In this heavily South Asian borough, discussions about Brexit that dominated during the referendum season have been replaced by conversations about a more immediate reality of daily life: debt.
With a population that’s almost 38 percent South Asian, Newham is easily one of the most diverse boroughs in London. Not that anyone who knows London through Indian movies will have heard of it. It is neither South Asian enough like Southall nor posh enough like Kensington. But for the past 12 years, it’s been my home.
Last year, Brexit overlay every conversation. If you’d eavesdropped any discussion on the street, you were likely to have heard an argument either for or against Brexit. In my 12 years in Newham, it was my first experience where everyone — and I stress everyone — was motivated, involved, and offered an opinion.
This year, I haven’t heard Brexit discussions in the chicken shops or in the barbershops, nothing on bus No. 25, 86, or the dreaded 147. Nothing at Friday chai gatherings. Is it my narrow circle that limits my view? I think not, for the same circle engaged in long, feisty conversations about the pros and cons of Brexit last year. But now, debate about Brexit has been replaced by discussions of debt.
“This year, I haven’t heard Brexit discussions in the chicken shops or in the barbershops, nothing on bus No. 25, 86, or the dreaded 147.”
“Not sure,” my friend replied when I asked him about what is happening with Brexit. “I’ve got my own problems.” His problem: Uber. Recently, he took out a mortgage, got married, and then resigned from work owing to a professional disagreement. Now he relies on Uber for his daily wages. No more pro-Brexit, he is now an Uber-pro. There are 40,000 Uber drivers in London.
For those not concerned about the precarious nature of the gig economy, take your pick of problems: benefit cuts, raises in rents, hikes in car insurance premiums, increases in the price of bread, shops closing, rising travel costs, zero-hour contracts, and bloating bills. These are not ethnic problems; these are class problems — working class, immigrant class, one and the same, riding in tandem.
But all these problems — the vagaries of life — existed during the lead-up to the Brexit referendum, which took place June 23, 2016. So why the political hullabaloo last year but now, when the actual Brexit negotiations are taking place, such silence?
“So why the political hullabaloo last year but now, when the actual Brexit negotiations are taking place, such silence?”
First, the referendum offered direct participation. It offered everyone a chance to directly impact a core institution of the United Kingdom. All-important policies are discussed behind the bureaucratic door, with elections designed to allow the public one chance every term to select its representatives. Recently, some parts of the United Kingdom questioned the motives and intentions of their representatives. Is Scotland getting a fair deal within the United Kingdom? Does the south of England treat those in the north of England as second-class citizens? With representatives and their intentions in question, Brexit offered a chance to disavow the ideological boundaries set by political parties. One person, one vote. Every vote matters; everyone matters. No lost vote, no safe seat.
Second, information was simple. You were either for it or against it: Leave or Remain — that was the question. In some cases, both groups relied on the same “data” to reach opposing conclusions. This was because the data behind each “fact” were either complex, misrepresented, or plain wrong. But many people, I suspect, cared little about the “facts.” You heard and read what you wanted to hear and read.
Working full-time and with a family to support, you could still understand simple slogans like “take back control,” “no migration,” “save millions for NHS,” or “stronger together,” “stronger in Europe” — platitudes and propaganda. Yet easy to follow, easy to cheer, easy to support, and easy to defend.
At 10 p.m. on the referendum night, David Cameron, then the Prime Minister, and his team thought they, the Remain camp, were going to win. Cameron was planning to announce “life chances,” a post-referendum political strategy.
For Cameron and many others, the results brought a reality check. Britain voted to leave the European Union.
Since the referendum, Leave voters have turned into the social equivalent of a lab frog — a “thing” to analyze and dissect in order to understand its inner workings. Was it a working-class revolution? Are Leave voters racist? Or just afraid of immigration? Who was responsible for it? The north of England? Or the sexa-septuagenarians?
As I tried to make sense of the outcome of the Brexit vote last year, I realized that the answers are beyond a simple generalization. For the South Asians who voted Leave, it was multiple factors all pivoting on the hope that social and working conditions would improve.
— VICE UK (@VICEUK) September 16, 2016
Unfortunately for Leave voters, not much has changed since the referendum: long queues at hospitals, a welfare state that remains under scrutiny and “under review” and “evil migrants” — a category previously filled by Muslim immigrants but this time the Eastern Europeans — who continue to walk, work, and live in the borough. The promises, as well as the speeches by the Leave camp as early as on the night of the results, are simply forgotten.
“The promises, as well as the speeches by the Leave camp as early as on the night of the results, are simply forgotten.”
Brexit meetings continue in Brussels. What is being discussed? What is not being discussed? What is the difference between “soft” and “hard” Brexit? Which party supports it? Which party is opposed? Who is paying for Brexit? How much? And why? To know what is happening, you have to read newspapers and articles or follow journalists on Twitter. Who has time for that? Not my neighbors. Why? They are busy dealing with debt.
With ever rising inequality in London — the top 10 percent hold 62.8 percent of the wealth — every minute announces an urgent need for extra quid.
In City of God, St. Augustine narrates that when emperor Alexander asked a captured pirate, “How dare you molest the seas?” The pirate replied, “How dare you molest the world? Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with your great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor.”
The “emperors” of the United Kingdom use tax havens to avoid taxes; the petty “thieves” under report their income and profits to evade taxes. Tax avoidance is not a crime, but tax evasion is illegal.
To make ends meet, many people opt for a loan. The debt charity StepChange estimates that in the United Kingdom, severe debt problems grip 3 million people. Another survey estimates that the number of people facing severe debt problems to be higher than 4 million.
“In Newham, one out of every five people, about 20 percent of the population, is affected by some version of debt.”
In Newham, one out of every five people, about 20 percent of the population, is affected by some version of debt — statistically worse than any other part of London. And here comes Christmas, the time of the year when you make a choice: use a credit card to buy the toy your child desires, or just be an awful parent. No wonder the topic of debt surfaces on our Friday night chai gatherings instead of Brexit. .
If or when Brexit is negotiated, finalized, or even reversed by the politicians, I wouldn’t be surprised at the absence of protest or participation in my area. The zest of the political discussion is no more. People in debt bondage here in Newham, just like anywhere else in the world, don’t turn into active agents of democracy. Political deliberations prove difficult activity when financial decisions choke your purse and your mind.
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Asad Abbasi is a London-based researcher with a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. His academic interests are South Asian politics in Britain and the intellectual history of development