Rethinking Europe

UK: Amidst Chaos, Keeping Calm

Another Edward R. Murrow moment? Letter from a relaxed England as October Brexit approaches.


  • During the Blitz, Londoners carried on amid the nightly horrors of aerial bombing. I find a similar mentality prevailing as the summer of 2019 ends.
  • Outside political circles, Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament has largely been greeted with a yawn.
  • Most people in the UK have an abiding sense that the time for resolution has arrived.

During the German blitz in the Battle of Britain, correspondent Edward R. Murrow marveled at how Londoners stoically carried on amid the nightly horrors of aerial bombing.

In an obviously different context, I find a similar mentality prevailing in England as the summer of 2019 ends. The message I take away from London and the countryside is, “we’ve had three years of continuous inconclusive debate, now let’s get on with it and leave the European Union no matter what on October 31st.”

This readiness to move on, I think, is what Prime Minister Boris Johnson is banking on when he called for “prorogation” (i.e., a suspension of parliamentary debate) until mid-October. Outside politically active circles, his announcement has largely been greeted with a yawn. There’s been enough talking.

Chaos, ignorance or just indifference?

Of course, in the Brexit debate, many important issues cry out for resolution. Foremost is the Irish border. And what about the nearly 2.5 million EU born, non-British people living in the UK? I put that question to almost every person I met.

Whether in London or elsewhere, it’s clear that Britain would grind to a halt without foreign labor. Unemployment in the UK is at a 44-year low of 3.9%. In such an economy, there aren’t enough Brits to fill the jobs that exist.

East Europeans in the crosshairs?

And that’s where the east Europeans come in. Their labor has contributed to the UK boom. At present, there are about 250,000 east Europeans working in Britain. Without exception, those that I talked to intend to stay.

At a hotel/restaurant near Cheltenham in the Cotswolds, I discovered that 30 of the inn’s 40 staff are east Europeans. They were lured to Britain by high wages and the English language.

I spoke to five employees—from Bulgaria, Czechia, Latvia and Romania—and not one professed to be worried about Brexit. A Czech waiter said, “I’ve been here five years. Something will work out. I’m absolutely not concerned.” The Bulgarian barman sniffed, “they’re not stupid here. Of course, things will work out.”

During the three years since the Brexit referendum, uncertainty and the need to plan prompted many east Europeans to leave. In 2018, 76,000 departed but that outflow has diminished this year.

Any Johnson magic?

Outside the circles of Tory hardliners, there are few who believe that Boris Johnson, the new prime minister, can work any magic on the EU to win a better deal from Brussels and the other EU capitals.

That, however, is pretty much the prerequisite for Johnson’s prorogation of parliament to make sense. If that doesn´t happen – and the very strong odds are that it won´t – then what Johnson is left with for a general election is the argument to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn.

Already, Johnson and his hardline advisers in Downing Street No. 10 have gotten rid of those obstinate Tories – many stalwarts of Conservative Party politics – that have been yammering for so long about further options. They were simply eliminated from the Tory party ranks, but may in future run as independent candidates.

The time for resolution has arrived

Regardless of which side of the political equation of Brexit one stands on, most people in the UK have an abiding sense that the time for resolution has arrived.

After all, the blitz lasted only eight months. The Brexit conundrum has already droned on for more than three years.

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About Barry Wood

Barry D. Wood is a Washington writer and broadcaster. His new book is Exploring New Europe, a Bicycle Journey. His twitter handle is @econbarry

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