What will Brexit Britain look like?
At 11 o’clock PM Britain will leave the European Union on Friday. Big Ben won’t bong – it’s too expensive – but the UK will part ways with its defining economic and political relationship of the past fifty years. In Parliament Square, under the silent clock, Nigel Farage, the country’s most influential populist politician since Oswald Mosley, will headline a Brexit celebration event. The invitation to the rally asks people to “come in good voices to sing patriotic songs and bring as many Union flags as possible, to wave a display of patriotic pride.”
Since the 2016 referendum, Brexiteers have sought to characterize leaving the EU as an act of emancipation – a day of independence for a country that once ruled the largest empire in history. In March 2019, when Brexit was supposed to take place for the first time, Boris Johnson resigned from the government. “It was supposed to be the week when church bells rang, coins struck, stamps issued and bonfires lit to send freedom beacons up and down,” he lamented. Johnson summoned an image of loyal farm laborers’ weaving their way through the moonlit lanes of Sussex, half-blind with Brexit chants singing at the top of their voices and beating the hedges with sticks. Now that that has happened, Brexit Day will be muted by comparison. As Prime Minister Johnson is expected to celebrate with a low-key party in Downing Street. Some remnants have pledged not to manipulate a new government-ordered fifty pence coin to mark the occasion. It all seems pretty gloomy – that is to say, truly British.
But what will Brexit Britain actually look like? For now, the British will cease to be EU citizens until the end of 2020, however, the country is officially in “a period of transition” as it negotiates a future trade relationship with the bloc, so nothing will change immediately. At first glance, the second phase of Brexit talks might look like the first: the EU will play hard, led by its main chief negotiator, Michel Barnier of France, and there will be periodic spasms in Westminster, as Johnson’s government knows how to react. But a larger and more subtle process of divergence will have already started. Brexit has always been fascinating to me because it contains a genuinely difficult question: will a country like Britain be in a better position to try to meet the challenges of the 21st century deeply rooted in an international bloc, or on its own? , with greater freedom? maneuver and, in theory, listen to its people?
In 2000, Dani Rodrik, professor of economics at Harvard, described for the first time what he has called since his “Theorem of Impossibility,” in which the nation-state, democracy and global economic integration are mutually incompatible. “We can have at most two of these three things,” he wrote. Britain’s accession to the EU for forty-seven years has turned out to be a case study of the impossible. In 2016, a slim majority of voters chose what they perceived to be democracy and sovereignty over the economic logic of being part of a huge supranational market. Last October, at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, I listened to Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott, former prime ministers of Canada and Australia, say that Brexiteers often like to argue: that they don’t There is no reason why the UK, with its economy, its history, its language, shouldn’t be able to thrive on its own, like Japan or South Korea or New Zealand. Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave campaign manager and now Johnson’s senior advisor, often quotes David Deutsch, the famous physicist, who sees the nation-state as better equipped to correct himself in a complicated world than a large, slow entity like the EU “Correcting errors is the fundamental problem,” Deutsch said. “And I cannot predict that the EU will improve much in this regard.”
But it is striking that these arguments are almost always made by those who wish to reduce the state or, in Cummings’ case, to rethink it completely. Long ago, it was common for British left-wing politicians, like Jeremy Corbyn, to denounce European integration as a project that mainly benefited the richer countries in the bloc and their biggest corporations. But, in the 21st century, the EU has always stood up for human rights, action on climate change, digital privacy and the rules-based international order, even when it has proved inconvenient for its citizens. members. Last week, with an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons and Brexit Day in sight, the Johnson government removed an amendment to protect unaccompanied refugee children arriving in the UK from legislation that will finally free Great Britain.
Margaret Thatcher was one of the architects of the EU’s single market. It positioned Britain as a point of free trade entry into the more regulated economies of mainland Europe. You don’t have to be Henry Kissinger to see that the obvious path for Brexit Britain is to try to become – in one form or another – an offshore competitor. Earlier this month, Sajid Javid, the chancellor, a former derivatives trader for Deutsche Bank, told the Financial Times that “there will be no alignment” with many European goods regulations in the future. Since the 1980s successive UK governments have had a remarkably relaxed attitude towards foreign companies playing a vital role in the economy or possessing critical infrastructure. The UK’s busiest airport, Heathrow, is owned by an international consortium led by a Spanish company and the Qatari government; its busiest port, Felixstowe, is owned by a Hong Kong investment firm. On January 28, the government agreed to Huawei, the Chinese tech company, to help build Britain’s new 5G mobile network, despite objections from the U.S. government and other security partners. Brexit is often characterized as a populist rebellion against the forces of globalization, but the reality of life outside the EU means they are likely to only accelerate. Distinctive things, British and public – like the BBC – will be vulnerable. This week, the national broadcaster, threatened by streaming services and ideological opponents of the Conservative Party, announced it would cut 450 jobs in its news division.
Brexit Britain will not be unrecognizable. Since 2017, mainly under the influence of Michael Gove, Johnson’s winger in the referendum, the country has embarked on an ambitious environmental program. Last year Britain passed legislation to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Like Theresa May before him, Johnson plans to inject billions of pounds into the National Health Service, the latest great edifice of the British welfare state. Last December, the Tories won their decisive electoral victory with the help of constituencies in the north of England, which have traditionally voted Labor but supported Brexit. Since then, the Johnson government has vowed to ‘level’ economic prosperity in the UK by signing ambitious infrastructure projects, such as HS2, a high-speed rail link that is expected to cost over £ 100 billion.
As far as I know, the signs point to some sort of hybrid nation: more welcoming to foreign capital but more hostile to foreigners; greener but more conservative; freer on the world stage, but weaker. There will be shiny totems – a few new trains and hospitals – but the general safety net for most citizens, in terms of rights and benefits, will be cut. Brexit has always been a mythical endpoint, which means governments will be able to justify a wide variety of things on its behalf. It’s the perfect project for Johnson, the most flexible of prime ministers. More than anything, the business seems unstable. The most obvious tensions will be geographic. In December, people in Northern Ireland and Scotland voted overwhelmingly for anti-Brexit parties. This month, the UK’s decentralized assemblies in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh all rejected government legislation to remove Britain from the EU – votes that were ignored in London, which is not in itself a Brexit city. As Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote in the Guardian Sunday, “While Johnson likes to speak of Jan. 31 as ‘this pivotal moment in our national history,’ there is neither a settled nation nor a shared history.” Britain was a deeply divided country before 2016, and that led to Brexit. What will be the next break?