Britain’s spectacular own goal

Tariq Bashir examines the staggering implications of Brexit - for the UK and for Pakistanis

Britain’s spectacular own goal
Tumultuous is the word that comes to mind when one visualises the kind of cataclysmic events the British Isles are yet to face in the coming weeks, months and years. The kind of uncertainty unleashed - economic and political - is unprecedented although there are similarities with some stormy upheavals of the past. When it comes to who will be the next Conservative leader, it is a familiar story of palace intrigues, subterfuge and the trademark Tory disingenuousness that has got Britain gripped by a febrile state of mind. If history is anything to go by, the chief conspirator is seldom the beneficiary in British politics, although he happened to be the person who pushed the proverbial dagger in the Prime Minister’s heart.

Seen from another angle (apart from the dark and depressing side of the story) it feels like a comedy of errors a la William Shakespeare. David Cameron - who was desperate to win over Eurosceptic elements in his party, and in order to neutralise the creeping influence of UKIP over Conservative voters - promised a referendum smugly thinking that the result would be a foregone conclusion. Enter Boris Johnson, the ex-mayor of London, a charismatic bumbling buffoon with a method to his buffoonery, who was eyeing an opportunity to use the referendum as a springboard for his Tory leadership bid, and the tide started to turn decisively.

David Cameron - victim of the xenophobia of his own party?
David Cameron - victim of the xenophobia of his own party?

Thomas Friedman compares the Leave campaign to a clueless dog chasing after a car

Understandably, both Michael Gove (the Justice Minister) and Johnson went to the public without any homework on how to unpick and disentangle the British presence in the EU. The more frightening part is that no time was spent on the economic and financial fallout, should the leave argument win.

With things standing as they did, the arguments for and against leaving the EU went on overdrive on social media, mostly through ill-informed and half-baked gibberish spewed by who else but the keyboard expert. Think of the keyboard jihadi in the Pakistani context (remember, the expression used to be ‘armchair expert’ before the age of computers). As the debate heated up, Nigel Farage, the man who never needed the help of social media and has always prided himself on unsubstantiated racist drivel, threw a spanner in the works by unveiling a poster titled “Breaking Point” showing a long queue of Syrian refugees. Yes Syrian refugees! Post Brexit, it is quite clear that an atmosphere of intolerance has brought to the surface undercurrents of racism in British society. Apart from Polish citizens whose properties have been attacked and smeared with racist graffiti, British-born Muslims of Pakistani extraction have also been subjected to racist jeers in public. The most oft-repeated line being, “Oi Brexit, go back to your country!”

I faced a hostile response from a lady, prophesying civil war if Brexit wasn't implemented

Whether Boris Johnson rode the bus with the false claim that Britain gave the EU some £ 350 million a week by design or with reluctance, it will be commented upon with certainty only by future historians. But one thing is clear: he did not intend to oust David Cameron in the same way Michael Heseltine engineered a coup de grace on Margaret Thatcher on the issue of poll tax in 1990. Boris Johnson’s calculated march towards becoming the future prime minister must have been conceived after careful brainstorming and by keeping in mind the fate of Heseltine, or so most people would like to think.

It is premature and, to some people, even unthinkable, to contemplate whether London will lose its status as the financial capital of the world in the long term. As the old order unravels and while resetting and rebooting of British economic priorities begins in earnest, it would be a good opportunity for Pakistan to get a foothold for its textile products in the UK market by signing favourable deals in that regard - getting its strength from the million-strong Pakistani diaspora settled in the UK. On the other hand, societal prejudice and racially motivated attacks might increase against Pakistani Muslims if the UK’s divorce from EU translates into a weaker economy and the resultant loss of jobs.

Boris Johnson’s motives have been called into question since his hasty departure after the Leave vote
Boris Johnson’s motives have been called into question since his hasty
departure after the Leave vote

With the Tory leadership contest set to take place in September, like John Major - the innocuous and uncharismatic banker who emerged as Thatcher’s successor and not Michael Heseltine - it is only fitting that neither of the perpetrators would become Prime Minister. Early indications are that Theresa May’s entry in the leadership contest carries the hallmarks of another John Major episode repeating itself in 2016. Never mind the role played by the politically opportunistic Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, the question is how history will judge the man who casually put the question of Britain’s membership of the EU to a referendum. Will Cameron go down in history as someone who not only triggered monumental economic chaos but also set in motion the breakup of the United Kingdom with Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the EU? The proposition is too mind-boggling to answer - suffice it to say that it is too early to predict the extent and nature of damage that the crisis might bring.

Thomas L Friedman, the New York Times opinion writer, has drawn a thoroughly demeaning but fitting analogy of the Leave supporters with a barking dog who runs after and manages to catch up with the car but does not know what to do with it once it has caught up. Gove, Johnson and Nigel Farage find themselves in that unenviable position which entails picking up the pieces after mindlessly creating a crisis which could have been avoided.

Social media is filled with harrowing accounts of the rise of publicly acceptable racism since Brexit
Social media is filled with harrowing accounts of the rise of publicly acceptable racism since Brexit

A Facebook post by Dominic Londesborough, a long-lost university friend from London (we must at least be thankful for Facebook in that respect!) put a very apt question for his “friends” to comment on:

“If there was referendum with the question “Bring back hanging?” the result would probably be YES. If there was a referendum with the question “Abolish taxation?” the result would probably be YES. Are referendums really the best way to decide important national issues?”

After watching a few very emotional reactions to the Brexit vote, I was hard pressed to write my comment in terms of whether there was any possibility of restricting the inflow of EU citizens especially those from Eastern Europe while reaping the economic benefits at the same time, I, predictably, faced a hostile response from a lady (let’s just call her Cathy) prophesying civil war if Brexit wasn’t implemented. Not relishing the prospect of being treated like a scarf wearing Muslim in White Chapel, I made a quiet and hasty retreat.

While endorsing my friend Dominic’s line of thinking, it is fair to say that referendums cannot oust the role of the legislature in a parliamentary democracy which is probably what prompted Clement Attlee to call referendums a very Nazi idea and hence alien to British system of government. Apart from the question “Abolish taxation?”, if the choice of legalising honour killing and misogyny is put to vote in Pakistan we all know the result will be a resounding yes on both questions. Thank God our prime minister, unlike David Cameron, is much more grown up than that!

Tariq Bashir is a Lahore-based lawyer. Follow him on Twitter at @Tariq_Bashir

Tariq Bashir is a Lahore based lawyer. Follow him on twitter @Tariq_Bashir