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Flags near the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London. Photo: ChiralJon (CC BY 2.0).
‘This happy breed of men, this little world … this England’, famously proclaims John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s play Richard II. More than 400 years later, the United Kingdom is far from being a ‘happy breed of men’ (or women), thanks to the Brexit fiasco.
I left the UK for Spain in 1986, dissatisfied with my desk job at the Financial Times but much more than that unhappy with the undercurrents in society: the ‘little Englander’ mentality (England is better than all other countries and should only work together with other countries when there is an advantage in doing so); racism (my children are Mexican) and a society still deeply divided by class and education. I also did not like living on an island.
Having happily worked as a foreign correspondent in Spain and then Mexico in the 10 years before returning to the UK, leaving again for Madrid was not that hard to do. The state of my country of origin today is such that I feel vindicated by the decision taken to leave ‘this other Eden, this demi-paradise’ in the words of Shakespeare (from the same play).
Referendums can be positive in engaging the electorate and seeking a broad base of support for a controversial decision, but they are also deeply and bitterly divisive, as the one on Brexit has proved to be of epic proportions. Families are divided, with grandparents, who mainly voted to leave the EU, pitted against their grandchildren who want to stay in the EU and not have their employment prospects limited to the UK.
Presenting an ill informed electorate a binary choice on such a hugely complex issue as leaving the EU and without a safeguard of a threshold for approval (say 60%) was always bound to be a foolish gamble, as events have shown. Catalans seeking a referendum on independence should take note. We should not forget that the referendum result was a narrow 51.9% in favour of Brexit and 48.1% against. It’s bad enough electing politicians in the UK on a first-past-the-post system (winner takes all), let alone a decision of such profound constitutional importance.
One of the oldest continuous democracies in the world famed for its pragmatism and civilised debate, the UK today is hostage to the demagogic and reckless politicians in favour of Brexit. The warring self-serving political class has become a laughing stock throughout the world. Brexiters lied in the referendum campaign about the advantages of leaving the EU (for example, the infamous slogan ‘Let’s give our NHS [the National Health Service] the £350 million the EU takes every week’) and pandered to people’s baser instincts, unleashing the ugly side of the British character – xenophobia, jingoism, insularity. They also broke electoral laws on spending. I do not know if it was Brexit related, but my eldest son who works in London was recently attacked in broad daylight and robbed. MPs like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg (branded ‘the honourable member for the 17th century’), who are leading the pro-Brexit camp, cannot even agree on the terms of a deal with the EU –after almost three years– and are happy to push the UK off the cliff with no deal, which fortunately will not happen, thanks to the vote in parliament against this on 3 April by a wafer-thin majority of one vote.
Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left leader of the opposition Labour Party, is no better than Mrs. May, who, at least, has revealed her true colours. Corbyn, a life-long Eurosceptic (he voted for the UK to leave the European Economic Community in the 1975 referendum), masquerades in favour of staying in the EU, but has sat on the fence, hoping the government will fall and precipitate an election. God help the UK if he is ever prime minister.
Up to one million people protested in London last month against Brexit (far more than those in any pro-Brexit protest) and the petition to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit has attracted more than 6 million signatures. But these cosmopolitan people have been totally ignored and contemptuously dismissed by Prime Minister Theresa May as ‘citizens from nowhere.’
All of this makes me ashamed to be British and glad I moved to Spain, a country that has its own defects but I believe would never get itself into a mess like the UK’s. Let it be a lesson.