Dis-united Kingdom?

Following the Brexit vote, I came across the term ‘Disunited kingdom’ in an online post commenting on the UK leaving the European Union.

Almost immediately after the final result had come in and been declared official, and accepted as such in the public declaration of the British prime minister David Cameron, reactions from the other leaders of the UK started to be aired. Nicola Sturgeon of Scotland said that her country would as soon as possible start independent negotiations with the EU; in Ireland the talk was about a referendum to decide about the merging of Northern Ireland and its Southern neighbour.

In the days and weeks to come, EU and other political leaders who feel concerned about the Brexit vote, as well as experts and analysts and interested stakeholders will pore over the larger political and economic issues devolving from this decision. Already, the EU leadership has taken a hard line and warned Britain that it must rapidly move to complete the ‘divorce’ process, as EU does not want the atmosphere of prevailing uncertainty to persist any further. Leader of Britain’s UKIP party Nigel Farage was booed when he was firing his salvo while addressing the European Parliament, and was told squarely that this was his last time to be present there.

In fact, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, turned to confront Farrage and said he was surprised he was there.

‘That’s the last time you are applauding here,’ he said to the British Brexiters. ‘You were fighting for the exit, the British people voted in favour of the exit. Why are you here?’

New terms have appeared as if by magic, to express various moods and scenarios – ‘Regretexit’ for example, demanding a fresh referendum in the UK after almost three million signatures had been collected for a petition to this effect. ‘Whoexit’ refers to the possibility of other EU members countries taking a similar route to Britain, and Marine Le Pen in France has saluted the British people’s decision as courageous and very democratic. Gert Wilders in the Netherlands has suggested that a similar referendum must be held there too so that the people of the country can get back to deciding for themselves how they want their country to be ruled and about controlling their borders, adding to some other voices that have spoken along similar lines.

For us far away from these seismic and momentous events, the only thing we can do is to follow what all takes place in the aftermath, out of general interest as to their impact on the world at large and also on our country as well. Inevitably, however, there is also an individual perspective based our own experience, or that of others we know, of ‘UK-ness’ either directly or indirectly over the years, covering the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh streams. That they did not seem to converge had been apparent to me from my early contacts with the denizens of the British Isles, whose imperial glories we had been fed on from a tender age in our educational journey. And there are stories and incidents which opened my eyes and gave me small but vital hints of the undercurrents that belied the surface unity that was projected.

‘From South of the border are you?’ asked his boss of my friend who was completing his surgical training a few decades ago, when he mentioned that he was from Mauritius and would be going home after obtaining his qualification. He was in Scotland, and had enjoyed his stay and the generosity of his Scottish hosts and friends. He had never thought of them as any different from their compatriots ‘south of the border’, until that moment when his Consultant used this expression and gave him a little lecture on his feelings towards those southerners.

I did part of my own surgical training in Dublin and have fond memories of my working class landlord and his lovely family, as well as of the surgeons who shared their vast knowledge and experience with us. For once in my life, I even enjoyed sitting for my anatomy exam after an initial shock by the examiner Mr Garrod Lynch. That was when he lightened the atmosphere by a dramatic turnaround as we were walking towards the dissected parts of the body that he and his fellow examiner were going to question me on.

He had asked where I was from, and upon hearing my reply, he exclaimed, ‘oh, so you are from the sugar bowl island! How nice indeed!’ Later I learnt that he had visited the island previously, and had been treated well. After his exclamation my fears dissolved, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Before that, I had worked for one whole year as junior resident at the SSRN Hospital with Dr Steven Keating in the Orthopaedic Unit. His daughter and her family looked after us with great affection during our stay of about three and a half months in Dublin and Steven himself had come visiting too. We had struck a great friendship.

So imagine my dismay when I was in West Yorkshire, England, and one afternoon I heard one of the orthopaedic technicians saying that Mr R, the nice Consultant I was working with, was an ‘Irish idiot’! Certainly he enjoyed the respect of his peers and I never felt in the operation theatre any indication that his Irishness was an issue. But that disparaging remark left me wondering.

Another time, I was assisting my Consultant in general surgery during an operation, on the day he resumed after a holiday in Wales. He was in a foul mood, and we all kept silent on the orders of Sister Ellis, who knew him only too well and could sense that something was amiss. At a certain point, she dared to ask him how was his holiday. And that’s when the explosion took place. ‘In my own bloody country!’ he said, ‘in my own bloody country, I can’t even read the bloody road signs! Can you imagine, they were all in Welsh, the English ones had been taken down. And when I asked for directions, I was answered in Welsh!’ And he vowed that he would never go there again in his life!

Cut to a few years ago, here in Mauritius. During a reception held in the evening on the occasion of an international conference, I was standing with a group of English doctors. A Welsh doctor who was taking part in the conference walked in, and the Londoners just turned their faces away from him, without even greeting…

There are other examples that could be cited to illustrate the point, but I will stop here and submit an extract from an article in ‘Social Europe’. It is by István Pogány, who writes about ‘Budleigh Salterton: Brexit And The Quest For A Mythic England’. The author taught at the University of Exeter in the 1980s, when he used to visit that coastal resort. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Central European University in Budapest, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Warwick. He comments that ‘Budleigh Salterton, with its clotted cream scones, its crab sandwiches, its endless pageant of slow-moving electric vehicles for the disabled and its public lavatories placed at strategic intervals along the seafront was almost a cliché of a certain kind of Englishness.’

His concluding remarks are almost lapidary: ‘The problem with this vote to return to the comforting Englishness and timeless values of Budleigh Salterton is that the world has moved on. The England of two or more generations ago, evoked by warm beer and leisurely cricket matches, by afternoon tea and the BBC Home Service no longer exists. …If you peel away the apparently timeless English façade of communities like Budleigh Salterton you will quickly discover that the cultivation of traditional English lifestyles … is an expensive business. In many cases, it depends on large incomes generated by substantial pension funds and by a portfolio of shares and other investments… The collapse of inward investment, the exodus of companies that formerly had their European headquarters in England, the secession of Scotland and perhaps of Wales and Northern Ireland from the UK hardly represent an attractive prospect, even for many Brexiters.’ (italics added)

Granted, though, that there are opposite viewpoints also. Nevertheless, as the song used to go, ‘Que sera sera, demain n’est jamais certain, laissons l’avenir venir, que sera sera…’

A Dis-united Kingdom, perhaps a European Disunion too? Whatever will be, will be.

* Published in print edition on 1 July 2016

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