When I first came to the UK to study in 2007, I planned to return to Serbia when it became more like the UK – meaning richer, more stable and less corrupt. Now that I am leaving the UK to move back permanently, the two countries have indeed converged, although in a way somewhat opposite to the one I imagined. Serbian economy has more or less stagnated since 2007, yet the country became more stable, although by staggering back towards illiberalism and getting all but tacit backing from the EU to keep its system of incompetent croonyism (on condition that it keeps the boat from rocking regarding Kosovo and wider regional issues). On the other hand, the last few weeks of my life in the UK have been characterised by accusations of racism of the two main political parties (including the worst ad hominem campaign in the London mayoral race), revelations of tax avodiance by key politicians, some electoral fraud by the ruling party, and, of course, the increasingly ugly battle around the EU referendum, in which the latest round of immigrant bashing (fairly common in conservative mass media already) saw them (us?) likened to snakes ready to bite Britain’s (ample, pasty-white) bosom. And then, in the background (and probably as a trigger) the financial crisis sadly reduced the incomes of most Britons (if not the richest ones).
Although there is still no comparing of the standard of living and political system in Serbia and the UK, and the fact that many of the issues in the UK did exist previously only to be aired recently due to tectonic movements in the economy and the Tory party, it is still a sad, ironic twist. The UK I entered as a fresher, was a country that was still basking in warm light of pre-Crisis idealism, albeit the one dimmed by the 9/11, Bush administration, war in Iraq and 7/7. As a foreigner in a university bubble surrounded by a large proportion foreigners, I felt the opportunity and the wish to integrate or at least build bridges through rather romantic and usually cornily-named made projects (e.g. “One World Week”), although the reality was that there was still very much a separation bewteen international and British crowds. In a university with a strong third-way ethos there was also a pronounced wish to help the disadvataged: it was a badge of honour to have been the first person from one’s family to go to university, people volunteered to help asylum seekers and generally did not regard people with benefits as scroungers. On the flipside, it was also an environment blinded by idealism it upheld. When I talked about how easy it was to start a war in Yugoslavia by driving a wedge between neighbours (now an election tactic here) and how a similar scenario may not be inconceivable here they shook their heads – “people here are different, more educated” was the general consensus. Sadly as it is still the case, many leftist student bodies were more concerned with running foreign affairs of the Warwick SU regarding Israel, and helping people in exoticised African countries, than by thinking about improving the lot of our neighbours in poverty-stricken Coventry and South Leamington Spa. Most of this idealism was indeed a product of our wide eyes and bushy tails, but it was also in the papers – New Labour and emerging “Big Society” Tory rhetoric did not divide people by their “net contributions” to the system and did not see Britain as best kept out of the world (especially with the Olympics buzzing in the background).
As I passed from the sunny bubble of a Midlands campus a bit south-west to a dreamier one for my postgrads, the tact did shift slightly: there was much more pomp, circumstance and grandiose architecture (all of which I like) but I also became aware of one silly undercurrent in Britain. I went to a meeting of a certain society to get free port on a Sunday night when I realised that the some people were more than happy not to sing from the cosmopolitan hymn-book that, until then, I assumed was the University (and British) standard. Three of us (with only 1/2 of a British person between us) experienced a shock while standing in an somewhat opulent wood-panelled room, in a company of dozen over-dressed barely 20-year-olds (and a sprinkling of pickled older characters), mostly male (or at least the ladies did not speak) and after 2 hours of listening how colonialism instilled deomcracy and freedom to India, 10 mentions of how backward the continentals are, and uncountable bottles of port, the room erupted in song, on the table singing “Jerusalem” and multiple patriotic verses. It was a sight to behold and since then I hoped to see it again as a West End farce.
As I started being a “net contributor” (and did not abuse the NHS or the benefits system) the crowd and system around me changed dramatically. There were more public school-y jokes revelling in how non-PC they were (some genuinely funny, many not) however some things that were jokes in 2012 (and in my circle were treated as such) became less and less joke-y. Many people in central London, earning multiples of average wage seemed to have only been able to understand why big companies and banks would protest being worse off, but could not understand when low-wage workers or, worse, “non-contributors” had similar openly self-preserving instincts. It seemed that with the death of the 90’s myth of unlimited prosperity people started taking stock of their stakes in the system and started building defences, mostly mental, from other sides. As you can increasingly see now, people claim that they simply “cannot understand” each other (junior doctors, Tories, etc.). Obviously, much of the lack of understanding was not out of incapacity or lack of information, but unwillingness to engage or hear, as well as fondnes of censuring the other sides. Much of the media no longer writes about what is going on, but only pushes stories where the people are reduced to their comical stereotypes: the benefit-scrounger, the rabid muslim, the job stealing foreigner, the petro-plutocrat , the red-cheeked posh-o, the whiney Scot, the evil banker, the looney-lefty etc. All of this is made more poignant and scary because it is happening in a rich country with fantastically diverse population, exciting history and love of collecting (gently or through force) all the best that the world has and had to offer.
Although I am certain that Britain will emerge from this darkened period stronger (in or out of the EU) it is important to be aware of what is going on. The strange benefit of those who have seen their social system collapse is the ability to see that social norms and belifes are an elaborate collective trick covering the unsightly messy truth of millions of individuals toiling, honestly or otherwise, against or for each other, to make their lot a bit better every day. In Ancient Egypt, the society conspired in belief that it was the Pharaoh’s magic that births the sun and floods the Nile, in Yugoslavia it was that the Party and Tito will deliver growth and equality to hard-working war-scarred nations: in the 2016 UK it is that the capitalist society and benevolent democratic state will make it all good and reward the hard-working according to merit. In each society there are those who want to expose the trick (for own or wider benefit) and history eventually chips away at the veneer. It is a natural cycle -however, disastrous conflicts occur when there is no longer the will in a sufficient majority of the society to belive in the trick and when there is no understanding between the various sides on what the next choreography will be. The answer, as in 1920s, when the British society was at another water-shed moment is E.M. Forster’s brlliant dictum “Only connect”.
It was a pleasure to be sharing this island with you for this long. I will be a frequent returnee (if the Border force still thinks I am worthy).
One thought on “The UK: 8.5 years since ”
Wow man, beautifully written and thoughtful piece. Truly the end of an era. Hope to see you in Beograd soon!