By the end of July 2019, Britain will have a new prime minister. Brexit has torn the country apart ever since a referendum on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union gave Brexiteers a narrow 52-48 per cent win.
Boris Johnson is the favourite to succeed Theresa May as prime minister next month. He will face off against Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt who won the second highest number of votes from Conservative Party MPs after several rounds of ballots. The winner will be picked by 1,60,000 Conservative Party members.
The Conservative Party’s membership is made up largely of white, old men. Whoever they choose as Britain’s next prime minister, he will be the country’s third PM in three years (David Cameron, Theresa May and the new incumbent). Tortuous negotiations await him. The Tories are split down the middle. Labour leads the opinion polls and its hard-Left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will seek to paralyse parliament over Brexit negotiations with the EU in the coming months in the hope of forcing an early general election.
Johnson, if he does get picked by the party as PM in July, has vowed to take Britain out of the EU on 31 October 2019, with or without a deal. He says he won’t pay the EU the $50 billion exit bill, negotiated by Theresa May as Britain’s legal dues to the EU on withdrawal.
All this begs the bigger question: Will Brexit lead to a confident “Global Britain” ready to trade with the rest of the world as an independent entity, unshackled from the EU’s bureaucratic regulations? Or will it shrink to “Little England”, back to the isolated island it was before it set off on its colonial quest in the 1700s?
Britain has broken with the rest of Europe several times in the past. Its historic break with the Vatican in Rome during the 16th century Protestant Reformation set it on a different Anglican path from most of continental Europe. Knowing Britain’s false sense of exceptionalism, French president Charles de Gaulle time and again vetoed its membership in what was then the European Economic Community (EEC), Britain finally gaining entry only in 1973.
The association was always going to end badly. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher raged ceaselessly over Britain’s financial contribution to the EU. Tony Blair refused to give up the sterling pound and join the euro in 1999. The British electorate was divided for decades over EU membership. Brexit was inevitable though few in June 2016 thought the referendum on withdrawal from the EU would deliver the verdict it did.
A post-Brexit Global Britain, however, is a fantasy that the British are fond of indulging in. As The Economist wrote cuttingly: “The British establishment has always been ambivalent about the European project, partly because it was on the winning side in the second world war and partly because it has historically seen Britain as a global power, not a continental one. The ambivalence curdled into hatred in some sections of the Tory party as the EU acquired more of the trappings of a state. The Conservatives are profoundly divided over what to do about this crisis. Broadly speaking the Right of the party wants to complete the Thatcher revolution by deregulating markets still further and slashing taxes. For them, leaving the EU is a prerequisite to turning Britain into an offshore Singapore.”
What awaits post-Brexit Britain therefore is not the status of a global power but the prospect of Little England, a free trade entrepot with a relatively small but modern, post-industrial economy. In 1707, Scotland— till then an independent nation—joined England to form the United Kingdom. The Scots in 2016 voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. Scottish nationalists are now seeking a second referendum on Scottish independence (in the first, in 2014, a small majority of 55.3 per cent voted to stay in the UK).
The Scots have no love lost for the English. The sentiment is mutual. Post-Brexit, there is a possibility that Scotland could vote in a new referendum to secede from the UK and apply to rejoin the EU as an independent country. Ireland is already an enthusiastic member of the EU and has benefitted from the EU’s financial largesse. Scotland will watch keenly on how the Brexit negotiations unfold in Brussels and the House of Commons over the next few months. Scottish independence and the unravelling of the UK is no longer as far-fetched a prospect as it once was.
Before 1707, the UK did not exist. England and Scotland were small and poor nations on the periphery of northern Europe. Colonialism and slavery, both enormously profitable enterprises, brought the English and Scots together in a union that, 312 years later, with the colonial and slave dividend gone, makes less sense than ever.
The fear of a shrunken England is shared by The Economist: “The link with Scotland is already looser than it has been for decades. There are very few Scots in the upper ranks of Britain’s two main parties. England and Scotland backed opposing sides in the Brexit referendum. A (potential) Prime Minister Johnson might snap the link entirely, with his air of Eton-Balliol-Telegraph entitlement and his Bertie Woosterish mannerisms. Among Scottish voters he is even less popular than the hapless Mrs. May.”
Brexit could ironically then be the trigger that returns England to its original and modest island status.
The author is an editor and publisher