History suggests Brexit will be a graveyard not just for today’s crop of politicians but also for generations of leaders to come.
Britain’s departure from the EU is on a par with the Irish question that proved so spectacularly unmanageable for a succession of some of the greatest figures in British political history and caused lasting damage to reputations and careers.
“We live in an age of great events and little men”, a young Winston Churchill wryly noted at the turn of the 20th Century. Brexit is one such event. Britain’s current misfortune is the absence of political figures with the stature and capabilities to manage the process of leaving the EU and coping with its aftermath.
As in Hotel California, there is a difference between checking out and leaving. The clean break so close to the hearts of the hard Brexiteers is a fantasy. Geography is immutable and explains why countries trade most with their neighbours. Reconciling Britain’s need for a close relationship with the EU’s single market with the vision of Britain as a global trading nation is impossible.
Of course, some politicians will claim that they can square the circle and succeed where Theresa May has failed. These aspiring leaders should first reflect on the lessons of recent years: they show that the forces of history have the power to throw up intractable problems that politicians fail to anticipate. The catalyst for Brexit is a perfect example.
David Cameron initiated the 2016 Brexit referendum with two goals: to prevent traditional Tory voters from shifting to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and to reduce to manageable levels the Conservative Party’s deadly schizophrenia over Europe.
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Cameron and the supporters of this move had no idea of the Pandora’s Box that they had opened. Nor did they see how easily they could lose control of the agenda they had set.
Of course, Cameron presented the referendum in different terms: as a path to widening EU reforms beyond consolidation of the Eurozone.
He had a point. There was considerable merit in starting a debate about the role of member states that did not want to be part of the single currency but wanted to keep the broader benefits of EU membership. After the near meltdown of the Eurozone in 2011, the EU’s focus was on greater integration among members of the single currency to avoid a repeat.
Yet behind Cameron’s positive words was the threat to other EU countries that Britain could end up seeking an existence outside the EU if it could not find an appropriate “new settlement”.
This was red meat to the champions of Brexit who now, thanks to UKIP, were drawing on the public’s concerns about high levels of immigration rather than traditional Eurosceptic thinking about national sovereignty and accountability of EU institutions.
Raising the possibility of leaving the EU unleashed grievances in society that had their origins in long-standing economic disruption and inequality. Of course, these had much less to do with the EU than with the inability of successive governments to renew Britain’s industrial base, increase productivity and build a sustainable export-based economy. The EU was an easy whipping boy.
However, Cameron and his advisers did not see this coming and were not prepared for the fallout. Nor did they recognise that there would be no appetite among other EU countries for limiting freedom of movement. Perversely, the threat of Britain leaving united the EU into making few concessions to keep it inside the Union. To show flexibility was to provoke copycat movements in other member states and risk the EU breaking apart.
The net effect has been to multiply divisions within British society that have made the Conservative Party and the Labour Party dysfunctional. As a result, government and parliament are unable to cope with the Herculean challenge of severing the ties of EU membership while keeping the country stable and prosperous.
The problem is only going to become worse.
As the Brexit process goes to its next stage regardless of whether it is “hard”, “soft” or simply delayed, it will create more divisions and irreconcilable problems. As a result, the issues of Scottish independence, the Irish peace process and preventing the value of the national currency from sliding even further are certain to re-emerge.
To have reached this point is a remarkable outcome for a country that just 150 years ago was a world leader projecting influence to all corners of the globe…
Britain has reached this point because of a collective failure by the political class to understand the historical processes at work in today’s world as the global balance of power shifts to accommodate the rise of China and India and a traditional strain of isolationism re-emerges in the United States. Having focused on developing its financial system, Britain has fallen short of taking the lead in this domain while losing its trade and industry niche. The transatlantic pillar on which the Brexiteers wish to build their vision of a “global Britain” no longer exists in the form they imagine. Washington’s calculus about the value of the UK as an ally has also changed considerably.
To advocate leaving the EU, you must have a strategy for doing so. That requires understanding properly what you are leaving and what you are very unlikely to gain. Despite their obsession with the EU, the Brexiteers understand remarkably little about it.
How did they not see that insisting on leaving the customs union the issue of the Irish border to become the largest obstacle on the path to an orderly Brexit process? Once again, Britain is struggling with the legacy of imperial rule in Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement had put those demons to bed.
Who among the current crop of Conservative politicians knows anything about the deep and lasting divisions from over a century ago in the Liberal Party over the Irish question? These led to the formation of the Conservative and Unionist Party in 1912 to oppose William Gladstone’s determination to grant Home Rule for Ireland.
Cameron should have done. Over 100 hundred years later in an effort to slow momentum towards a second Scottish referendum, he put “Conservative and Unionist Party” on ballot papers for the 2016 Scottish Parliament election. The purpose was to demonstrate to the 55% of the Scottish electorate who had voted to remain in the United Kingdom in 2014 that the Tories stood for preserving the Union.
If the political class had a consciousness of history, it would see that the divisions of the past can be self-perpetuating if not properly managed for lack of insight into historical integration processes. Brexit will inevitably create new divisions on top of old ones. It requires much more than unpicking 40 years of ties that have bound Britain to Europe. The task is nothing less than re-establishing a place for Britain in the world – but with fewer political, economic and diplomatic tools to do so.
The omens are discouraging. Since the referendum, the government has made a series of tactical errors in its efforts to take Britain out of the EU. These include notably the ill-conceived decision to pursue a “hard” Brexit leaving Britain outside the single market, the customs union and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. This was inevitably going to collide with the realities of the Irish border.