If you are a fan of British comedy, you will no doubt recall that memorable episode of Fawlty Towers, when Basil, the crazed Torquay hotel-keeper played by John Cleese, welcomes some German guests. The more Basil tries not to mention the war, the more obsessed with it he becomes, until after a bump on the head, he begins goose-stepping around the foyer in an incredible parody of the fuehrer. The German guests are both distressed and incredulous ‘However did they win the war?’ asks one.
It’s a good question. As we have watched, fascinated, the goings-on in the UK over the European Union, it’s as though a much-loved relative, always a little inclined to eccentricity, has now gone completely off his head. It’s not that the result, surprising as it was, was unreasonable. We can hardly blame citizens for wanting to resume control of their own country, no matter how difficult that might be in practice. It’s just that in institutional terms, no one seemed to have any idea what they were doing. How, one wonders, was it possible to wander into a yes-no referendum, technically non-binding, but politically anything but, on an issue as important as EU membership, with so little detailed official thought apparently having been given to the implications?
As decision-making tools, referenda are very blunt instruments. Unless they are mandated in some way, they are useful only if they have a clear context within which the results are to be applied. Australians, for example, are periodically required to vote in referenda about changing the constitution. We almost invariably vote ‘no’, figuring that the status quo is likely to be preferable to any change the politicians might have in mind. Nevertheless, great thought goes into the crafting of the questions, because a specific constitutional amendment is at stake. As John Howard showed in the 1999 referendum on the republic (a referendum he had to have, but which he feared he might lose) the way the question is put is critical.
David Cameron was in a tricky situation politically, and is said to have promised the referendum on EU membership believing that it would help to unite his party, and enable him to secure a better deal for Britain in Europe. In doing so, he violated one of the few maxims of politics: ‘don’t voluntarily commit to any process of whose outcome you cannot be reasonably sure’.
One good thing to come out of the resulting mess is that Britain now has a woman Prime Minister. Indeed when the male politicians self-destructed or simply gave up, the only two contenders left standing in the Tory party were both female. With matters threatening to run completely out of control, it was clearly time for a woman to take charge.
Despite its shortcomings, the process was, as many have remarked, an example of democracy at work. The people may have given the wrong answer to the right question (or maybe it was the other way around) but they clearly had a point of view. As we know, the result came as a shock. A close friend who lives in Scotland almost had a nervous breakdown. She wondered whether she should investigate Irish citizenship for her daughters. Another acquaintance wondered how on earth one was supposed to get one’s house renovations done, if all the Poles were forced to go home.
What might be in it for Australians? I suspect the answer is, not much. The depreciated pound will make that UK trip more affordable, but is not good news for exporters. British consumers will no doubt continue to prefer subsidized European agricultural exports to those from distant Oz. For Australian firms seeking access to the European market, via investment in Britain, London will be somewhat less attractive than formerly. For start-up firms, the US was probably a more attractive source of capital than the UK, anyway.
For the British themselves, there are some up-sides that have not been well-remarked. The glory days may be about to return for the British civil service. When you are running your own country, rather than forming part of a supra-national state, you have to work on a wider range of policies than before, particularly those relating to trade. Relations with the EU will form only part of this unfolding complexity. The British are about to re-discover the joys of international political economy.
Of course immigration is the thing. One of the big problems with the EU was that it kept on getting bigger. In the 1970s, when it was a tidy little club of nine countries, and Britain was the sick man of Europe, no one much wanted to come to the UK. But the fall of the Soviet Union changed all that. Now that the EU has enlarged to include countries formerly behind the iron curtain, the balance has shifted. From a British perspective, it is a little like discovering you have more relatives than you ever imagined, and nearly all of them want to come and stay. They may be super-helpful and nice, and even load the dishwasher without being asked, but surely there must be a time for them to go home?
In theory, all the advanced states of the EU should be equally attractive to citizens from the poorer states seeking to better themselves. But the trade in people is mostly from the rest of Europe (and beyond) to Britain. There are many reasons for this. One is that the UK has freer labour markets than many European countries. Another, perhaps not so often noticed, is that Britain is the only EU country where English, the only true global language, is also the first language. Europe’s younger citizens learn English as their second language, and it is to the UK that they tend to go.
Migration is largely seen as a problem of race, or culture. But whether the migrants are black, white or purple one inevitable result is a significant increase in population. In a country which was already heavily populated, the UK’s towns and cities are filled to bursting point. New housing is eating up more and more of England’s green and pleasant land.
The UK has traditionally exported rather than imported people, so it is scarcely surprising that this reversal of the historical situation is a cause for some consternation. In the 1960s, when immigration from the former British Empire looked threatening, the British government effectively choked it off. But that was fifty years ago. In a globalizing world, effective policy on people movements requires the ability to respond flexibly to change, which in turn requires both diplomatic reach and some control of one’s borders. Just when the British needed a policy on immigration, membership of an expanded EU effectively precluded them from having one.
Now, this is very contentious terrain for an Australian to tread, when the forbears of all non-Aboriginal Australians came from somewhere else within the past 200 years or so. My grandfather’s family emigrated because there were no jobs in Scotland and in those days, you could travel to Australia and stay with very little fuss.
My husband’s Greek father, who arrived in Sydney in 1925, simply got on a boat in Port Said, then controlled by the British. When he got to Sydney, they weren’t going to let him off. However as the vessel needed to be dry-docked, they let him go, on condition that he worked for a few years on the roads in New England.
While people from many cultures have settled here, British culture and British literature continues to shape our imaginations. Few older Australians would not have ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’ in their youth. As soon as they could, those who wanted to be writers took off for the UK. While most now stay at home, our capacity to produce excellent drama of our own remains mysteriously limited. The ABC (and SBS too) continue to feature television drama and documentaries made in the UK, with British presenters and actors front and centre. If the endless repeats are any indication, the dramas we go for are nostalgia personified, the picture-postcard Britain of the past.
It is ironic, isn’t it? We are indubitably on our own in an increasingly threatening part of the world, yet our public cultural institutions continue to be British oriented, while our security-related dependence on the US is stronger than ever. Nevertheless, I am very glad Australia is not part of a supra-national union. We may make many bad decisions. But at least they are our own.
This essay was first published in Quadrant, October 2016.