BREXIT AND ITS CONSEQUENCES FOR EUROPE’S CENTRE

Trieste, Italy

Britain’s current decline is relative rather than absolute. The average citizen of today’s Britain is far richer than was the average citizen at the time of the British Empire. Other advanced economies have suffered from years of slow growth while Britain’s science and medical research boom. But the evidence of decline is too evident to ignore. Britain’s core political institutions are in a state of decay. In the past, big crises have produced great leaders, such as Lloyd George during World War I and Winston Churchill during World War II, but today’s politicians range among the mediocre. In a recent survey a quarter of Britons say they would vote for a far-right party because the mainstream parties have let them down. Economic growth has been slow since 2015 despite low interest rates and a fall in the value of the pound. Productivity growth has been marginal and real wages have been falling for a decade. A growing proportion of the population is trapped in a cut-throat economy, in which the young fear to be much worse off in future than their baby-boomer parents.

This is not the first time Britons have been gripped by fears about decline. In the 1890s they worried that America and Germany were replacing Britain as the workshop of the world. In the 1950s they worried that an old-fashioned establishment was strangling the forces of progress. The 1970s saw a particularly fierce debate, as the country was plagued by strikes and three-day weeks. But three aspects make today’s worries especially troublesome. The first is disappointment. For the past 40 years Britain felt that it had put decline behind it. Margret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and David Cameron cemented the new consensus that economic growth, deregulation and privatisation were the key to permanent wealth increase. This was a huge benefit to the new elite that could pride itself that it was more progressive than the old one while stuffing its pockets with gold. But this new consensus also suffered from mounting problems. There was the problem of one-off windfalls: selling off council houses was wonderful for the tenants and the Treasury, but left Britain short of social housing. There was the problem of regional imbalance. The boom in financial services poured money into the south-east while the north remained in economic trouble. This Thatcher-Blair consensus finally ended with the financial crisis of 2008 and the Brexit vote of 2016.

The second problem Britain is facing is the lack of collective agreement in deciding to leave the European Union. Brexit was driven by a particular combination of despair about the way the old consensus had left so many people behind and of optimism that by freeing itself from the EU Britain would be able to reignite its growth engine. The despair was probably justified, but the optimism definitely not because most of Britain’s problems are internally generated. There is nothing about membership in the EU that prevents British entrepreneurs from trading with the rest of the world. Indeed the EU has just signed a trade deal with Japan and is negotiating with the USA about lowering trade barriers. Most economists predict that any version of Brexit – hard or soft – will depress Britain’s growth rate. If Britain leaves without a deal, the consequences will be dramatic. The Brexit secretariat is already drawing up contingency plans to stockpile medicine and food and put electricity generators on barges in the Irish Sea. The third problem is that of compounded error. Irresponsible politicians may well feed the people’s appetites for populist and nationalistic decisions. The Brexit debacle has already injected the poisonous charge of betrayal into the heart of politics. Tony Blair said that politics at the moment is about either riding the anger of finding the answer. The trouble is that fresh answers are hard to find and the anger is mounting daily.

BRITISH WORLD WAR II INTERNMENT CAMPS FOR ENEMY ALIENS ON THE ISLE OF MAN: HUTCHINSON INTERNMENT CAMP

Agi and Norbert at their wedding in Vienna

The husband of Agi, Norbert, an excellent Austrian football player, managed a last-minute escape to England with the help of his sister-in-law, Käthe in a domestic household. Unfortunately as a fit young “enemy alien” he was considered a threat to British military security and interned on the Isle of Man after the outbreak of World War II.

Norbert Katz as a young man

What were possible escape routes out of Austria? As a reaction to the threats against Jews in Germany and Austria and the resulting refugee crisis the US President Roosevelt initiated an international conference on the refugee problem out of Germany. From 6 to 14 July 1938 the Conference of Evian took place in Evian-les-Bains in France. Representatives of 23 countries took part. To allay fears that the United States would demand great concessions, the invited nations were told that no country would be expected to receive a greater number of emigrants than was permitted by its existing legislation and all new programmes would be financed by private agencies and not public monies. The purpose of the meeting was to facilitate the emigration of political refugees from Germany and Austria, not Jews. Despite extensive media coverage the conference ended without achieving significant results. On the contrary, the participating countries stated that they would on no accounts change their existing refugee policies. Representatives of the threatened Jewish communities were deeply disappointed by the results. The governments that participated were still unwilling to solve the problem and fell back on palliatives. The more difficult the tasks became, the smaller their will to deal with them efficiently. An Intergovernmental Committee, headquartered in London, was established to improve coordination, but it was still in a preliminary stage of development when the war broke out.

MAID SERVANTS IN ENGLAND: AUSTRIAN JEWISH WOMEN IN EMIGRATION 1938/39

Käthe as a young woman in Vienna

My great-aunt Käthe, born in 1901, was a bank clerk at the Wiener Bank Verein and had lost her first husband, Poldl Kluger, soon after the wedding, victim of a lung disease, in illness that was wide-spread in Vienna at that time. When she lost her job at the bank in 1924, being tall and slim, she made ends meet by accepting occasional jobs as a fashion model. After the civil war in 1934 and the coup d’état of the Austrian fascists, Käthe, an assimilated and agnostic Jewess and a socialist, realised that sooner or later she would have to flee Austria. Being single facilitated the decision-making process. She diligently prepared for her escape from the Nazis by learning English and acquiring cooking skills. She then applied for the position of cook in a wealthy English household and landed in Dover on the 7th of November 1938. Having arrived at a safe haven in England with a domestic permit, she tied to get out of Austria as many of her family as possible. She worked in 25, Warkworth Gardens in Isleworth in Middlesex and managed to convince her generous and understanding mistress to hire her younger sister, Agi, as a maid in the same household and by that offered her a last-minute escape from deportations from Viennese collection points in the 2nd district to the concentration camps of the Nazis. So let’s look at this special rescue model, a window of opportunity for young Jewish women from Austria in 1938, which was closed in 1939.

Käthe’s employment as a bank clerk at the “Wiener Bank Verein” 1924

 

Käthe’s passport stamped with a “J” for “Jude”

Detail of the passport

Around 20,000 Jewish women, three quarters from Austria, fled in 1938/39 to England with a so-called “domestic permit”. This was a work permit for foreign domestic staff which British employers could use since the 1920s to alleviate the chronic shortage of maid servants despite otherwise very strict immigration restrictions. A considerable percentage of these women were not actually domestics by trade, but had only been able to enter the UK on permits for domestic work. They found themselves in a relationship of dependency to their mistresses, but work as a maid guaranteed a livelihood because domestic servants were the only ones who had permission to legally work in England. Yet they were officially not allowed to leave the areas of these private households. The majority of male refugees with a permission to enter the UK needed an affidavit from an influential personality or an institution.