Brexit as Separatism
Brexit, a portmanteau word combining Britain and Exit, is about tomorrow Thursday’s plebiscite in Britain over whether Britain should stay in or exit the European Union. As a student in the early 1970s I remember Conservative British PM Edward Heath convincingly speaking on BBC news (which often preceded movies in Sri Lanka) about the advantages of membership in what was then the Common Market. A plebiscite in 1975 after joining won a 65% approval to stay.
Exclusivity Versus Internationalism
Those were the days of reduced racial tension and I could as a Commonwealth student vote in British elections. Even while a student, however, that right was withdrawn under Conservative Margaret Thatcher who also doubled my tuition fees as a foreign student. Today with asylum and other residence seekers pouring into Europe, the tolerance for other peoples is long gone and the cry for exiting the EU, is really a cry against racial (non-White) immigration and for absolute sovereignty.
According to a poll in The Times (21 June) there is a near 20% lead among working class and unemployed workers to leave and a 20+% lead to stay among upper-middle class voters. Among postgraduate qualified Britons, the lead to stay is nearly 40% and even more among the less racist 18-29 year old segment. The lead among the liberal Guardian readers is nearly 90% while the lead to exit among The Sun readers is 40%. It is instructive of the people who read The Sun that it carried topless models on its infamous Page 3 for 45 years until a campaign stopped the practice in January 2015. What the educated and the cultured want is clear – an internationalist outlook.
Strength in Numbers
A lesson is that the educated segments know that there is strength for a nation in numbers. With white folk not producing enough children to sustain their population levels, Britain soon will not have people buying their own goods to sustain economic growth. Despite Donald Trump, the thinkers in the US, Canada and even the EU know that unless population levels rise, there will not be enough people to drive economic growth. Having decided that the required population growth can come only from immigration, the US and Canada have tailored their immigration policies to welcome immigrants who can contribute – students who come for degree studies who are then given pathways to immigration and skilled immigrants; while those with PhDs and publications are allowed to apply independently without a sponsor for residence. Having decided that they need more people, they wisely choose who such people shall be.
This is why David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative PM, is in affix. As The New York Times explains (21 June), “In 2013, besieged by the increasingly assertive anti-European Union wing of his own Conservative Party, Mr. Cameron made a promise intended to keep a short-term peace among the Tories before the 2015 general election: If re-elected, he would hold an in-or-out referendum on continued British membership in the bloc. But what seemed then like a relatively low-risk ploy to deal with a short-term political problem has metastasized into an issue that could badly damage Britain’s economy, influence the country’s direction for generations — and determine Mr. Cameron’s political fate.”
Cameron knows as a pro-business leader that the markets that come with EU membership are critical for British growth. The problems of jobs, the environment, and terrorism are more easily dealt with as a part of Europe. After a lukewarm position for staying, now as it seems the stay vote only has a statistically negligible lead, he has come out in full force for staying: “Brit’s don’t quit,” he said.
By tomorrow, 23rd, the British voter would have voted. If the decision is to leave, it would be a disaster for England which would become more racist and jingoist, spurning economic well-being for the comfort of racial uniformity. But in some ways Pandora’s Box has been opened. The Scottish who take comfort in EU membership and in the same spirit voted as recently as in Sept. 2014 to stay in the United Kingdom (by a 55.3% margin with 44.7% wanting to leave with a record turnout of 84.6%), may want to reopen that if the decision is to leave the EU. Some Italians also want a referendum.
Britain’s decision will be known only on Friday morning says Britain’s Electoral Commission which prohibits exit polls to be published before voting closes at 10 PM on Thursday. It even cancelled the symbolic distribution of croissants from France (a French food that is a hot favorite in the UK) because it is giving a treat as a favor to influence the vote!
Brexit News in Sri Lanka
I am in Trinidad and Tobago for a Commonwealth Electoral Network Meeting where the British Electoral Commission is represented. All the talk is about Brexit. In Sri Lanka there is little news or discussion on this very consequential referendum. It is, it seems, a frightful thought in Sri Lanka that a people can go their own way by a peaceful referendum. Editors seem to be uniformly for a blackout. The referendum is after all a democratic exercise.
As noted when the Scottish people were given the option to leave the UK, they chose resoundingly to stay. Recall how, around 1980, the people of Quebec seemed behind the separatist Parti Quebecois. When I was a student in Montreal it had relatively less educated separatist members including a shop-lifting provincial minister who ran through the streets when caught by a shop security guard.
The then Prime Minister, French but with an English mother, was Pierre Trudeau, the present Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father. He offered a referendum allowing the Quebecois to go if they wanted to go. It was thought a dangerous move at the time, so shortly after French President Charles de Gaulle had visited Montreal in 1967 and inflamed passions creating a diplomatic row by saying in Montreal “Vive Montréal; Vive le Québec !” (“Long live Montreal, Long live Quebec!”). Perhaps carried away by the applause he added, “Vive le Québec libre!” (“Long live free Quebec!”).
Trudeau’s gamble paid off. As he urged the French to participate in federal government provisions for French cultural expression, the proposal to negotiate sovereignty was defeated 59.56% to 40.44%. The separatist agenda was revived by a very charismatic French leader Lucien Bouchard. But when it came to the crunch in Oct. 1995, the vote was again a “Non” to separatism by 50.58%. Today, we see that Canada’s liberal policies with enlightened leadership have led yet again to another Frenchman as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.
Ranil Wickremesinghe and Treaties
In Sri Lanka, like in Britain, the leaders know that we do not have a market within our borders to be anything serious. As a small example, when we write books in Sri Lanka there is no one to buy let alone read them. Thousands of my own books have been printed and sold only because they were published and marketed abroad. Local books cannot make a profit so they need financial subsidy sponsors which in turn means influence and that in turn means low quality. When we are evaluated for professorships we are too small to have experts who understand the esoteric work of publications or publisher quality. It has led to low quality universities. It is in being internationalist that we can survive as a people of quality. For example, successful Singapore is internationalist in outlook and has an active immigration policy.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, I strongly suspect, knows all this and that is why he is promoting international agreements with India, within SAARC and with the EU. Those who oppose cross-cultural compacts are those who want to preserve their positions and do not want any competition. In Sri Lanka do we have a nexus between no-education and racial exclusivity? It is exclusivist professionals promoted through patronage rather than qualifications that ensure that their positions are secure and the benefits of trade do not reach the less fortunate people of Sri Lanka.
Winning against Separatism
Winning the fight against separatism is easy. Separatism, really the fissiparous culture we have, is not good for anyone and is encouraged only when there is no equality among us. To win that fight, Sri Lanka must be truly egalitarian. War crimes must be punished. If not, we are saying that it does not matter if Tamils are killed. Who is the Tamil who would want to be Sri Lankan in these circumstances? If there was no war crime, then there is nothing to fear from an international inquiry. People who have spoken to survivors know that terrible crimes happened.
Our Leader of the Opposition, Hon. R. Sampanthan, has complained of broken promises: of reneging on the cosponsored UNHRC resolution, continuing job discrimination against Tamils, Tamil lands being held by the military without any perceptible use for them and Tamil prisoners being held without charge.
To dispel the real, heartfelt but unfortunate clamour for separation among most Tamils, the government needs to rectify these wrongs and be truly for a Sri Lanka where all are really equal. If our government can bring itself to do this and then holds a referendum, there will be a resounding cry affirming one united Sri Lanka. Scotland and Quebec have proved this. I think the British too will ultimately vote to stay in the EU because they have full rights in Europe.
Does our government have the will to make equality truly from the heart rather than a speech for the press, GSP-Plus and the UNHCR? Do we have trustworthy national leaders to inspire minorities?