‘This precious stone set in a silver sea’
There have been several attempts to interpret the result of the recent British referendum and the mandate given by more than half of British voters to cut themselves off from the rest of Europe.
Several analysts have put forward varied reasons to explain why the British felt they wanted to exit the union with Europe after 42 years of being part of it. And a privileged part. They had managed to have a well-functioning economy, a special agreement with Brussels to keep their own currency, they had their city.
Admittedly, they were not happy when the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 provided freedom of movement and residence for EU citizens. And they were frustrated when a major enlargement of the union in 2004 sent flocks of eastern Europeans to seek work in Britain.
Visiting London regularly in those years, specifically south London where I have kept my home since the early 1990s, I remember my difficulty realizing that I had to learn the names of the newly-settled Polish plumbers and electricians who had opened their shops next to the old Indian pharmacy and the Pakistani news agency, whose names I had never learned.
But those days were different. The gloom and depression of Margaret Thatcher’s reign had been replaced by the rise to power of the Labor Party under the energetic high-flier Tony Blair. Although the invasion in Iraq had already cast a shadow over the impact of the war in the Middle East, it was too early to predict the terrible consequences which have come to haunt us today. Then, the arrival of those exotic eastern Europeans was seen as a different ingredient to the multicultural texture of London. Nobody had predicted that when Britain chose to exit Europe, the EU nationals living in Britain would have reached 3.3 million.
But London, especially south London, was always a melting pot of multiple nationalities who were finding ways to cohabitate with tolerance. The overwhelming vote in favor of “Remain” in the recent referendum proves the point.
The analysis of the Brexit vote showed that the highest percentage of “Leave” votes came from the provinces, especially the Midlands and Eastern England, while London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted “Remain.”
A lot has already been said about the manipulation of British public opinion by anti-EU tabloids, about the increasing xenophobia and isolationist ideas of the Conservative Party and about the tangent rightist ideology that glues the anti-EU Tories with the populist leadership of the U.K. Independence Party.
All of these may be right, plus the fear of the Turks, 10 million of whom – according to British tabloids - could invade Britain once they are members of the EU!
But the shocking result of the referendum would not have happened if the citizens of the British Isles had not already had deeply ingrained in their mind the conviction that they were not really part of Europe, that they were a sea nation and that they had to stay that way in order to be able to defend their country.
Just a few years before the Maastricht Treaty, the project to link Britain with France stumbled upon fierce opposition from the defenders of another isolationist movement to keep Britain as an island. Among their arguments was that if a tunnel were to link Britain and France, then “rabid dogs, rabbits and foxes from France would use it to infect the plague-free British countryside.” Eventually the Eurotunnel was realized two years after Maastricht, but it took years before British travelers chose to use it.
So, I was not surprised by the result. The problem is that most people thought that the referendum was a “protest vote,” although it was a “vote of choice.” And here is where perhaps the old British saying, “There is fog in the channel. The continent is isolated,” should be perhaps read in reverse.