Freedom At Last?

Brexit shows Britain has never got over the Second World War …. Writes Mihir Bose

What a year we have had and on January 1, as Boris Johnson has said, we will at last be free people. This has been the great dream of the Brexiters but I must say I have always found that absurd. I was born in India just a few months before India won freedom from the British. My generation of Indians is known as the Midnight’s Children generation as it was on midnight 15th August 1947 that the Union Jack was lowered  from the Red Fort in Delhi and the Indian tricolour hoisted. My generation was very proud that we were the first generation of free Indians for 200 years which was the length of British rule.

I was made aware of what freedom meant when I met Nelson Mandela in 1991 soon after he was released from prison. It was a wonderful Sunday morning having coffee with him in his house in Soweto. The rainbow nation had not come into being. Indeed, it was not certain the whites would give up power and end apartheid. He told us how he was going to use sport. He said de Klerk, the white President of apartheid South Africa, had told him that if Mandela could get the All Blacks, New Zealand’s great rugby team, to come and play the Springboks, the white South African rugby team, he could convince his fellow whites to end apartheid.

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Mandela spoke of his own interest in sport. How in 1949 he had been to see South Africa play Australia in a Test in Durban. The South African team was, of course, all white and he as a non-white had to sit behind a cage as all non-white fans had to under apartheid.  Like all blacks he wanted Australia to win, to relish the one moment when his white tormentors would be humbled. But South Africa looked like winning when Neil Harvey, a wonderful Australian batsman, turned things round and Australia won. Mandela was overjoyed. I asked him if he went up to Harvey to congratulate him. He said “No, no, we couldn’t do that, we would have been thrown out, even arrested. We could show no emotion.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) meets with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in London, Britain. (Photo by Ray Tang/Xinhua/IANS)

Now observe, seven years later, the Australian cricket team come to India. Neil Harvey destroys my great sporting hero the Indian leg spinner Subhash Gupte, one of the greatest leg spinners in the game. He breaks my heart. But I, a boy of nine watching the match, did not sit in a cage. I sat with my father in a nice seat and I could show my feelings. Go up to Harvey and get his signature.  I had more freedom than Mandela a grown man.

This is clearly not the sort of loss of freedom the Brexiters mean when they talk of having been enslaved by Europe and how the vote for Brexit means getting the country back. The only explanation for such language is that this country has been suffering from an amnesia ever since the end of the second world war. It has not come to terms with the fact that the war led to the collapse of its empire. Britain beat the Nazis only to wake up and find that the empire it had when it declared war on Germany and the power it had when Hitler invaded Poland had gone. That was not what was anticipated or even desired when this country went to war as there was no intention of setting the people Britain had enslaved free. It was one of the unanticipated consequences of the war.

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Before the war this country could boast that so large was its empire the sun never set on it, although as Krishna Menon, one of India’s freedom fighters and later Defence Minister, mocked: that was because God did not trust the British in the dark. But when after the war the sun did set on its empire this country did not know what to do. And this country has still not got over its loss of the empire.

When I came to this country in 1969 the most popular sitcom was Dad’s Army. It is still hugely popular which says a lot about how the British cling on that part of its history which it finds so comforting.  

It is this inability to look at its past that explains Brexit and why it is such a cry of anguish.  While Brexit is seen by leavers as a great revolution, the fact is this country has been crying out aloud just as the Brexiters have been doing for many years.  Back in 1963 as a 16-year-old growing up in Mumbai, while rummaging in the city’s many street bookstalls, I picked up a copy of a magazine called Encounter then possibly the most influential literary journal of its time. It was the July issue and a special one entitled Suicide of a Nation? An Inquiry into the State of Britain Today, which Arthur Koestler guest-edited.

 A Jewish-Hungarian refugee, who had managed to flee the Nazis and had arrived in the UK without an entry permit in 1940, Koestler was then at the height of his fame, due in large measure to his having moved from communism to become a fervent warrior for the West in the struggle against the Soviet Union. His novel Darkness at Noon showed how the best minds of the West could be seduced by communism and refuse to realise its evil nature. Koestler, incidentally, hated India and wrote a book denouncing Indian culture and Gandhi in particular, The Lotus and the Robot. There was nothing redeeming he could find in India.

But here he was concerned with the state of Britain and held the British political class responsible for turning the second world war victory into defeat. Reading him you might think it is Nigel Farage who is speaking. “When the war was won, Britain’s political and moral prestige in Europe was at an unprecedented height; in less than twenty years, her leaders managed to bring it down to an equally unprecedented low.”

The magazine was full of articles by the leading writers and thinkers of the day, Malcolm Muggeridge, Henry Fairlie, Cyril Connolly, Lord Altrincham, all bemoaning the state of Britain. They depicted Britain in 1963 as a poor European outcast, its economy in desperate plight, compared to France and Germany, booming thanks to the Common Market; its culture and education at a very low level and reduced to begging President De Gaulle of France to let Britain join the European Economic Community, as it was then called.

And this raises an interesting question as to how the Brexiters have spun the word “sovereignty” when it comes to Europe. Much has been made of how Britain would even be prepared to leave the EU without a deal if a deal meant giving up sovereignty. Now in any trade negotiations deals are made which means a country agrees to do things which limit its ability to act in return for getting some benefits. It is not loss of sovereignty it is a calculation that in doing such a deal the country will benefit.

If we are to talk about sovereignty then have a look at Britain’s relationship with America, the much talked about “special relationship”. In winning the war, Britain had gone broke and its great economist, John Maynard Keynes, had had to rush to Washington in August 1945 and spend five months in hard negotiations with the Americans—so hard, in fact, that the strain killed him shortly after—to persuade the Americans to provide a 50-year loan, the final repayment of which was not made until 2006. During the war the British, keen to get American help, bent its knee to the Americans to such an extent that American soldiers were not subject to British law and in 1943 George Orwell wrote, “It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory.”  The war also resulted in America acquiring bases in this country. They remain to this day and there British writ does not run. They are sovereign American territory. And American soldiers in this country take their orders only from American officers even when they attend Remembrance Day ceremonies where all others from many countries take orders from the British in charge of the ceremony.

There are no EU bases in this country. But Brexiters would never dream of talking of loss of sovereignty as far as America is concerned because America is family. At the height of its empire the British also saw Europe as part of its wider family. In the empire the British always described themselves as European, presenting themselves as representing the master white races. Even their cricket team was called European. But now that the empire has gone that is not something this country likes to be reminded about. It would rather present a trade link with Europe as a phony fight over freedom and sovereignty. Unless the British can look at their history, see where it has come from and get over its imperial nostalgia it will always be like Archie in John Osborne’s play The Entertainer moaning about what a wretched hand history has dealt this once great country since the war.