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Brexit is Not a Partition Story

Roderick Matthews specialises in Indian history. He is the author of Jinnah vs Gandhi and Mountbatten and the Partition of British India
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Absolutely English

FROM HULL, HALIFAX and hell, good Lord deliver us’ goes a traditional song that I first heard in the 1970s. Just recently I have felt like adding Brexit to the list. The talking goes on and on, but nothing seems to change.

There is no agreement on a way forward. Neither a general election nor a second referendum is guaranteed to break the impasse; both risk delivering another indecisive verdict. Democracies are not good at dealing with 50-50 splits, and tend to ramp up rather than calm down the rancour they cause. There is as yet no majority for any option in Britain’s House of Commons, and the party whipping system seems to have broken down. But there are plans for MPs to take over the negotiations with Brussels. No deal looms. Could things get any worse?

In an article in The New York Times, Pankaj Mishra argues that Britain’s Brexit misery is payback for the sins of empire. The long-standing incompetence of the British governing class has finally come home to roost, he says. ‘Britain’s rupture with the European Union is proving to be another act of moral dereliction by the country’s rulers.’

Mishra is determined to establish parallels between Brexit and the partition of India in 1947. This is a tenuous piece of special pleading which, somewhat bizarrely, he supports by quoting British novelists Paul Scott and EM Forster. If you’re going to slag off the British for misusing their historical dominance, doesn’t it rather weaken your position to be seen to rely on British approval?

Mishra’s argument is connected by strained and faulty logic. But, looking on the bright side, it gives us a chance to review the events of 1947 and 2016-19 in a fresh perspective. Different times, different people, very different issues. So, is there any kind of link? Any kind of instructive parallel? I don’t think so.

Mishra insists, as do many Indians, that Lord Mountbatten was desperate to carve up India and did so in an unthinking hurry. Not true. All senior British leaders, civilian or military, were vehemently against the idea of Partition. Every British strategic and political objective was better served by a united India.

Mountbatten therefore came out with three specific instructions, which he executed faithfully. The first was to implement the Cabinet Mission Plan. He tried and failed, after which he attempted to find an agreed solution, which was his second instruction. No joy. The third was to transfer power piecemeal to whomever he considered responsible enough to wield it. But he was overtaken by events. In late April 1947, two senior Congress leaders told him in private that they would accept partition, and two others then publicly confirmed this within days. The eventual settlement was an Anglo-Indian compromise.

We can of course argue with hindsight about the wisdom of that settlement, and Mountbatten can be justly condemned for failing to foresee some of its consequences. However, at the time no one stood out against the agreement, and speed was considered essential to preserve the structure of government. No one foresaw the bloodshed, with the honourable exception of MK Gandhi. But he acquiesced in the process.

None of this bears any resemblance, in generality or detail, to any conceivable aspect of Brexit. Mishra insists Brexit is a project of the British ruling class—a class he conflates with the Brexiteers, a careless error.

Brexit is not the comeuppance of the ‘chumocracy’ for the sins of empire. It is the result of complex domestic management issues of the last 50 years, of Thatcherism, of Blairism, of patterns of public spending, of the inequities of global capitalism

The misdemeanours and shortcomings of Britain’s gilded, ignorant rulers occupy much of his article, and he entertains the opinion that they were incompetent while also managing to run the largest empire the world has ever seen. He also chooses to ignore the circumstance that most stable countries in the modern world are ruled using systems of administration and norms of governance that were pioneered and spread by these appalling people.

Leaving that aside, it is simply not correct to imagine somehow that ‘the British ruling class’ are behind Brexit. The truth is more bizarre, and requires us to understand the career of Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter extraordinaire.

What we have been witnessing over the past three years in Britain is a profound split in the middle and upper classes of the country. Most of the leading Brexiteers in parliament—John Redwood, Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis—are first and foremost Thatcherites, acolytes of a failed project from another era. Their determination to take Britain out of the European Union is driven by old-fashioned patriotism—why should we be ruled by foreigners?—and guided by a particular view of the state: that it should be smaller and less intrusive. These two ideas have bred a powerful resentment of the limitations that the EU places on Britain’s ability to make bilateral trade deals with other countries. The Brexiteer narrative is that Britain is being held back by EU interference with our businesses—unnecessary taxation, obstructive regulations—and Britain would be more prosperous outside the Union, as well as being able to recover much of an older culture that has been submerged by waves of immigration.

This message has not been well received by the ruling class, largely in favour of the European project, which protects their wealth, and whose institutions give them international prestige. Most senior civil servants are Remainers, and every prime minister of the country since 1973 has been pro-European. It is precisely this elite distaste for Brexit that gave the Leave bandwagon its momentum, and it still fuels the fear among Leavers that an establishment conspiracy is determined to thwart people’s expressed desire to be free of Brussels and its unelected busybodies.

The Brexit vote had nothing to do with any kind of perceived historic incompetence by the country’s elite, and was the result of a revived alliance between the provincial petty bourgeoisie and some more traditional elements in the British working classes— a re-assembly of the Thatcherite powerbase of the 1980s.

The rekindling of this alliance had not been made apparent within the Conservative party, which has always been good at hiding its own divisions. David Cameron’s Tories looked slick and in tune with modern Britain. His great Tory cause was careful management and sound money: austerity. The biggest straw in the wind was the rising popularity of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which has been the only consistent, organised voice within British politics in favour of leaving the EU.

Contemporary Britain can more accurately be compared with India in 1990. Back then, a minority government in Delhi was trying to deal with a potentially overwhelming set of interrelated political and economic problems

THE UKIP WAS always the Tory party that dared not speak its name, and in its early days it was full of hangers, floggers, kooks, oddballs and sexists. The high tide of the party’s support came when its well-to-do leadership managed to combine with disaffected Labour voters in the north of England, who were worried about unemployment, immigration and cultural change. This northern vote bank became known as ‘red’ UKIP, and its unlikely alliance with the more southerly ‘blue’ UKIP briefly made the party an electoral force, peaking at over 27 per cent of the vote in the 2014 European elections.

It is still the existence of this ‘red’ block that gives Jeremy Corbyn his most difficult problem, namely that the parliamentary Labour Party has a strong bias to remain, while many traditional Labour strongholds in the north voted solidly to leave.

The UKIP, and Brexiteers in general, have been proud to characterise themselves as opponents of the elite. This proved to be a successful strategy, as the anti-corporate, localist message of Brexit energised sections of the working class which had real grievances. Excluded from the coffee-shop prosperity of our metropolitan centres, they were suffering unemployment and neglect, and felt they had missed out on all the global bounty created since the 1980s. Here was the genesis of Brexit, among the small businesses who did not trade with Europe, and among workers who had lost jobs in traditional industries. It never had any conceivable connection with the drawing of boundaries in other countries, either in India in August 1947 or in Ireland in May 1921.

Mishra seems to expect that ‘violence’ will follow the imposition of customs checks on the Northern Ireland border. Neither outcome will arise.

He is quite correct, however, to condemn the insouciance and ignorance of prominent Brexiteers, who developed an impervious style of propaganda, in which a Leave vote was all win-win- win. Unwillingness to acknowledge downsides to their cause was a defining characteristic of their campaign. They had one simple, brilliant mantra, ‘Take back control’, and one catch-all counterargument: ‘Project Fear’. Any wariness of the future was derided. Any questioning of the marvellous promises being made—More money for everything! A boom in trade!—was savaged as a heretical sign of insufficient faith in the great British people.

Brexit thus had little to do with the malign incompetence of British administrators, of today or yesterday, though it had a lot to do with the unequal distribution of wealth within the country. Thatcher’s victory in 1979 marked the end of strategic state investment, and the boom of the 1980s buried the idea that governments should concentrate on the little people. Encouraging large corporations, service industries and transnational links became the pattern of economic development in Britain. The engorgement of the tertiary sector, combined with the withdrawal of generous welfare provided the first planks of the Brexit platform. Post-Brexit Britain is destined to be a low-tax, low-regulation economy. A free-market Eden, though hardly the paternalistic Britain of yesteryear.

This brings us to a profound irony. Though the suffering of many who voted Leave is real enough, the solution they have enthusiastically embraced is hardly likely to solve their problems. It is not possible to get a better trading relationship with our European neighbours than the one we already have, with no tariffs, non-tariff barriers or quotas. We have essentially open borders; that is what being in a single market and a customs union means. But leaving these organisations, as per Theresa May’s ‘red lines’, ensures that trade with our nearest neighbours will be more difficult and more expensive. Such favourable conditions cannot be replicated outside these systems.

Excluded from the coffee-shop prosperity of Britain’s metropolitan centres, sections of the working class were suffering unemployment and neglect, and felt they had missed out on all the global bounty created since the 1980s

This means that Britain will take an economic hit of some kind, a cast-iron fact that has been consistently denied by Leavers. What are we going to sell to the world that we are not already making? What can we produce more cheaply without reducing what we pay ourselves? How do we access the alleged 75 per cent of global growth that is projected to occur outside the EU? We can’t suddenly grow rice, or knock out garments more cheaply than the Vietnamese. Project Denial has been in full swing.

The ‘left behind’ Leavers should be asking themselves what they can expect from a crew of Thatcherite hardliners like Redwood and Duncan-Smith. When did Thatcherites ever show any concern for the poor and unemployed? Are they now, at this very late hour, to be converted to the use of state investment in the regions? That sort of thing stopped long ago, and was only being kept alive by… the EU. A post-Brexit, Leaver- dominated regime will have even less interest in those left behind than the Tony Blair or Cameron governments.

Mishra has tried ever so hard to draw instructive parallels between 1921, 1947 and 2019, but it is difficult to see where he has succeeded. If his argument were a building job, it would be more filler than brick.

There is a much better parallel available. Contemporary Britain can more accurately be compared with India in 1990. Back then, a minority government in Delhi was trying to deal with a potentially overwhelming set of interrelated political and economic problems—inflation, mounting debt, civil disorder and secession, struggles with coalition allies—while no national leader seemed able or willing to bite a particularly unpalatable bullet. No one was prepared to change the existing government orthodoxy, which included a certain pattern of public spending, a dread of approaching the IMF and routine anti-Americanism. Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar and his team deserve much credit for stabilising the situation, despite taking on board a great deal of political damage.

Prime Minister May could learn from the late Baba of Bhondsi, but she seems less willing to listen, less intellectually flexible and lacking in the courage to make important decisions. With the political nation so split, and with an in-out, black-and-white decision to be made, someone is bound to get hurt. She cannot satisfy all parties no matter how she tries. She can serve the country by doing the least damage she can to the economy, or she can serve her party by keeping it together, by cobbling together a new national status that is both in and out of European institutions. By now it looks like this latter course is a fool’s errand.

Whatever grudge Mishra has against the ‘chumocracy’, the effete and under-serving ruling class of Britain, Brexit is not their comeuppance for the sins of empire. It is the result of complex domestic management issues of the last 50 years, of Thatcherism, of Blairism, of patterns of public spending, of the inequities of global capitalism. Saddest of all, Brexit will not help the poor, or humble the disproportionately wealthy.

Looking at contemporary Britain through the lens of India doesn’t help us understand Brexit at all.

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