A British Tragedy in One Act

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By Chris Patten. Published on Project Syndicate on June, 24, 2016.

OXFORD – Thursday night is said to have been momentous for those who campaigned to leave the European Union and turn Britain’s back on the twenty-first century. On that, at least, I can agree. As Cicero wrote: “O wretched and unhappy was that day.”

The decision to leave the EU will dominate British national life for the next decade, if not longer. One can argue about the precise scale of the economic shock – short- and long-term – but it is difficult to imagine any circumstances in which the United Kingdom does not become poorer and less significant in the world. Many of those who were encouraged to vote allegedly for their “independence” will find that, far from gaining freedom, they have lost their job.

So, why did it happen?

First, a referendum reduces complexity to absurd simplicity. The tangle of international cooperation and shared sovereignty represented by Britain’s membership of the EU was traduced into a series of mendacious claims and promises. The British people were told there would be no economic price to pay for leaving, and no losses for all those sectors of its society that have benefited from Europe. Voters were promised an advantageous trade deal with Europe (Britain’s biggest market), lower immigration, and more money for the National Health Service and other cherished pubic goods and services. Above all, Britain, it was said, would regain its “mojo,” the creative vitality needed to take the world by storm.

One of the horrors that lie ahead will be the growing disappointment of “Leave” supporters as all of these lies are exposed. The voters were told that they would “get their country back.” I do not believe they will like what it turns out to be.

A second reason for the disaster is the fragmentation of Britain’s two main political parties. For years, anti-European sentiment has corroded the authority of Conservative leaders. Moreover, any notion of party discipline and loyalty collapsed years ago, as the number of committed Conservative supporters dwindled. Worse is what has happened in the Labour Party, whose traditional supporters provided the impetus behind the big “Leave” votes in many working-class areas.

With Brexit, we have now seen Donald Trump-style populism come to Britain. Obviously, there is widespread hostility, submerged in a tsunami of populist bile, to anyone deemed a member of the “establishment.” Brexit campaigners like Justice Secretary Michael Gove rejected every expert as part of a self-serving conspiracy of the haves against the have-nots. So, whether it was the governor of the Bank of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the President of the United States, their advice counted for nothing. All were portrayed as representatives of another world, with no relationship to the lives of ordinary British people.

That points to a third reason for the pro-Brexit vote: growing social inequity has contributed to a revolt against a perceived metropolitan elite. Old industrial England, in cities like Sunderland and Manchester, voted against better-off London. Globalization, these voters were told, benefits only those at the top – comfortable working with the rest of the world – at the expense of everyone else.

Beyond these reasons, it doesn’t help that for years hardly anyone has vigorously defended British membership in the EU. This created a vacuum, allowing delusion and deception to blot out the benefits of European cooperation, and encouraging the view that the British had become the slaves of Brussels. Pro-Brexit voters were fed a ludicrous conception of sovereignty, leading them to choose pantomime independence over the national interest.

But moaning and rending one’s garments won’t do any good now. In grim circumstances, concerned parties must honorably try to secure what is best for the UK. One hopes the Brexiteers were at least half right, as difficult as that is to imagine. At any rate, one must make the best of the hand that has been dealt.

Still, three immediate challenges come to mind.

First, now that David Cameron has made clear that he will resign, the Conservative Party’s right wing and some of its sourer members will dominate the new government. Cameron had no choice. He could not possibly have gone to Brussels on behalf of his backstabbing colleagues to negotiate something he didn’t support. If his successor is a Brexit leader, Britain can look forward to being led by someone who has spent the last ten weeks spreading lies.

Second, the bonds that hold the UK together – particularly Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both voted to stay in Europe – will come under great strain. I hope the Brexit revolt will not lead inevitably to a vote for the breakup of the UK, but that outcome is certainly a possibility.

Third, Britain will need to begin negotiating its exit very soon. It is difficult to see how it can possibly end up with a better relationship with the EU than it has now. All Britons will have their work cut out for them to convince their friends around the world that they have not taken leave of their moderate senses.

The referendum campaign revived nationalist politics, which in the end is always about race, immigration, and conspiracies. A task we all have in the pro-Europe camp is to try to contain the forces that Brexit has unleashed, and to assert the sort of values that have in the past earned us so many friends and admirers around the world.

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All of this began in the 1940s, with Winston Churchill and his vision of Europe. The way it will end can be described by one of Churchill’s more famous aphorisms: “The trouble with committing political suicide is that you live to regret it.”

In fact, many “Leave” voters may not live to regret it. But the young Britons who voted overwhelmingly to remain a part of Europe almost certainly will.

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5 Comments

  1. Sebastian Galiani says:

    Hay muchísima incertidumbre sobre lo que va a ocurrir luego de la elección, tanto en UK como en el resto de la EU. Roger Noll, de Stanford University, hace una reflexión que comparto con ustedes:

    The Brexit vote has generated a great deal of unhappy and pessimistic reaction. But most of the discussion thus far has been divorced from the consequences of the process for exiting the EU. In brief, the process is designed to give the EU enormous bargaining leverage over any nation that elects to withdraw: the short deadline, the unanimity requirement for extending the deadline, the super-majority requirement for approving the withdrawal agreement if one emerges before the deadline, the approval requirements for a treaty between the UK and EU that would replace membership etc. All of this creates a huge disincentive to withdraw.

    EU leadership is, at least for now, taking maximum advantage of this leverage by demanding immediate notification and asserting that the terms of the treaties between the EU and the UK that replace the current EU agreements cannot be negotiated until after the UK leaves, meaning that maximum pain will be imposed on the UK — and maximum uncertainty on the entire world economy — if withdrawal is announced. But David Cameron and Boris Johnson both have said that they see no need for near-term notification of withdrawal, thereby side-stepping, at least temporarily, the EU’s bargaining advantage.

    A plausible prediction is that no withdrawal notification will be made before the next British election and that the next election will be about not just EU withdrawal, but also the secession of Scotland and Northern Ireland and the policies UK will adopt to replace the policy requirements that the EU imposes on its members. And, it is quite plausible that the Brexit advocates will lose this election, so the withdrawal notification will never happen. Admittedly this is not a guarantee that things will all work out — the US did, after all, fight a Civil War over the secession of the Confederate states. But the probability that withdrawal actually will happen is a lot less than one.

    • Sebastian Galiani says:

      Otro comentario en la misma dirección de la sección de comentarios tomado de The Guardians:

      With one fell swoop yesterday at 9:15 am, Cameron effectively annulled the referendum result, and simultaneously destroyed the political careers of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and leading Brexiters who cost him so much anguish, not to mention his premiership.
      How?
      Throughout the campaign, Cameron had repeatedly said that a vote for leave would lead to triggering Article 50 straight away. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the image was clear: he would be giving that notice under Article 50 the morning after a vote to leave. Whether that was scaremongering or not is a bit moot now but, in the midst of the sentimental nautical references of his speech yesterday, he quietly abandoned that position and handed the responsibility over to his successor.
      And as the day wore on, the enormity of that step started to sink in: the markets, Sterling, Scotland, the Irish border, the Gibraltar border, the frontier at Calais, the need to continue compliance with all EU regulations for a free market, re-issuing passports, Brits abroad, EU citizens in Britain, the mountain of legislation to be torn up and rewritten … the list grew and grew.
      The referendum result is not binding. It is advisory. Parliament is not bound to commit itself in that same direction.
      The Conservative party election that Cameron triggered will now have one question looming over it: will you, if elected as party leader, trigger the notice under Article 50? Who will want to have the responsibility of all those ramifications and consequences on his/her head and shoulders?
      Boris Johnson knew this yesterday, when he emerged subdued from his home and was even more subdued at the press conference. He has been out-maneuvered and check-mated.
      If he runs for leadership of the party, and then fails to follow through on triggering Article 50, then he is finished. If he does not run and effectively abandons the field, then he is finished. If he runs, wins and pulls the UK out of the EU, then it will all be over – Scotland will break away, there will be upheaval in Ireland, a recession … broken trade agreements. Then he is also finished. Boris Johnson knows all of this. When he acts like the dumb blond it is just that: an act.
      The Brexit leaders now have a result that they cannot use. For them, leadership of the Tory party has become a poison chalice.
      When Boris Johnson said there was no need to trigger Article 50 straight away, what he really meant to say was “never”. When Michael Gove went on and on about “informal negotiations” … why? Why not the formal ones straight away? … He also meant not triggering the formal departure. They both know what a formal demarche would mean: an irreversible step that neither of them is prepared to take.
      All that remains is for someone to have the guts to stand up and say that Brexit is unachievable in reality without an enormous amount of pain and destruction that cannot be borne. And David Cameron has put the onus of making that statement on the heads of the people who led the Brexit campaign.

  2. Sebastian Galiani says:

    After Farage, Johnson also resigned… say no more!

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