What I witnessed in this bustling suburb of London is by no means unique. Over the past three decades, London has slowly, but quite decisively, emerged as a centre of fine dining. The sheer array of good restaurants and well-stocked supermarkets has added to the city’s attraction as a global destination for foodies. Some of the Indian restaurants in London, for example, are undeniably better than anything in India.
The transformation from the mid-Seventies couldn’t have been more marked. Then, the choice before consumers was limited. The average supermarket confined its stock of fresh vegetables to potatoes, parsnips, carrots, mushrooms and Brussels sprouts, with peppers thrown in for variety. It was the age of meat-and-two-veg, fish and chips and the awful vindaloo dished out by the local Taj Mahal restaurant run by Sylheti immigrants masquerading as cooks. Wine was something strictly for the connoisseurs with accounts in Berry Brothers or the Oxford high table, and fine dining was a novelty.
If there is anything that explains the shift from dreary insularity to vibrant cosmopolitanism, it is Europe. The entry of Britain into the European Common Market in 1972 triggered a revolution in popular tastes and lifestyles. The easy, hassle-free availability of goods and services, and the sheer convenience of travel to what was earlier called the Continent redefined Britain. Yes, there always remained an England of languid summers, lengthening shadows and pretty villages in the Cotswolds, but that England was in danger of being overwhelmed by a new force.
Between the time Edward Heath took Britain into the Common Market and Tony Blair promised to sanctify the new federal constitution of the European Union through a referendum, the terms of fashionable discourse have changed. In the Seventies, there were stalwarts like Tony Benn from the left and Enoch Powell from the right who persevered with their initial opposition to Europe. But as the European Community yielded to the European Union, it became unfashionable to be Eurosceptic. Margaret Thatcher was the last politician of consequence who combined robust British nationalism with a fiery suspicion of French and German designs in Europe. Her successor, John Major, didn’t have the self-assurance to confront the integrationist tide very effectively. He tried to take a middle-of-the-road approach and was undone by a civil war with the Conservative Party. And Tony Blair’s New Labour project was crafted on a positive attitude to Europe, including acceptance of the euro.
Till the treaty of Maastricht triggered a new wave of European intrusiveness, it didn’t make much sense to be Eurosceptic. The new free-trade regime and the right of free travel and abode within the EU made life better, simpler and more convenient for both citizens and businesses. Yes, there was an undoubted shift of sovereignty from Westminster to Brussels, but it was not significant enough to outweigh the other advantages of being in the heart of Europe. The problems really began when, post-Maastricht, the French and Germans began the process of transforming the EU from a free-trade zone to a super-state based on common laws, a common currency, a common foreign policy and, one day, a common government.
From the Franco-German perspective, the evolution of Europe to a super-state was both logical and inevitable. Apart from the charms of nurturing a new multipolarity that could be posited against the US, the new EU actually involved the French and Germans disavowing a history of conflict. Viewed from Paris and Berlin, the new thrust of the EU was perhaps the most ambitious exercise in national redefinition ever undertaken by two nations. It was, as they perceived it, the new dawn of post-nationalism.
Last week, the champions of a new European order received a monumental blow. The elections to the European parliament that were held simultaneously in all the member-states didn’t lead to a victory of those anxious to dismantle five decades of integration. The elections were marked by profound apathy — the total turnout was less than 50 per cent — and a fierce display of localism. Rather than vote on European issues, the electorate in most member states saw the elections as an opportunity to tell their own ruling parties where to get off.
Yet, it was in the United Kingdom that the biggest political tremors were felt. For the first time since the Twenties, the combined vote of the Conservative and Labour parties barely crossed 55 per cent. To add to the political disorientation, the United Kingdom Independence Party, a formation that had been dismissed as a collection of cranks and gadflies, polled as much as 18 per cent of the vote and came precariously close to upstaging the Conservatives for the top slot in the East Midlands. By taking away a chunk of the Conservative vote, the UKIP denied the main opposition party the chance of putting the Blair government on notice.
The UKIP phenomenon marks a major departure from the staid politics of Britain. For many decades, the three mainstream British parties had worked out a cosy consensus on Europe. The Liberal Democrats were unabashedly pro-Europe, Labour was a little less so, and the Conservatives veered between scepticism and enthusiasm. Yet, despite these subtle differences, none of the three parties challenged the fundamentals of the EU. Campaigning on the theme of “No to the EU”, the UKIP broke the mould. They capitalized on the growing unease being felt in many quarters at the legislative excesses of the EU and its uncaring obliteration of national diversities.
It is easy to dismiss the good showing of the UKIP in last week’s poll as a one-off protest vote. It may well amount to that, but what should not be lost sight of is the essence of the protest. For the past two decades, political correctness has decried the importance of both nationalism and localism in the thrust towards a truly global market community. This condescension has triggered mega-bureaucracies obsessed with uniformity and regimentation. The EU is a classic example of the way the impulse towards free trade has been hijacked. It is a lesson that the World Trade Organization must imbibe.
As the world hurtles towards globalization, it is sometimes necessary to step aside and reflect on its unintended consequences. Traditionally, the right has stood for market capitalism and minimal government. But it has also stood for nation and culture. The EU experience has led to the legitimate desire for greater efficiency and competition being marred by the creation of monstrous bureaucracies that have promoted a very contrived cosmopolitanism. By forgetting its role as an upholder of national sovereignty and culture, the right lost sight of its historic responsibilities. It yielded ground to the fringe.
A federal constitution for the EU was never on the agenda of those who desired the convenience of easy travel and free trade. The EU of today is a far cry from the Common Market that made Britain a better place to live in. Before the backlash sets in, a way must be found to stop the bureaucracy of Brussels from destroying a noble objective.