Strange start to (un)happy New Year

FS Aijazuddin

This year has begun with a collapse of imperial proportions. The Great Britain, at the cusp of its empire in the 19th century, ruled over 24 per cent of the world’s population spread over territories covering 26 per cent of the world’s land mass. Today, it seems incapable of governing itself. 

The Brexit Referendum in June 2016 to remain within the European Union or to divorce the Great Britain from 27 EU partners has exposed fault lines that threaten the structure of its much-vaunted parliamentary democracy. Queen Elizabeth II may reign over the Great Britain and Northern Islands, but who rules? A Parliament comprising representatives elected from 650 constituencies? A 22-member Cabinet? Or the 17 million people who voted to leave the EU in a referendum and whose slender majority (52:48) has been petrified by Parliament into an Eleventh Commandment?

The Brexit vote has a subliminal root. The British Isles, centuries ago, were once a Roman colony under Julius Caesar. 

Pt Jawaharlal Nehru reminded his guest, the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan (a classicist), of this and impressed him by asking whether the Romans had ever re-visited their colonies. In those days, they did not need to. The colonised sought to become Roman citizens, just as in the 1950s and 1960s, immigrants from the subcontinent and the West Indies sought the nationality of their erstwhile masters. Ironically, today’s Britons are scurrying to apply for Irish passports to ensure a visa-free access to Europe. Britons are ingesting, in Edward Gibbon’s words, ‘that most incurable of poisons … the bitter remembrance of lost glory’.

This past week has seen an incumbent government led by Theresa May, who voted against Brexit as a minister and then spent the past 18 months as prime minister advocating it, lose a vote on her Brexit plan by the largest margin since Westminster took itself seriously. Yet, she remains in power. A day later, she wins a vote of confidence in her premiership. 

What options does a Britain chained to the Brexit decision have? A second referendum? A chastened majority now wishes it, except that it will be as ephemeral an expectation as Churchill’s ‘triumph of hope over experience’. A new deal with the EU? The EU has no intention of applying another sugarcoat to a deal that PM Theresa May could not persuade Parliament to swallow at the first attempt. Brexit without any deal? Many in Britain share apprehensions that an independent Britain might become an isolated Britain, detached from Europe and only semi-attached to the United States. 

The US government is in a self-inflicted state of shutdown. Its hapless employees are being coaxed into returning to work without pay. China, having waited a century to recover Hong Kong, has warned the world that it will not wait 100 years to reclaim Taiwan, using force if necessary to achieve reunification. 

The World Bank group has been decapitated with the precipitate removal of its Korean president, Jim Yong Kim. In his place could be an India-born former CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, sponsored by the First Daughter Ivanka Trump. Transvestites have made history by dipping in the Ganges at the Kumbh Mela. Dr Manmohan Singh will be visiting Pakistan finally — albeit disguised as Anupam Kher in the film, The Accidental Prime Minister. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, after only three appearances out of 31 sittings of the present Parliament, has threatened to attend a fourth. And Pakisan army chief Qamar Bajwa meets the business community of Karachi in a one-to-many consultation without the minister of finance, State Bank governor,  or anyone in the civilian government responsible for the economy. 

Could there be stranger beginnings to this unhappy New Year?