Wednesday, July 15 2020


Watching Brexit break Britain from afar

Update: January, 27/2019 - 09:00
Illustration by Trịnh Lập
Viet Nam News

By Ollie Arci

Nearly three years ago, I voted for Britain to remain in the European Union. Since then I’ve watched from the other side of the world as my country implodes.

We are now hurtling towards the infamous March deadline, at which point the United Kingdom leaves the bloc, with or without a deal in place. There are currently no reasonable solutions in sight that would result in the soft, hard, scrambled or Norwegian-style omelette varying factions are campaigning for.

The British Isles, it seems, are coming apart at the seams.

In a fit of delusion, drunk on the promise of an unobtainable fantasy peddled by political elites hungry for their next career move, Britain, once the envy of the world, has turned its back on everyone else. Or more accurately, just over half of Britain decided to cut its moorings to the rest of the continent.

By all expert accounts (even though we’ve apparently had enough of them), the resulting nation would be withered economically and reduced to panhandling for scraps of trade – a desiccated husk of its former self.

These facts are well known, if ignored. What particularly stings is the door shutting on diversity. Throughout the 20th century immigration has pulled the UK back from the brink a number of times, and these days immigrants not only keep vast segments of the economy ticking over, they lend to a rich and diverse national culture.

As an immigrant myself, I’ve seen the flip side. The side of a country and culture welcoming me and valuing what I have to offer, often over and above that of a local. Viet Nam has become more home than home, if only because the rising casual bigotry of the UK is something I refuse to recognise.

Watching Theresa May limp from one crisis to the next, and the UK shudder on as it does so well, only makes this comparison more poignant. For over three decades Viet Nam’s foreign policy has been one of openness, of integration. The country is looking outwards and voraciously signing any trade deal it can get its hands on.

ASEAN, ASEM, APEC, the CPTPP. Granted, none are perfect deals or institutions. But the point is collaboration. The point is GDP growth among the highest in the world. The point is foreign workers, like me, welcomed with open arms.

Through these mechanisms, benefits and burdens are shared. Growth is more evenly distributed and the rising tide is lifting all boats. But it’s more than economics.

Brexit not only damages our wallets. It draws a line on friendships, on relationships, on families and bonds that make us stronger. It says we don’t want to learn from the ‘other’. We don’t need them. We are doing quite fine on our own, thank you very much.

Michael Heseltine was right; Britain’s youth will never forgive us for throwing this all away.

Second chance saloon

Throw it away we did. And now, adrift, there seems to be no way back.

A second referendum nullifying the first and returning the country to sanity would be ideal. I’d love nothing more than to forget this whole sorry mess like a fever dream. Unfortunately, that is out of the question.

As much as I wish it were otherwise, Brexit round two is unlikely to snap Britain out of its collective madness. In the first vote, we were woefully unprepared for an answer we didn’t like. I doubt the people will be any more unanimous in the event of a do-over.

Pandora’s Box of intolerance has been left ajar and an alternative vision offered to those disillusioned by neoliberalism. Just like the tiki torches in Charlottesville (if you’ll allow me just one transatlantic comparison), the Overton window has shifted, rendering the unacceptable acceptable. It is terrifying to see Brexit used as an excuse for intolerance, for people to use that box they ticked as a cudgel against difference.

A second referendum (or ‘People’s Vote’) cannot render the first invalid, and would thus be a selection from a list of options which currently do not exist. It would be my guess that the two options which do exist – ‘forget Brexit’ and ‘no deal’ – would garner a modicum of support, leaving a morass in the middle that needs untangling. So, no change there.

The first referendum not only exposed, or engendered, vast chasms in British society, it also unearthed splits in the UK’s two main political parties. A second attempt would surely widen them.

By now we must come to realise that, instead of erasure from history, Brexit deserves a spot in the pantheon of political misadventures. There is no going back, and the way forward is going to disappoint you, whoever you are.

To survive economically the UK will need to hew as close as possible to rest of Europe. More than 17 million people were sold a bill of goods, and they’ll be peeved to learn it just can’t happen.

The losers, the 48 per cent and I, will need to suck it up and accept the world we knew is no more.

The UK and Viet Nam are clearly worlds away, but I know where I’d rather be right now. As one blindly isolates itself the other looks for the next partnership.

The UK’s time near the top of the pack may be up, but it’s worth bearing in mind the rest of the world hasn’t gone completely mad. VNS


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