Far from The Madding Crowd, the hardy, dependable English character is fraying in the unrelenting glare of Brexit. Not the Scottish, or the Irish so much. Nor the fine English gentlemen in Vauxhall in the British capital, a residential district which is the favourite haunt of MPs and civil servants a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
No, the real effect of the havoc the Brexit chaos is wreaking is being felt in the interior, reflected in the lives of working-class people who travel to London to find work in this teeming and oldest metropolis in the world.
It is in the small English towns and villages along the breathtaking, rolling countryside, among the working class, north and south of London that the prolonged joke that has become Brexit has become utterly unfunny. The ‘people of the trades’ whom the great English novelist Thomas Hardy wrote about with such depth are at the centre of the Brexit storm.
The Scots have their own oil, alone in the UK to be able to drill for the black gold offshore. They have not much anxiety from the current crisis because a British exit will inevitably lead to calls for an ‘arrangement’ with the UK government that will allow Scotland to trade with the EU, something which the Scots — the much poorer cousins in the once mighty British Empire — have gained enormously from. The Scottish referendum came perilously close to a secession vote a few years ago. The Scots, many of whom served in the British Imperial forces, did not see much gain from the Empire they helped found. Today, they are in the happy position of finally being able to dictate their terms to the English.
The Irish of Northern Ireland, whose Catholic roots have historically and culturally set apart from the Protestant English, are also relatively sanguine about their prospects — whatever course the inept politicians in Westminster decide to pursue in the end. In fact, the Brexit crisis largely hangs upon the ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ border with the Republic of Ireland — a decidedly ‘hard’ question for the government.
The Labour government of Tony Blair signed a hard-won peace with Irish extremists in Northern Ireland, but the festering Brexit question has no doubt contributed to revived tensions in the region. The Irish hardliners refuse to refer to Northern Ireland as a separate province of the UK but see it as the ‘northern region’ of the Irish homeland, an extension of a future, ‘more complete’ Irish state. In any case, the Irish have never really seen themselves as part of Imperialist Britain: they were more at ease identifying with those whom the English colonised. It is no accident that one of the inspirers of their struggle for an Irish homeland free of the British yoke was one Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Irish have always acknowledged their debt to the Mahatma.
However, in today’s Britain, the English are, paradoxically, wearing the unfamiliar tag of the oppressed. Especially the long backbone of the British Empire, the once-ubiquitous country ‘seat’ and its army of working-class small town White workers and tradesmen and women, now left to fend for themselves in an unequal world.
Today’s UK, overrun by poor white Eastern and mid-western Europeans, is becoming inhospitable to these white working class English in their own homeland. Public squares and shopfronts in small towns and villages have now become shelters for the European homeless. Most of these new homeless, it is suspected, elect to sleep outdoors merely to earn their welfare subsidy from the UK government.
Ronnie Lindsey, a White working class ‘home interior’ man from Sunderland in Northern England, reflects the widespread English disenchantment with the Brexit saga.
Lindsey, who is housed at an inn in the rich London suburb of North Barnet on a job assignment with four other colleagues in the construction trade, has long stopped following the twists and turns of the Brexit newsflow. “I really don’t know or don’t care what the current situation is,” he says. “But it is constantly in the news, so there is no respite from it.” He has been driving to London despite a bad back to find more pay for the work he does, wallpapering newly-built homes. His more pressing concern is the pervading sense of lawlessness at home.”On any given day, there are 20 people from Europe sleeping on shop-fronts in our town,” he says.
Like many others across the country and in London, he is bewildered by the long, painful Brexit saga. He contends that the people voted for exit from the EU, and sees no reason why the politicians are not getting it done. He has a special contempt for Prime Minister Theresa May, who he sneers, dares model herself on Margaret Thatcher. “She was a real Iron Lady,” he ruminates ruefully.
Meanwhile, the fallout from the years of shifting trade winds with a resurgent Asia is having a real impact which is being felt on the ground in small communities across the UK. Lindsey recounts that two police stations in his small locality in the Sunderland have closed because of budget cuts. “The closest police station is now 20 kilometres away,” he says, pointing out that there is widespread and unchecked drug use being driven by poor immigrants in his town. “In the local pub, a large majority of customers are now drug users,” he claims.
Ellen, a mother of three from Yorkshire in England, who did not give her last name like many others who do not wish to speak freely on the subject, reflects the general disbelief over the breakdown in the political process. Unlike Ronnie, she is against Brexit. She confides that her Irish husband has given up any discussion of the topic. Like many liberals, Ellen feels a general kinship with European identity seems to mistrust the colonial legacy of Britain.
“We cannot remain cut off from our neighbours,” she exclaims, noting that economically UK’s future lay with the community of Europe. As a rural but educated northern Englishwoman herself, she dares not ask her father-in-law, a finance professional in favour of Brexit with bilateral trade deals, what his view of the Irish border question is.
Across the country, similar pressures are being played out in families and communities of friends. The endless delay over Brexit is certainly not helping matters.
London itself, once the capital of the world, has become increasingly unrecognisable since the European Union experiment. Today’s London is not only decidedly grimier and constantly on edge for the next terrorist attack, but it is also now home to a community of petty thieves, pickpockets and sundry purveyors of small crime. Phone theft, for which Romanians and poor Polish immigrants are being blamed, has become commonplace everywhere: in malls, trains and other public spaces.
Outside 10, Downing Street, on a now snoot-covered no-longer ‘White’ Whitehall, no Londoner has any patience for Brexit talk. There is open hostility towards any attempts to elicit opinions on the politics of Brexit. The vexed question seems to have sharpened ethnic and racial divides simply because the motives behind each line of questioning instantly hovers, unspoken but well understood, in the air. Frustrated expletives pepper conversations about the day’s Brexit news.
“I do not care about it!” exclaims a Black Londoner who refused to give his name or expand on where exactly he stands. “It does not affect me or my son,” he says, pointing to the phalanx of luxury vehicles parked outside the prime minister’s residence at 10, Downing Street. Today’s Brexit news is new till tomorrow: “Theresa May to offer a deal to Jeremy Corbyn”, a local headline screamed on Wednesday. Well, the Labour Party’s meetings with the Tory government are not exactly being well received on the cusp of campaigning for the upcoming EU elections.