There are three moments that are relevant to the situation in the UK – and for Proposed referendum on United Kingdom membership of the European Union – which I think is less relevant elsewhere in Europe. If there is a common denominator here, though, it's dishonesty – a false statement about who the British are, who we can be, and what dishonesty costs us.
Britain has always had immigration, but there was a significant increase in the number of immigrants immediately after World War II. Some came from former British colonies – in the Caribbean, Australia, Southern Africa and Asia – while there were initially several immigrants from other European countries such as Ireland, Italy, Cyprus, Poland and the Baltic.
Throughout the post-war period, the political establishment avoided engaging in the immigration issue. Although more than half of all dark skinned people in the United Kingdom were actually born in the United Kingdom, they were still considered immigrants. The right side played on prejudice, because they knew it was a way to lower votes, while the left would give in because they were afraid of losing votes. The result was that very few people understood about immigration, understood what the underlying mechanisms are, whose who earn on it and why they do.
We did not talk about the wars, the trade agreements or the environmental devastation we participated in, which caused people to emigrate. We also did not discuss the needs of the aging population, or how the low-wage economy of a welfare state that cracked the joints made immigration necessary. One example: the NHS, the national health system, made the British more proud to be British than what the monarchy did. But without immigration, the NHS would not have been possible. In 1972, 12 per cent of nurses in the UK were from Ireland; At the turn of the century, 73 per cent of family physicians in the Rhondda Valley in Wales were from South Asia.
We were ignorant. Today, three-quarters of all Britons believe that immigration should be reduced. But they also believe that immigrants make up 31 percent of the population, while in reality it is 13 percent.
When the Brexit referendum took place, we had to pay the price for all the difficult debates we had turned away from and the simple choices we had made.
Today, three-quarters of all Britons believe that immigration should be reduced.
Multiculturalism is number two and contains both facts and fiction:
Multiculturalism must be based on the fact that it is neither synonymous with race nor religion. If you removed all colored people in Europe, and all non-Christians, Europe would still be multicultural. Just look at what happens in Catalonia or what can happen in Scotland when the British leave the EU. Other examples; look at the multilingual Swiss, Italy's diverse regions, the revival of the Welsh language and the peace process in Ireland.
Europe has never been a monoculture, and in matters of race and religion we have good examples on success – and important examples on failure. In any case, multicultural Europe is a fact, and race and religion are part of the whole.
The fiction multiculturalism elicits a liberal, state-controlled policy that supports and encourages cultural differences at the expense of national cohesion. Such a coordinated policy has never existed in Europe – nor are those places where multiculturalism is predicted a sure death.
But references are everywhere and create moral panic: "Liberal dilemmas" abound on issues such as freedom of speech or women's rights. Take the newspaper Western-Postens decision to publish twelve cartoons of Prophet Muhammad autumn 2005; drawings that many Muslims perceived as deeply offensive. When the Muslims protested, we were told that they did not understand freedom of speech. But to protest things you don't like – as long as you do it peacefully – er freedom of speech.
Protesting things you don't like – as long as you do it peacefully – is freedom of speech.
"This is a story about more than 12 caricature drawings in a small Danish newspaper," the newspaper's cultural editor said Flemming Rose, "This is about integration and how compatible religion Islam is with a modern, secular society".
He was right in the matter of something bigger, but not of what he told. In reality it was a story of power, hypocrisy and a crippling lack of self-knowledge. Two years earlier, the Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler had offered Western-Posten a series of satirical caricature drawings with an oblique look at Jesus' resurrection. Zieler received the following reply to the email: "I do not think Jyllands-Posten readers will appreciate the drawings. In fact, I think the drawings will provoke outrage. That's why I don't want to print them. "
The question was not about setting boundaries for religious tolerance and freedom of speech, but about where the boundary is set and who matters – and does not matter. The real story is about how we perceive immigration according to the current Western pattern – who are we trying to integrate, what are we integrating them into, and on what basis?
Since the turn of the century, the British establishment has been concerned about whether the nation's culture will withstand the integration of muslimis – of which 70 percent voted to stay in EU – and cared little about how the white working class should be integrated into the UK economy.
The third point is the empire. I remember that Danish Finance Minister Kristian Jensen said: "There are two kinds of European nations. There are small nations, and there are nations that have not yet realized that they are small nations. ”Britain is the latest, and the painful Brexit process shows us exactly how small we are.
The supporters want to get 'big' back in the UK. But there is no plan, just a slogan filled with delusions.
Since the Suez crisis of the 50s, the British have struggled to find their place in the world. The nation has been nostalgic about past superpowers and forgetful about past crises, it has strayed with confidence about its future role and lived up to its reputation as an aristocrat living on family money – meticulous, pompous and with high demands, but with very little self-insight .
Brexit is an expression of all this. The supporters want to get "big" back in Storbritannia. But there is no plan, just a slogan filled with delusions. In the run up to Brexit, it was believed that we could dictate the terms; we can't. They assumed that we could only leave the EU; we can't. There were no more plans on how the British would leave the EU than a dog chasing a car has plans to drive it. Now they realize how little sovereignty means in a country of Britain's size with a neoliberal, globalized economy beyond the blue passports (made in France, and which we could have had anyway).
All European states are struggling with the first two moments, immigration and multiculturalism, and with how the state should position itself for sincerity, anti-racism, pluralism and inclusion. The latter is a burden on the former colonial powers – primarily France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal – all of whom are struggling in their own ways.
All this has taken place during a time when nations are striving to assert their will as a primary democratic entity in the face of a strong neoliberal globalism – a system that ensures that capitalism sneaks in no matter who gets your vote. We have also recently had a major economic collapse where the poorest had to pay the most for the greed and stupidity of the rich.
No matter how bizarre the United Kingdom's situation may be, it would be hybris to believe that the four riders of the apocalypse in modern politics – nationalism, racism, alienation and distrust – not pursuing the rest of the continent.
Brexit is a symptom of a major crisis affecting us all. In this way, we are more European than we like to admit.
© Eurozine. Gary Younge in conversation with Susan Neiman
and Jan Plamper at the Eurozine Conference 2019.
Translated by Iril Kolle