This Septic Isle
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in Ceylon Today on October 7 2019
I am planning a trip to the UK and am somewhat trepidatious about what I might encounter there considering the increasingly tense situation arising out of the uncertainties surrounding Brexit. When I was there last year, I was pleasantly surprised by a number of things. I was staying in a very ethnically mixed area. One rarely saw a white face and when one did, it spoke Polish. Despite the heterogeneous nature of the population, what used to be considered as British values generally prevailed. People queued in an orderly fashion at the post office and held doors open for other people. If one held a door open one would be thanked. If one hesitated at a pedestrian crossing indicating one might be thinking of crossing, vehicles would immediately stop. They would even stop if one was not on an official crossing. People thanked bus drivers when alighting and the drivers reciprocated.
I only saw the native English in central Croydon. They were generally elderly, frail, wheelchair-bound. I was astounded at the number of grotesquely obese people – of all ethnicities. Health is a major anxiety. I have just finished reading John Bew’s excellent biography of Clement Attlee, a mild-mannered, quiet man who transformed Britain (for the better) when he was prime minister for the first years of my life. The chancers who run Britain today have destroyed the welfare state, driving poor sick people to suicide.
There were stories on the news every day of knife attacks. Children were being stabbed to death for no reason. A pregnant woman was stabbed to death in her own home near to where I was staying. Adults were attacked for the sole reason of being Muslim or for speaking a language not English. An Indian customer in Lidl (a German-based supermarket chain offering a cornucopia of culinary delights at reasonable prices – how will Brexit affect that?) was berating a rather alarming tattooed assistant possibly of Baltic origin. Soren rarely smiles but is always polite and competent. When we were walking to Lidl we passed a severely burnt-out car which made one think of downtown Damascus. I was vaguely aware of a small, middle-aged, white-haired Afro-Caribbean man veering over to our side of the pavement. He shoulder-barged my wife and then complained that we had attacked him and demanded an apology. This was humbly given but did not stop him shouting filth at us.
Encounters with homeless beggars can be problematic. Some appreciate what they are given and understand when one is unable to donate. Some can be aggressive and abusive. There were so many hapless people shivering in the bitter cold, it was difficult to keep enough cash about one’s person to help all of them. Many of them have mental health problems and austerity policies have meant cuts in services. We are now told that austerity is over and Boris Johnson is promising jam for everyone from the Magic Money Tree. All that suffering was for nothing. It is very difficult to earn enough money to buy or rent a home in London. Not all those sleeping rough are unemployed. Many people who are not actually homeless are living in squalid conditions.
Successive governments have continued Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 policy of selling off social housing. While there may have been some merit in council tenants being able to buy their own homes, the policy has caused severe social problems. An analysis of Freedom of Information data showed that that more than 40% of council houses sold in London are now privately rented. Around 466 individuals or companies have the leasehold for at least five former council homes each. Councils have spent £22m a year on renting back properties they once owned to use as temporary accommodation.
The Leave vote in the EU referendum was, to a great extent an expression of disgruntlement. People were unhappy about many things caused by the policies of the UK government but they saw fit to blame the EU, which was pouring millions in subsidies into deprived areas like South Wales and Sunderland. A post-Brexit UK will not replace these subsidies.
Disgruntlement is exacerbated now by uncertainty and the poison encouraged by the current government. Political analyst Ian Dunt writes: “There is a genuine concern about the country, a fear for its future, and a sense that their understanding of themselves as Brits is going through an upheaval. It is political and personal. And then there is the background thrum of abuse, like a distant drumbeat, forming an awful soundtrack to a horrible process…We’re all sick of hating one another. People yearn to go back to a country that wasn’t severed in half in this way. But they can’t get back there. The map is lost.”
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve was ejected from the Conservative Party for opposing a No-Deal Brexit. He writes in the Daily Mail: “I have been astonished to hear ministers talking up the possibility of civil disorder if we do not leave the EU on October 31… The message coming from Downing Street is we have to leave by October 31 or there will be riots.”
The party of law and order is using the incitement to violence as a cynical strategy. Brexiteers seem determined now to stir up hatred and to incite violence. Nigel Farage said the civil service will be looked at: “Once Brexit’s done, we’ll take a knife to them”. Apologists for Farage claimed that he merely wanted to cut civil service numbers. However, Dominic Hornberger, from Birmingham, was charged with grievous bodily harm and possession of a knife in a public place at Westminster Magistrates’ Court after he stabbed a civil servant outside the Home Office. The 29-year-old accused was also carrying a banned CS spray and a ferret. Professional contrarian Brendan O’Neill of the Spiked organisation (funded by the Koch brothers) said there “should be riots on the streets” to get the UK out of the EU. Boris Johnson said we must not give in to the “betrayal” of the “surrender bill” which blocks No Deal.
MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death while campaigning against Brexit by a right-wing fanatic shouting “Britain First”.
In the Commons last week, many female MPs talked about the death threats they were still receiving from Leave supporters. Johnson was asked to apologise for the immoderate language he was using. Far from saying sorry, he said it was “humbug” for a Labour MP to request he temper his language, to try to protect MPs’ safety. He said the best way to honour Jo Cox, was to “get Brexit done”. MPs left the chamber in tears.