Wed, 05/29/2019 - 14:14

UK's biggest 21st century divide as cover for what's really important

I have to confess that I am addicted to Brexit, but in the remote Bulgarian village where I live I am not the only one. Even here, everybody is glued to the BBC news. The future for the hundred or so Brits is uncertain and my Bulgarian neighbours are worried too. Their grandchildren are working in London and Manchester and Birmingham, and nobody really knows how Brexit will affect them. We all gather around the TV to watch the crucial votes in the House of Commons, as if it were a football match. But each time nothing is decided and the soap opera continues.

Brexit has turned British politics upside down, splitting the country along fault lines that we have never seen before. However hard the media try to explain it, they never quite get it right. That may be because Brexit is personal. My eighty-year-old Aunty Gwen went on a coach to London along with thousands of other "Remainers." It was the first time she had ever been on a march in her life and she did it because she loves French food and Italian opera. Her daughter-in-law comes from Spain and her grandson is half Spanish. For her it is not political at all. It is cultural and it is emotional.

Then there is my son Tommy, a die-hard activist who campaigns for the homeless and regularly marches against war and climate change. He sees the whole thing as a distraction from the real issues. And we have been distracted for three years now, so things have got worse.

So how did it come to this?

It was the rightwingers in the Conservative Party who pushed David Cameron into calling the referendum in the first place. It is they who blocked May's deal. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the rest would have liked to see the UK as an un-regulated economy closer to the United States, a "Singapore in the North Sea." As things stand these people would actually prefer no deal at all, so they can get rid of workers' rights and environmental protections, and make a lot of money for themselves in the process.

Trying to get an agreement in the House of Commons has fractured the norms of parliamentary government. It is not clear whether the Tories will even survive as a party after Brexit. Several MPs have already moved away to form their own pro-Remain party called Change UK, along with equally disgruntled Labour MPs. Views have hardened since the referendum so that now we have radical Remainers on the one side and ultra Leavers on the other. Every single day they shout at each other outside parliament waving their respective flags like groups of rival football fans.

The leaders of the two main parties are probably both supporters of Leave although this is still not totally clear, even after three years. Still, they cannot reach a consensus on the way forward. Jeremy Corbyn has always opposed the EU which he sees as a capitalist institution or a "banker's club." May was so quiet during the referendum campaign that everyone assumed she really supported Leave but refused to say so.

The maps of voting preferences show pockets of Remain voters in metropolitan areas and centres of middle class affluence and higher education like Cambridge, Harrogate, Oxford and York. The referendum result was a surprise and the London based media blamed the north and the poor as if they were stupid. Soon after the result came out, the BBC started to point the finger at the white working class. They said that people had voted Leave out of prejudice, because they did not like the immigrants taking over their towns. Anti-immigrant feelings had been at the forefront of the Leave campaign, especially with regard to Romanians and Bulgarians. This scapegoating of foreigners has been on the front pages of The Sun and The Daily Mail for years. But was Brexit really just about immigration?

Two of my aunties have lived in Wigan all their lives running a newsagents shop. It is one of those towns where industry collapsed in the 1980s under Thatcher, and was then left behind by the 1990s regeneration under Blair. Have you ever seen I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach's award-winning film that shows how cuts to welfare benefits have inflicted "deliberate cruelty" on some groups in UK? Well, it is true to life in Wigan and in many other places too, especially in the north of England. The austerity project which has cut public services and squeezed social benefits since 2008 has hit the town hard. In Wigan they voted Leave by 64 percent. The main streets are full of boarded-up shops, while workers struggle to survive on zero hour contracts. Recently they have tried out a new benefit here, which has forced people to rely on food banks and soup kitchens. My aunties Enid and Sheila both voted Leave but not because they hated immigrants. They celebrate the Hindu festivals with their Indian neighbours and sell a lot of Polish beer in their shop.

When the dust settles, we may see that the real reason that some people voted Leave in towns like Wigan was not because they were racist, but as a protest against austerity. It is these places that have been affected by cuts in services, funding and investment over the last twenty years. As in rural Bulgaria many of the young people left in the 1990s and 2000s to go to the big cities.

As a British citizen living in Bulgaria I have most to lose in the event of a bad Brexit but I am not losing too much sleep about the outcome. My personal view is closer to Will Self who said he was "militantly indifferent" about it. I also agree with Tommy that it is a distraction from the real issues. Like those who voted to remain, I completely agree with freedom of movement and a pro-European outlook but I do not think we have to be part of the EU economic project to be true to these internationalist values.

We are confident that with the Bulgarian residency card and paid-up national health insurance we will not be kicked out of Bulgaria after Brexit. We know as well that there are many thousands of Bulgarians living in the UK and it would be inconceivable for them to be sent home. The UK economy relies on its foreign workers so much now, especially in sectors like IT, health care, social care, retail and farming. Even so, the economic case for the benefits of immigration is hardly ever heard in the media.

I confessed to my brother who lives in Australia that I was staying up late to watch the House of Commons and he admitted that he did exactly the same. Our friends in London seem to have lost interest months ago. Maybe it is something about living outside the UK that makes us follow it more closely than is good for us. After all, it will affect our lives. Or will it? We still do not know. My message is this. Leaving the EU is not the end of the world. Bulgarians and Romanians will still be welcome in the UK. We will all still be learning each other's languages and crossing borders and living in each other's countries. Keep calm and get Brexit over with, so we can deal with the real problems.

Issue 152

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