Brexit Undercurrents

Nations and civilisations have been rising and falling from as far back as history has been recorded. While monarchies generally decline and decay, civilisations seem to collapse at their peak. This can only happen due to self-inflicted wounds.

Brexit (and to some extent Trump’s USA) gives us an opportunity to see this happening in front of our eyes. Britain has decided to leave the European union, which, by all accounts, will lead to a severe damage to economy and a loss of stature. Why would a country voluntarily take such an action? There are many speculations as to why any nation would willingly do this to themselves.

In case of the United Kingdom, their greatest moment of glory was less than a century ago. Yet it has decided to undertake an action of severe self-harm due to a series of reasons and ideas that seem to have met with a confluence which seem to mark this suicidal wish.

In Political Order and Political Decay Francis Fukuyama points out that in any civilisation, when the wealth of the rich becomes comparable to that of the state, the rich manipulate the state for their immediate gain but with massively destructive long term costs to the state. This stands as an obvious statement in the context of Brexit where the rich were not only rich enough to manipulate the state but have an added sense of urgency. With power shifting from Westminster to Brussels, the rich and powerful obviously have severe anxieties about their long term ability to manipulate the system to their advantage. This is visible in their desire to undo the labour protection laws in UK and to not come under the new laws which would closely scrutinise the movement of money amongst other laws. That the rich had mounted a 25 year long systematic campaign of falsehood using press and other media is well recognized.

This of course is well known and well documented and is a common problem for all civilisations. However, democracy for all its sluggishness, was assumed to be a good defence against such desires of the powerful since the final decision of the government lay with the middle class which made the biggest chunk of the electorate. The obsession of the middle class would be on financial well being and improving the standard of living. Many would also be happy to have a system that provides equal opportunity for all. A welfare state comes from demand from the population, not from the rich. So why has this middle class ethos failed the United Kingdom? Clearly this is messy and there several reasons for this, some common to several collapses and some specific to UK.

It is generally argued that the civilisations collapse due to either change of natural environment (particularly loss of water sources) or due to over exploitation of resources. In the context of Harappan Civilisation, we have also argued that in order to keep meeting the expectations of a population, a civilisation needs to keep coming up with new technologies and ideas that keep improving the standard of living of its population. If this does not happen the expectation of its people cannot be met and that can lead to discontent. After an exponential rise of technologies there has been some slowdown in new ways of improving human life for commoners in recent times. But this stagnation is really not spectacular and in developing countries the rise in technologies does seem to rise steadily to meet the aspirations of its people.

A flattening of quality of life curve with time produces multiple problems. First is the loss of focus on improving standard of living as a little bit more money does not produce a significant improvement in quality of life. This leaves the middle class at a loss and drifting towards enhancing group identities and imagined greatness of the past.

In case of UK these issues have been compounded by several culture specific events. It is true that militarily Britain won the second world war (with significant help from others) but this victory was almost immediately followed by loss of the Empire. One can even argue that this was the second most significant outcome of the second world war, where the winner and loser both came to grief. To make matters worse, the loss of the empire was compounded by a rush of the colonised who idolised UK and saw an opportunity to improve their lives. They were, in turn, welcomed by UK to make up for the severe loss of productive manpower in the wars and their consequences. This has two consequences. One is the loss of sense of entitlement that the original inhabitants – who could be easily identified by skin colour, name labels etc. – felt when the nation regained its level of prosperity. It also meant that there was now a significant fraction of people whose cultural roots were elsewhere, and being large minorities they managed to keep these identities alive, alienating those who considered themselves the locals. The locals felt that they had an entitlement to the best quality of life and the people of the colonies cannot possibly claim equal status. This is not xenophobia. It is a feeling of a sense of loss of entitlement for having once ruled these colonies and made the natives so competent. However, given that the natives spoke English and had significant exposure to the English culture, they were not that repulsive. In recent time, the new arrivals from Europe had little sensitivity to the native language or culture. Speaking broken English, they were best communicated with, in their native language.

The fact that high levels of industrialisation leads to de-humanisation in terms of being just a support for a large system so well expressed by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, does not help in this sense of loss of self-worth and self-identity. The resultant UK therefore had people with traditional lives including fishing and mining mingling with modern industries and at the other extreme high end technologies and financial services all apparently co existing but in reality living parallel lives. The result of all this was multitudes of national identity in the sense that what it United Kingdom now had multiple shades of opinions which did not help.

A democracy more than any other system of governance, is expected to balance such stresses so that they can be managed. In case of UK, for example, a better support system, egalitarian education system and better distribution of wealth and UK centric education which imbibed a sense of national identity should have made these stresses manageable. However, the recent severe austerity and destruction of the common bargaining capability of the middle and labour class has cut this major safety valve and left the middle class feeling more helpless and manipulated.

Eventually these stresses were going to express themselves in revolt of the existing order. But coupled with unimaginative and uncompromising, self-absorbed leadership that has failed to provide support and an egalitarian world view have aggravated the problem. Irresponsible and untruthful statement of the leadership has made matters even worse. Add to this the modern ills of limited applicability of education or acquired skills in a fast changing world with changing demands of skills has not helped.

So at the cost of the people of UK, we now have a live demonstration of how and why civilisations collapse at their peak.

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