OSAKA – Almost 48 years ago, I returned to cold, rainy London after three months traveling overland to and through India, through an exhilarating, exhausting, crazy kaleidoscope of gracious ancient history jostling with greedy modern development, ostentatious luxury bursting from chaotic slums, and grassroots villages where there was no grass, only dust.
For a hitherto small-town, small-minded Yorkshireman, it was overwhelming to sit for meals on mats on the floor of a dusty field in Bihar along with thousands of other people, and to have boiled rice served out of buckets onto banana leaf plates along with slops of runny yellow dal, which I was expected to eat with my right hand. Luckily, I had reserve supplies of Mars bars.
Above all, I cherished the boundless hospitality and endless energy and initiative of so many Indians. I came back to London energized, enthused. What a country, what people, still with mixed feelings for their former colonial masters, who had brought them the joys and curses of the English lingua franca, a united India — until they cut it into three bits as their leaving present — and a modern government, which they tied up with endless red tape. What if Britain could make its Commonwealth a real living leading thing, dedicated to the economic development of billions of people all round the world?
My dreams were smashed by an astute Indian diplomat to whom I confided them. “Britain’s colonial days are over; we don’t want a new imperialism,” he declared, though that was far from my naive imaginations of a great global cooperation.
The diplomat was correct, and India went its own way. Even the old white “dominion” members of the former British Empire developed economic, political and strategic relations distant from Britain. After years of fruitless attempts to set up a free trade area in Europe, Britain joined the European Union. As U.S. President Barack Obama noted, the union gave Britain economic and political clout above and beyond its status as a middling former imperial power. But now arthritic Britain imagines it can walk tall without the EU and has voted to leave. Prime Minister Theresa May will formally trigger Brexit next week.
So I was surprised to listen to strangled echoes of my old dreams when May revealed her “Plan for Britain” after Brexit: She claimed that the British people “voted to leave the European Union and embrace the world.”
As a vision it was 50 years too late in its official articulation, and 150-200 years too late in having the means of accomplishment. Britain no longer has the gunboats to enforce its will, nor the great explorers, traders or manufacturers or, especially, politicians, who comprehend the world.
May talked of a “truly global Britain” which would be “a secure, prosperous, tolerant country — a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world … the best friend and neighbor to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe. …”
Frankly, I fear the terrible mayhem she threatens to inflict on my country. Her speech was full of loose political talk, false claims, promises that she will not be able to keep, and deals beyond her reach. Japanese companies that have invested heavily in Britain as a base for Europe may particularly rue May’s mayhem. Did she consult the heads of the wonderful British universities about how to attract talented students and innovators — whom May’s immigration rules are driving away?
May audaciously claimed that membership of the EU “came at the expense of our global ties, and of a bolder embrace of free trade with the wider world.” The fortress of the home ministry, where May previously worked, obviously prevented her from seeing how the EU enabled Germany’s rise as industrial power, snapping up the bluest British blue chip manufacturer, Rolls-Royce.
Did she even talk to herself? Before the referendum, May told Goldman Sachs bankers that leaving the EU would a big mistake because membership in the EU with its population of 500 million was a magnet luring investors to Britain.
What did the British people want when 51.89 percent voted to leave the EU and 48.11 percent to remain? On a turnout of 72.21 percent, that means that 37.47 percent of eligible voters supported Brexit, impressive but hardly “the people have spoken.”
If you ask a dozen people who voted for Brexit, you would get at least half a dozen answers about what they wanted, including control of immigration, freedom from eurocratic laws, protests about growing inequality, and payments to the Brussels machine. None of these issues can be sorted out simply by leaving the EU. Brexit leaders promised — falsely — that the United Kingdom’s beloved and beleaguered national health service would get a £350 million a week boost if people voted to leave.
May would prefer a soft Brexit — meaning keeping friendly ties, open trade relations and a profitable role for the City of London — but is set against paying the price of free movement of workers. A hard Brexit — a nasty divorce where Britons may have to get visas for the EU and trade is subject to prolonged wrangling — will bring out the old die-hard Battle of Britain spirit. It’s a major mistake to invoke wartime for what May claims should be an amicable departure from an economic club.
There is also the political fallout. Trump’s right-hand man Steve Bannon is trying to sabotage the EU in favor of a deal with Russia. May should be careful of wanting Britain to jump into bed with Trump while divorcing the EU.
There is no easy way out. Much-maligned former Prime Minister Tony Blair correctly noted that the British people voted without knowing the terms of exit: They should have the right to change their minds when they understand the divorce terms. A new referendum or at least a free vote in parliament is the least that May should allow on such a momentous divorce. But she seems to be lost in dreams of a latter-day empire.
Kevin Rafferty traveled in India as Young Journalist of the Year in the 1969 British press awards.