A joke is doing the rounds on WhatsApp about the consequences of Brexit for Bertie Wooster, the endearing earl dreamt up by PG Wodehouse. He questions his faithful valet Jeeves about the closing of the Drones club. Jeeves says it’s because the doorkeeper, the hall porter, all the waiters, the barmen are East Europeans, and are leaving for their home countries after Britain’s exit from the European Union, dubbed Brexit. His aunt’s chef Anatole too is going back to France. And the final blow: Jeeves too is giving notice to quit. He says his name is really Jevonski and he is going home to Poland!
In other words, all the chickens are — not coming – but going home to roost. That’s a term among many the British taught us, former subjects of the Raj, and we can now apply to the whole Brexit situation, armed with our knowledge of the Queen’s English. Britain called itself Great because of its huge empire, as did Alexander because of his territorial conquests. The Brits went out and colonised underdeveloped parts of the world, using the heft of technology and a powerful desire to assert racial superiority – helped by the missionaries, who believed they had to save heathen souls. A couple of centuries down the line, the consequence is that Britain has now become a multi-racial society, with places like Southall looking like India incarnate. It must be galling for common folk. To call this racism is not to accept human nature for what it is: possessive about its own clan, wary of others.
A lot of ordinary people are not comfortable with immigrants – and why should they be? It’s easy to preach about racial equality when you live in houses where your nearest neighbours are separated from you by gardens, high walls and security personnel. You might get a glimpse of them while being driven out of your street, but that’s all. However, in middle-class apartment blocks or humbler communities, you cannot help smell your next door neighbour’s cooking, hear their strange accents and look with wonder at their exotic costumes. Apart from their very appearance being strange, their behaviour may offend your sensibilities, simply because you have been brought up to believe in different manners and norms. There are no universal norms – all ethnic groups have their own sensibilities. Everybody wants to live peacefully, not feel threatened by other ways of life. Look to what lengths the Americans have gone to protect their ‘way of life’, going to war against nations as diverse as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The British public has now done so peacefully, expressing an anguish it was unable to articulate for ages.
Sitting in India, commentators have been decrying the British public’s verdict in the referendum. But if you put yourself in their shoes, you would change your tune. In India, we have the comfort of living with our compatriots, who are more or less of the same skin colour and wear more or less the same kind of clothes. There is diversity, but not of the kind the ex-colonial nations are being asked to live with. The British too have been taught nationalism in school. Fighting in defence of your own country makes eminent sense. But when a distant bureaucracy in Brussels starts making decisions that affect your life and livelihood, you wonder about sovereignty and democracy. There was already a national crisis of sorts when British troops were sent to Iraq just because the British prime minister agreed to the diktat of the Americans. Maybe they now want to be masters of their own destiny.
In a democracy, you are told, the leaders you elect will make decisions concerning your life. These decisions are taken for the greater good of the greater number. But the British voter probably felt that this decision-making power had been hijacked by people on the Continent, and rebelled.