Letter from Brexit London
It is a peculiarly confusing time in Britain. Never has politics seemed so utterly pointless and enervating
Confusion is the very essence of truly democratic existence. To always feel a slight sense of bewilderment and dissatisfaction is a sure-shot sign that you live in a polity functioning along generally democratic lines. Because that is really what democracies are about. They are about systems of government built on compromises and coalitions and halfway meetings. This is why people who vote for “uncompromising" candidates are often disappointed when these leaders come to power and immediately start compromising. It leaves them a bit confused and disappointed.
Yet even having accounted for this manifestation of democratic life, it is a peculiarly confusing time in Britain. In all my life I have never lived in a place, in a time, where politics has seemed so utterly pointless and enervating. At the close of 2016, if you ask me what the point of British politics is, I would just shrug my shoulders. Which is all the more problematic given that Britain is also the most pessimistic place I have ever lived in.
I moved to London from New Delhi in the winter of 2010. I had travelled to the UK many times before on work and leisure. And I already had family there. So I was not a stranger to this land. Yet I arrived, as many economic migrants do, with great hopes, many ambitions, excess baggage, the wrong clothes, and a general sense of foreboding. Being a tourist in London was one thing. What would living in it be like?
London, it turned out, is the greatest place on earth. And the rest of the UK, it turned out, wasn’t that bad either.
Over the last six years, I have travelled up and down this country, from Wales to Dover, from Portsmouth to Mallaig, from Derry to Much Wenlock. As I have gone around asking questions, filing stories, and poking my dictaphone into people’s faces, I have met, with rare exceptions, a procession of nice, funny, warm people who are all, it seems, preparing for the worst. This tinge of negativity, an afterthought of foreboding, if you will, can be sensed everywhere and in everyone. From postmen, tourist guides and publicans to, no surprise, Arsenal fans (Arsenal fans seldom celebrate a victory, because they know that with each win defeat is ever more imminent).
This national sense of negativity manifests itself in many interesting ways. Often, as I said before, it is expressed in a feeling that something horrible is going to happen. That whatever is being enjoyed now—sunny weather, Leicester City, Andy Murray—is fleeting and will soon be taken away from them.
Alternatively, it is expressed in the sense that the best is behind Britain. And that things can only get worse from here (unless someone intervenes. But more on that in a bit). Trudge up and down all over the UK and you will be hard-pressed to find communities (or individuals) which are actually optimistic about the future. Who expect life to be good, leave alone get better. This is a nation that has somehow talked itself into thinking that all it can do is cope. Or worse.
Young students seem pessimistic about their careers. Professors seem pessimistic about the future of academics. Museum curators seem pessimistic about the future of museums. The best football is behind us. The best TV and radio shows are behind us. And anything that doesn’t suck, Britain seems certain, soon will. Indeed, this is a country where researchers at the University of Lincoln recently discovered that even their pigs were pessimistic (really).
This also means that book stores are packed with ideas for well-being and happiness from overseas. So, in the wake of Marie Kondo’s best-selling books on how to use a Japanese approach to tidy up the house, come countless books on something called hygge, or the Danish art of coziness.
That is not to say that people walk around with long faces all the time. They don’t. Or that they only moan and don’t do stuff. That is also wrong. The London 2012 Olympics were a case in point. In the run-up to the Olympics, everybody in London prepared for the worst. Coffee shops, offices and underground trains abounded with conversations about how the traffic was going to be grim, the crowds unbearable, and the event a horrible embarrassment. The Olympics, as it turned out, were a triumph. It was a truly magical fortnight to be in London. The city bounced with goodwill and good cheer. If I could bottle that spirit and take it with me everywhere I went, I would.
I find all this negativity utterly astonishing. Perhaps it is because I am a fairly recent migrant and haven’t had enough time to assimilate the pessimism, but I think the UK is truly a wonderful place. This really is a fantastic country to live in. And I often think someone has to grab this country by its shoulders, give it a jolly good shake and a slap or two across the face and remind it of its wonderfulness. Sure, it has its problems. But then which country doesn’t? It has a crumbling public health system, gross geographical inequalities in income and opportunity, a welfare system that needs constant review, and so on. But none of these are unsolvable problems. Nationhood is a journey, not a destination.
In an ideal world, what the UK needs are politicians who are willing to take this country’s institutional competence, democratic tradition, good humour and considerable grit, and turn these things into a force for change and renewal. Instead, what it got over the last few years has been an intensely ugly, adversarial politics that has reached for this nation’s negative tendencies and insecurities and mined them deep and wide for political gain. Leaving a gaping, festering wound. Instead of “We have problems, but we can solve them", the UK got “We have problems, and let us all get bloody cheesed off at each other".
There isn’t a political institution in the country that is not in a state of confusion. Labour, Conservatives, and the UK Independence Party (Ukip) are all fighting each other and themselves. The economy, after a period of headless chicken-ness post-Brexit, has settled into a fretful simmer. Nobody really knows how or when Brexit is going to take place. All we know for sure is that something is going to happen at some point maybe.
Over the last few weeks, I have had several conversations with people on both sides of the Brexit debate. I am yet to meet anyone who is pleased with the outcome. If there ever has been a lose-lose outcome in a democracy, the Brexit referendum is surely one. Bremainers are upset because they lost. Brexiteers are happy they won, but enraged that they are often labelled racists and xenophobes. Everyone, in other words, is pissed off. They used to be pessimistic. Now they are pessimistic and pissed off. Britain has lost its mind.
Which is a pity, as far as I am concerned. Because Britain really is a great place. Over the last six years, I have met a Scottish bus driver in Stirling who refused to let me off the bus till he had made a full circuit of his route, showing me all the sights along the way. In Blackpool, I sat and worked on a novel in the basement bar of a dilapidated little bed and breakfast, as the lady who ran the place kept plying me with tea and biscuits so that I would write well. She did this in complete silence in order to avoid any distraction. At a pub outside Victoria, a man saw me peering through the window and reassured me that “we are winning in the rugby, mate". It was England versus Scotland, so I have no idea who he was referring to. At home some months ago, I watched a Cypriot-Greek-English builder eat lunch with his Romanian staff as he listened to songs from his favourite album: the Anil Kapoor-Madhuri Dixit starrer Pukar.
Three years ago at the Camden council offices near King’s Cross Station, the lady at the birth registry office told my wife and me that whatever happened to us, and wherever we moved in the future, my daughter “will always be a Camden girl. Tell her that." This was a few weeks after a room full of Jamaicans, a Peruvian, a Spaniard, an Irishman and a Filipino had helped bring my daughter into this world. I immediately slipped her into an Arsenal onesie. Boos rang out. The Tottenham Hotspurs-supporting Jamaican nurse frowned and said, “Take her out of that right now, or she is going right back in again." Three days ago, at a Christmas wonderland experience, during an arts and crafts break for the children, a shy little boy called Mohammed stood in front of a room full of people and belted out an original Christmas carol composition.
My point is that Britain is really quite a nice country, with a huge capacity for hard work, goodwill, great humour and abundant generosity. But who is going to tell the natives that?