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Letter from London—Brexit, Sadiq Khan, and “BoatyMcBoatFace”     Print Email
By Michael White, politics writer for The Guardian

MichaelWhite2016What’s going on in Britain this cool spring? Even busy people around the world are vaguely aware of a few things going on in the north east Atlantic’s rainy archipelago. Some seem confusing.

Perennial underdogs, Leicester City, won English football’s coveted premiership league, an astonishing sporting feat against odds of 5000 to 1 and relative poverty. Queen Elizabeth, usually a byword for discretion, was caught on camera saying that Chinese officials servicing President Xi’s state visit last year had been “very rude.”


Oh yes, and Brits are engaged in a strangely self-absorbed ritual to decide whether or not to sever their 43 year ties with the European Union (EU) for reasons not clear to most foreigners. Voting in the referendum will take place on June 23.

All true enough. But then the busy but conscientious citizens of the world may have noticed a seemingly contradictory headline. When not smearing themselves with insular woad, blue war paint of choice for ancient Britons greeting Julius Caesar’s armies, the London contingent of Brits had managed to elect as mayor of their booming capital the Muslim son of a poor Pakistani who came to Britain to drive a bus and raised eight kids in public housing in tough South London. Khan’s mother was a seamstress, he himself a teenage boxer. Good Bronx stuff.

This was not meant to happen. Facing Sadiq Khan, a civil rights lawyer turned Labour parliamentarian, for their party’s nomination last year, was former Blair cabinet member, the telegenic Tessa Jowell. By crafty positioning between party factions, the pugnacious Khan – 45 years old and just five feet six inches in height - beat her. Facing him as the Conservative (Tory) candidate in the May 5 contest to succeed Boris Johnson as London mayor, was even more telegenic Zac Goldsmith.

The multi-millionaire son of the financier, Sir James Goldsmith, is tall and blond, good-mannered to the point of diffidence. Like prime minister, David Cameron, he is a polished product of Eton College, whose century old dominance of elite UK politics (“the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”) was supposed to have ended with the successive election of three Tory premiers of humble, meritocratic origins: Edward Heath (1970) Margaret Thatcher (1979) and John Major (1990). To everyone’s surprise, in globalized Britain Eton has bounced back. In 2016 even the Archbishop of Canterbury is an Etonian.

As with New York’s relationship with the Democratic party and for similar reasons, well to do liberals and poorer citizens usually join forces to make London a basically Labour city. But colourful Boris Johnson (guess where he went to school?) displayed enough cheerful showmanship to win it for the Tories twice between 2008 and 2016. Unlike lowly Leicester City at the start of the football season Khan was always the frontrunner.

But desperation prompted Goldsmith’s minders (few blamed the candidate personally) to run a campaign full of insinuations against Khan’s “radical” past and his association on political platforms with men who had made pro-Islamist comments ( or would later make them years after Khan last spoke to them). Though Johnson and Goldsmith had also met such people, David Cameron joined the “radical” trope. To students of White House politics it sounded like a campaign from the Republican playbook. Little wonder that Goldsmith’s strategist had been admiringly called “Britain’s Lee Atwater” after the Reagan-Bush strategist who repented his excesses before an early death from cancer.

In any case, Atwater tactics didn’t work in London on May 5. Khan, a practicing but secular Muslim, protested that it was him, not Goldsmith, who had been denounced in mosques and threatened by militants for progressive political stances. Much as Bill de Blasio won City Hall in New York city, Khan duly triumphed by 1,310,143 votes to 994,614, 56.9% on a 45% turnout. Among his first acts in promising to govern for “all Londoners” were visits to a cathedral and tea with the chief rabbi.

What does that mean for the June 23 ballot on Brexit, as possible British exit from the EU is known? It is hard to be sure either way. London is booming as it has rarely done since 1914, its population heading towards a record 10 million, its skyline full of cranes (affordable housing is Khan big challenge as the “luxury apartment” market for dubious overseas buyers finally cools), jobs aplenty and 200 languages spoken on its streets. Little wonder that it is content to back a street-smart second generation immigrant with a good back story.

But London is not Britain, increasingly it is seen as a separate city state, and mistrusted as such by many living beyond its immediate hinterland, the busy M25 “beltway” which circles it. Why does London get so much new public investment? Why does it suck in so much talent, British as well as immigrant? Why do its homes cost several times more than elsewhere, allowing high paid Londoners to buy the pick of rustic second homes ? The city generates vast taxes, but is resented.

So “Down from London” residents (or DFLs) is a term of abuse for some truculent locals. They are precisely the sort of people who live in handsome villages with few Muslim residents (except the popular 7/11 store owner who delivers the daily newspaper) or in picturesque seaside resorts where EU stock conservation policies have hurt the fishing industry. Many such voters are tempted to the Brexit camp, much as “left behind” voters in Middle America are to Bernie Sanders or, more likely, to Donald Trump. Second home ownership runs as high as 40 per cent in several such places, one of which, St Ives in Cornwall, recently staged its own referendum. It voted to cap “DFL” holiday home ownership. No wonder that Boris Johnson, star of the Brexit media campaign, chose to launch the Brexit battle bus in the Cornwall peninsular where inequality of the Martha’s Vineyard kind is painfully apparent.

Johnson himself is far from “left behind,” as unlikely a champion of resentful non-London Brits as Donald Trump is of angry-and-poor white America, though he deploys anti-elite language as shamelessly as the billionaire property developer, albeit with much more wit and style. Uneasy about the charge that many voters regard the Brexit debate as a surrogate for hostility to strains caused by high levels of immigration (they have a point) he even paraded his own “cosmopolitan liberal” credentials last week. He did so after EU Remain campaigners protested the xenophobic tone of their opponents, but before one Brexit group deployed Trump footage in a nasty video.

There are some good grounds for saying that EU is in all sorts of trouble - refugees and the stagnant Eurozone being the most pressing - yet presses ahead with vexatious bureaucratic and judicial regulation on lawnmower engines and votes for prisoners, anti-enterprise without being very pro-consumer. But ever more business groups and entrepreneurs who have joined the politicians, generals, diplomats and world leaders in offering advice, are saying that the balance of risk, economic and geo-political, is entirely against Brexit’s brave but vague promises.

Some polls put Brexit narrowly ahead, but deeper drilling suggests the fundamentals are moving in favour of Cameron’s gamble, a symbolic renegotiation of Britain’s terms to avoid further “integration” with the Eurozone core, followed by a quick vote. When Michael Gove, the divided cabinet’s sharpest Brexit adherent, suggested Britain could prosper outside the EU like Norway or Albania there was laughter before someone pointed out that Albania is seeking to join the EU. When the “cosmopolitan liberal” Johnson derided Barack Obama’s elegant intervention in April as the expression of U.S. self-interest by a “half Kenyan” the Clown Prince (himself New York born) was being too clever by half. The president was not the only person to slap him down.

As the language coarsens on both sides (Brexit criticism of EU foreign policy errors in Ukraine now makes one a “Putin apologist”) concerned business groups protest, much as Washington Post editor, Marty Baron, does at home, that excessive abuse is storing up trouble ahead. For the ostensible reason that he did not want to engage in a “blue on blue” direct slanging match with Gove or Johnson, Cameron has opted to face Nigel Farage, leader of UKip, Britain’s Tea Party, on TV. He can batter him without inhibition.

Needless to add, Mr. Farage is a child of privilege too, though not quite an Etonian. It is his willingness to play the anti-immigrant card which has made more fastidious Brexit campaigners keep him at arm’s length. As with candidate Trump, the greater the passions he generates in some quarters the more it alienates middling swing voters. But, as elsewhere in Europe - and the US - the groundswell of resentment against immigration is the most potent ingredient in the anti-globalization debate. If played ruthlessly it might carry Brexit to victory.

That is what made Sadiq Khan’s victory against an unsavoury campaign in London a welcome relief for liberals, cosmopolitan or otherwise. “ Trump’s Nightmare” as The Ecomomist put it. Khan duly turned down The Donald’s offer to exempt him from that Muslim ban.

A referendum which invites voters to express frustration with government or their own lives is always a gamble, as was demonstrated this month when an online poll was staged to name a new polar research ship. The UK authorities wanted to name it after the eminent naturalist and ever-modest TV star, David Attenborough, 90 this month. In frivolous mood more voters opted for “Boaty McBoatface” but were overruled. It won’t be like that if they vote Brexit.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian.