation as difficult as possible. Brexit revealed a fundamental anti- democratic facet of liberalism.

Along with Brexit—or maybe because of it—there have been parallel developments that have exposed some ugly fissures in Britain. That the British were obsessed with class was always a fact of life. My own experience suggested that how you spoke English was always the passport to the higher echelons of society. In recent days, however, this snobbery has been considerably diluted with everyone going out of their way to underplay their poshness.

Race, to my mind, has mattered less than class—especially when it came to people from the Indian Subcontinent. The British have often been berated for their aloofness and lack of instant conviviality. Whatever the reality, there have been few countries that have adjusted so readily—though not always ungrudgingly— to the most profound demographic changes in such a short time. There is, for example, hardly anything in common between the London that emerged scarred after World War II and today’s bustling and prosperous cosmopolitan city. Today, London is an ethnic hotchpotch that defies definition. Many old timers may complain about it in private, but they have adjusted to the new reality rather well. That the UK is inherently racist is an utterly unacceptable proposition to me. Few countries have adjusted to such colossal demographic changes with greater equanimity.

This is why I find the sudden explosion of post-colonial angst in UK universities so bewildering. That the colonial legacy of Britain is no longer a subject of uncritical adulation is understood. However, hysterical reactions to the suggestion of an Oxford professor of theology that the mixed record of colonialism be studied dispassionately are incomprehensible. Petitions against him and the argument that there was no question of assessing the pluses and minuses of imperial conquest because there could have been no redeeming features go against the spirit of open inquiry. Likewise, blind opposition to the Commonwealth as a post-Brexit delusion of a beleaguered Britain may sound good, but isn’t historically tenable.

In recent years, the openness that once marked debate in Britain has been replaced by a shrillness that is quite disturbing. The very nature of good-humoured discussion and even dissent has been replaced by outpourings of shrill certitude. There have been attempts to replace debate with slogans. And all this in the name of building a cosmopolitan society that doesn’t acknowledge that a majority of people have had enough of enlightenment and want to get their country back.