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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Britain’s Brexit Moment

For Britain an FTA with the EU ironically holds the key: over 50 per cent of Britain’s exports go to the EU. The other key trade deals London wants to sign quickly are with the United States, China, Japan and India

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Ireland was part of the British Empire till it won independence in 1922. Ironically, it is Ireland which could trigger events that lead to the eventual dismemberment of the United Kingdom.

Whether or not Britain leaves the European Union (EU) on October 31 with or without a deal, with or without an extension, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is playing a game of political poker with Ireland as the joker in the pack. The island of Ireland is split between the Irish Republic (a keen member of the EU) and Northern Ireland which is part of the UK.

Physical customs checks post-Brexit between the two Irelands – or on the Irish Sea between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland – will almost certainly revive sectarian hostility between Catholic Irish Republic and Protestant-majority Northern Ireland. Those hostilities led to terror attacks and violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland for decades, claiming thousands of lives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during a Tory party conference at a Brighton hotel in 1984. The violence subsided after the “Good Friday” agreement in 1998 that formed a power-sharing compact in Northern Ireland between warring Protestants (who want to stay with the UK) and Catholics (who want reunification of the two Irelands).  

Irish Republic Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (whose father Ashok is Indian) holds the key to whether Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan floats or sinks. Brexit is hostage to history. Before 1707, England was a mid-sized European power, constantly at war not only with France and Spain but also with Scotland, then an independent nation to its north. The United Kingdom did not exist. In 1707, the separate kingdoms of England and Scotland merged to form the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”. 

Meanwhile, England began forcibly populating the northern counties of its colony Ireland with migrant English Protestants, changing the sectarian character of Catholic Ireland. This is much like China today populating its northwest province Xinjiang with migrant ethnic Han Chinese, reducing Muslims there to a minority. In the north of Ireland too, migrant Protestants in time became the majority. When Ireland won freedom from the British Empire in 1922, six counties in the Protestant-majority north of Ireland chose to stay in the UK.

Over the previous two centuries, Britain had meanwhile transformed itself from Little England into the British Empire. Germany and the Second World War ended the Empire. Germany’s role in breaking up the British Empire is rich with irony. The English don’t like to talk about it but the Queen of England is of German extraction. Her family’s official surname till as recently as 1917 was not Windsor but Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. It was quietly changed in the midst of the First World War when the British public objected to their monarch (then King George V, the Queen’s grandfather) being visibly German and speaking English with a guttural German accent.  

Nor do the English like being reminded that many of them are descended from three German tribes – Angles, Saxons and Jutes – who settled southern England after the Romans abandoned what they called “this damp, rainy island”. Indeed, England got its name from the Germanic Angles tribe and was known around 600 AD as “Angleland”. Not surprisingly, German dictator Adolf Hitler in the 1930s praised the Bengal Lancers, a swaggering mounted English cavalry unit, saying that is how European military officers should intimidate “Indian natives”.

Boris Johnson wrote a fawning biography of Winston Churchill and likes to model himself on the wartime British leader. Churchill of course was a polished racist who opposed Indian Independence till the last moment and called Hinduism a “beastly religion”. Johnson, married for 25 years to the half-Indian Marina Wheeler (their divorce is pending in court), is not overtly racist. Modern, multicultural, self-conscious Britain doesn’t allow that anymore. But scratch beneath the surface and Johnson’s racism, homophobia and Islamophobia (despite a Turkish grandfather) is visible.

As a journalist covering the EU beat in the mid-1990s for a British newspaper, Johnson regularly mocked Continental Europeans. He represents English xenophobia which was exposed in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The 52 per cent majority of Britons who voted for Brexit were mainly from small English towns and rural areas. Cosmopolitan, multiracial London voted overwhelming against Brexit. Scotland and Northern Ireland too voted against Brexit. But Little England, cut from the same xenophobic cloth as Boris Johnson, voted decisively for Brexit. So hostile to the EU is Little England that it is prepared to accept the dismemberment of the United Kingdom to free itself from Brussels.

Will the UK break up after Brexit? Demands for a second referendum on Scottish independence from the UK are growing. Opinion polls show that a majority of the Scottish people now want independence. If Brexit happens with no-deal or a bad deal, Ireland’s economy could suffer with cross-border trade between Northen Ireland and the Irish Republic being disrupted. Northern Ireland’s artificially-created Protestant majority over centuries of forced English migration is diminishing on the back of higher Catholic fertility rates. That spells trouble for Northern Ireland’s future as part of the UK.  Reunification of the two Irelands and independence for Scotland would end the 312-year-old United Kingdom.

Boris Johnson knows this. He and his hardline Brexiteers believe England can blossom as a global entropot. It probably can. As one anti-Brexiteer put it, England will be the new Singapore-on-the-Thames.  

How will Britain’s economy perform post-Brexit? GDP is estimated to fall significantly over the next three years but recover once free trade agreements (FTAs) with other countries are signed. For Britain an FTA with the EU ironically holds the key: over 50 per cent of Britain’s exports go to the EU. The other key trade deals London wants to sign quickly are with the United States, China, Japan and India. Each will demand a pound of British flesh. India, for example, will seek concessions on immigration and student visas and greater cooperation on extradition requests.

In 1707, pre-UK England was a mid-sized European power. A political union with Scotland transformed it into the United Kingdom and, within a century, into the British Empire. The unraveling of that project begins with Brexit.


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