Home COLUMNS BREXIT: The British like to have their cake and eat it

BREXIT: The British like to have their cake and eat it

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A hard Brexit would go against the grain of British history for the British hate saying a final goodbye. The fact is they always want to have their cake and eat it. Boris doesn’t know how the British handles the negotiations. They are ramrod straight-talking people who set out what they want, make a deal, shake hands and walk off.….writes Mihir Bose

BRITAIN-BIRMINGHAM-CONSERVATIVES PARTY CONFERENCE-PRIME MINISTER by .
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May

Everyone agrees that the Brexit negotiations have been a fiasco. But while Remainers believe that is because the Brexit idea is itself flawed, Leavers blame Prime Minister Theresa May for being the most incompetent Prime Minister in history. The result, as Boris Johnson put it in his resignation speech is “a fantastical Heath Robinson customs arrangement” with the EU. For Johnson this is not how the British handle negotiations. They are ramrod straight-talking people who set out what they want, make a deal, shake hands and walk off.

Yet for all Johnson’s much advertised historical knowledge he has clearly not read how the British end long-standing relationships. Heath Robinson style arrangements are just what the British like. A hard Brexit would go against the grain of British history for the British hate saying a final goodbye. The fact is they always want to have their cake and eat it.

India provides the best example. In 1947 after nearly two hundred years of rule the British finally left the subcontinent. India was the first brown colony to be given dominion status. Before that this privilege was only enjoyed by the white dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, countries which denied rights to their non-white people , with racism embedded in South Africa and Australia boasting of its white Australia policy under which British people who were white could emigrate to Australia for £10. They were known as the £10 poms. These white dominions were  part of the British family  and accepted the King as their head of state. Much has changed in Australia, Canada and New Zealand in the seventy years since but the British monarch is still their head of state.

India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who revived the festival in the early 60s, addressing members of both faiths. by .
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru addressing  a public meeting.

Indians wanted the equivalent of a hard Brexit. Like two former colonies, United States and Ireland, it would become a republic and have no formal ties with the British Crown. However, the British now behaved like a nanny that just could not let its charges go. This desire ran so deep that  Churchill and Attlee wrote letters to Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, which now read like pitiful pleas. Churchill said that even if India became a republic, in the style of republics in the Roman Empire, India could remain a republic within the Commonwealth and still accept the King.

The King quite liked the idea of becoming the President of India.  Atlee was sure a republic would not suit India. He claimed this was not something that would gel with Indian history and suggested the royal family would unite India. He thought the royal family, despite being all white, was so universal it would be accepted by a nation of browns.

The Commonwealth would become another one of those British clubs, and “the King as the symbol of free association of its independent member nations and as such the head of the Commonwealth”

In the process he conveniently forgot that during their rule in India the British called themselves Europeans and made no secret that their white European ancestry made them superior to their brown subjects, an idea the royal family had had no problems endorsing.

Nehru would have been expected to dismiss these ideas and while he did not think much of them he decided India would remain part of the Commonwealth, but this would be a new kind of Commonwealth not the old imperial model where only white countries had rights. So, unlike the white dominions India would not accept the King as its head of state. It would become a republic with a President elected by the Indians. The Commonwealth would become another one of those British clubs, and “the King as the symbol of free association of its independent member nations and as such the head of the Commonwealth.”

Queen Elizabeth II. (File Photo: Xinhua/Han Yan/IANS) by .
Queen Elizabeth II.

Ireland is another classic example of how the British both want to say goodbye but still cling to the past. When southern Ireland got independence in 1921, the freedom came with a great many restrictions and Ireland could only send ambassadors in the name of the British monarch. So, during the second world war when neutral Ireland had an embassy in Berlin it could not send an ambassador to Nazi Germany as he could hardly present his credentials to Adolf Hitler in the name of George VI. It was only in 1949, 28 years after Ireland got freedom, that it became a fully-fledged republic. Not even the most diehard Remainer is suggesting that the transition arrangements for leaving the EU should take quite that long.

And for all Northern Ireland’s fierce resistance to be part of a post-Brexit customs union with the republic, as this would suggest the north is no longer part of the United Kingdom, ever since 1921 the two halves of the island have had one Irish rugby team with northern players just as keen to beat the English as the southerners.

BRUSSELS, Feb. 9, 2018 (Xinhua) -- European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier addresses a press conference about the next phase of negotiations with the UK at EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 9, 2018. (Xinhua/Ye Pingfan/IANS) by .
European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier addresses a press conference about the next phase of negotiations with the UK at EU Commission headquarters in Brussels

Perhaps the real problem with the Brexit is that Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, is not allowing the British to claim the moral high ground in the negotiations. He could learn from the Faqir of Ipi. A leader of one of the tribes living in the area between what was British India and Afghanistan, now part of Pakistan, Ipi never accepted British rule and during the second world war he was the greatest opponent of the Raj.  All through the war the British maintained a large army in the tribal areas, used the Royal Air Force and Royal Indian Air Force to bomb villages, and even machine-gunned the inhabitants from armoured vehicles.

They never captured the Faqir. But always keen to appear morally fair the British used white and red warning leaflets, a version of football’s yellow and red cards, to warn the supporters of the Ipi that bombs were about to rain down on their villages. This British sense of fair play played into the Faqir’s hands. The Faqir’s followers believed he had divine powers. He had told them that he could turn British bombs into paper, and when the British leaflets came down from the air his followers were convinced of his miraculous powers.

But despite hunting him so ferociously the British came to admire him and in 1960 when he died the Times in its obituary said:

… a doughty and honourable opponent … a man of principle and saintliness … a redoubtable organizer of tribal warfare … many retired Army officers and political agents … will hear the news with the tribute of wistful regret.

(Mihir Bose is a former sports editor of BBC and the author of Lion and Lamb, A Portrait of British Moral Duality published by Haus Publishing. £7.99. You can order it from Amazon – https://amzn.to/2ONa9iA – )

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