Opinion

What Brexit means for me: 'A trail of anti-Establishment rage I've followed from Bombay to Britain'

Notes on Cameron's UK and Modi's India from a British filmmaker of Indian descent.

It is all so unreal. To express it in terms my Punjabi family would understand, it feels as it might if my 76-year-old father had just announced at breakfast, over coronary-inducing parathas and homemade mango pickle, that after 50 years in Britain he had fallen in love with an Argentinian tango dancer named Diego and was eloping to Buenos Aires as soon as his visa came through.

Apart from London, all other regions of England voted for Leave. This effectively cut us here in the capital off from the nation, leaving us – we complacently tell ourselves – as an island of hopeful progressiveness amidst a sea of regional anger and disaffection. Even more ominously, pro-Leave regional England is in turn cut off from the Remain-majority Scots and Northern Irish. We are headed out of the European Union, and then, we will cease to be the United Kingdom. This is now our manifest destiny.

In Mumbai, where there are still people who know history, no doubt some well-heeled, St Xavier’s educated, Colaba-dwelling wit, is right now quoting Shakespeare – “this sceptred isle…this fortress built by Nature for herself” – over brunch at the Willingdon Gymkhana. Around him, I imagine the Industrialists and Traders, sheltering from the rains with whisky and soda, eagerly mulling over the short-term commercial opportunities, and long-term strategic implications, of senile old flag-waving Britannia’s act of nostalgia-fuelled self-harm.

From the veranda of the Willingdon Club, the chaos in Britain and Europe makes one think warmly of what a pleasure it is to be alive today, at this time when things everywhere adjust back towards the global equilibrium that ran for millennia (before the last rogue half a millennium during which guns, germs and steel gave rise to the mighty West), back when India and China ruled the marketplaces, and Asian trade accounted for two thirds of the global economy.

The cycles of history

But how do you explain these barely discernible, centuries-long pendulum swings of global history and trade to a working-class Geordie man whose family have had no proper work for three generations? How do you persuade a Cornish single mother of three small kids on a zero hours contract whose benefits have been cut in the name of austerity and “tightening our belts” that neo-liberal global forces are what are blighting her family’s life, not simply some bloke in a committee room in central Brussels?

What do you say to a Yorkshireman whose coal-miner father was baton-charged by Margaret Thatcher’s mounted police, never recovered from his inner wounds, and has bequeathed his sons a bitter legacy of depression, distrust and despair, a legacy that is widespread in white working class communities across the country who have lived through nearly 40 years of deindustrialisation, trade union decimation, labour market casualisation, public sector privatisation and political exploitation that has expressly and deliberately targeted their communities? The injured will usually always take whatever chance they get to wreak their revenge – and they have taken it.

I moved to Mumbai at the end of 2013 and found a nice 1BHK in a decent Catholic building near Mount Mary in Bandra. I knew the city well enough to know that I was moving to the most bohemian, cosmopolitan and open-minded neighbourhood not just in Mumbai but probably all India, one of those hermetic oases of relative prosperity, tolerance and social harmony, that Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen described in India’s specific case as “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa”.

I washed up in my Indian Bel Air just in time to witness the May 2014 electoral victory that led the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi to power. People around me – all my artist and writer and filmi friends – were shocked when the BJP won. I was less surprised.

I had spent half my time since 2008 living between London, Delhi and rural Punjab. With the relative detachment of the outsider, but also the filial feeling of the prodigal son, it was perhaps easier for me to discern and to accept the depth and breadth of public anger. Anger with the Congress party, with the corruption scandals of the UPA and UPA2 governments, and anger with the effects of India’s stubbornly high inflation rates that, even as builders send steel beams shooting into Indian skies, corrode every common Indian’s life. Anger with the status quo made sense.

That old sinking feeling

Now that I have just returned to London, the anti-establishment anger I can feel in the country makes sense. But there is a crucial difference between what is happening in Modi’s India and Cameron’s Britain.

In India, people are fighting for a wider distribution of the gains from growth. People feel their lives are moving ahead, moving up. “Let’s give Modi five years and see what he does,” many swing voters said in 2014. Two years into his term, with his legislative agenda running in low gear and the Modi wave looking rather limp, rumbles are growing. For all the valid alarm over growing intolerance, my faith in the Indian electorate to hold the government to account remains strong. I do not believe that Indians will allow that to be hijacked by those who pursue divisive agendas, not for long anyhow.

In Britain and across Europe today, the fight is over how widely, and to whom, to distribute the pains of a hemispheric economic contraction and stagnation of a truly epochal nature. In Britain, and in Europe as a whole (for this will not end with Brexit, the Dutch will be next, and then others), entire countries are in the process of becoming poorer, the Social Contract has come to an end, and as a result of that people are suffering a sense of a great loss of agency, a sense that their very existence, their sovereignty feels under threat. This is truly dangerous.

Dark grumblings over “the immigrants” have been the Greek chorus to this country’s toxic EU referendum debate over the past month. Populist scapegoating of immigrants and refugees, as a means to channel public anger, has been seen to be the hammer that cracked the nut of Brexit. It may now well set the tone for the manner in which a new Conservative government operates, perhaps with Boris Johnson in the driving seat, and with an emboldened King-Maker Nigel Farage constantly trying to push the steering wheel even further right.

As the true fallout of the Referendum result starts to settle on all those people who voted Leave, as the British pound plummets in record-breaking fashion, as interest rates go up, as more jobs are lost, there will only be more anger. Who will take the blame for that?

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