By Gareth R Roberts.
Right, let’s imagine that at the end of January, we leave the European Union with something akin to the withdrawal agreement brokered by the Prime Minister.
And I don’t mean in the few weeks and months that will follow, but in the years that will succeed our glorious attempt to ‘take back control.’
I’m going to consider a few scenarios, and I’m going to try to be as objective as I can.
Ok, it’s February 1st and we have left the EU. Prime Minister Johnson is on the telly and the front page of every newspaper lauding his own brilliance as King of the World and proclaiming that with the British spirit we will carry out the hard work that is needed to make us the greatest nation on earth.
Then comes the reality – because the first thing that the British government will have to do is organise trade agreements and, if one assumes that the withdrawal agreement remains substantially unaltered this, even employing David Davis levels of optimism, ain’t going to be easy.
The biggest problem any government is going to have is that the customs arrangements with the EU as per the withdrawal agreement, mean that effectively there is now a customs border down the Irish sea and that Northern Ireland will remain pretty much controlled by the rules of single market until and unless a way can be found to circumvent the need for checks at the border. As such the EU and the ECJ will still play a significant role in Britain’s trading arrangements, something that will make negotiating trading deals with other nations significantly more complicated.
Similarly, in assuming a Boris Johnson victory in a general election, one can also make a similar assumption that in Scotland there will be an overwhelming victory for the SNP who will have a genuine case for Indie Ref 2 – something else that will impact upon the ability of the British Government to negotiate trade deals. Think about it: if you are the government of Australia or India or anywhere else you will want to know if you are entering a deal with the whole of the UK as it currently is, or you will be entering a deal with the smaller nation of England and Wales, which has the inconveniently situated independent Scotland geographically attached to it, already seeking a place in the EU, with all the trading benefits that that might bring.
But, say the Brexiteers we have our friend in the White House. And, sure, fair play, Donald Trump has consistently said that there would be a ‘beautiful deal’ with Britain to be had. But, this is the same Donald Trump who is currently being impeached, the same Donald Trump who regardless of the outcome of the impeachment proceedings will face his own electorate in November 2020 – who knows what the result will be then. But, again, giving the benefit of doubt in favour of the Brexiters, even if Trump wins in 2020 it won’t be because he has promised a great and favourable trade deal with the UK, it will be because, once again, he has pursued a policy of American isolationism – ‘America First’ – after that, anything Britain can expect to get from a second term Trump administration will be minimal; whilst, of course, if the Democrats win, all bets are off – they will undoubtedly prefer to deal with the EU than with an independent UK.
This isn’t project fear, this is a cold hard evaluation of the difficulties that Britain is going to face post Brexit – because, rather than us becoming some kind of wonderful Sovereign nation, ruling the waves and spreading our brand of religious and civic life to the heathens of the world, which is how some seem to think Britain will become once we’ve just ‘got on with Brexit’, we will be viewed as a rather strange little nation (even stranger and smaller if Scotland removes itself), with an uncertain future and a dodgy past.
We will become an oddity. The country that voted to leave the most successful and powerful international institution in the world and managed to lose a quarter of its territory in the process. Weird.
So, what will then happen?
Well, with Britain bogged down in a desperate attempt to obtain trade deals with just about anyone who will deal with us, our economy is bound to face a certain degree of uncertainty – hardest hit will be manufacturing. Britain will have to change its economy substantially if it is to survive. Being kind to the Brexiters, I suppose, freed from the regulatory burdens (as they would describe them), of Brussels, a Johnson government will attempt to create as much wealth as it can by remoulding Britain as a low tax, minimal regulation economy. The City of London will be key and some people may well get very rich on the back of this, but what about those in the North? Or those dependent upon the state for their housing, their health, their education? In short, most of us: well, our futures will be uncertain.
So, how will this effect our politics?
I can see two potential scenarios – but, in the spirit of objectivity and fairness, I’ll add a third.
The first potential scenario is that in about a decade, the people of what is left of the UK will be looking covetously at Scotland (or in the alternative, physically moving there), and asking for reintroduction into the EU – at that stage, people like me, will be forgiven for banging our heads against a wall in exasperation and lamentation of what will be known as the lost decade.
The scarier scenario, is that if post-Brexit there is not the emergence of an English elysium, but rather Britain becomes an economically depressed little oddity, the Brexiters, now firmly ensconced as English Nationalists (particularly after Scotland’s departure), will blame Europe and the ‘liberal elite’ for the disaster and introduce increasingly draconian measures to silence Parliament, the judiciary, experts, even our new and ageing monarch King Charles III will be derided as being against the ‘will of the people’ as they go about the task of turning Britain into a socially regressive country with a democracy that is dominated by an increasingly centralising executive. In other words, having been given their teeth by Brexit, the right wing will continue to ascend reaching increasing levels of ugliness as they rip through the socially liberal elements of British public life hard won over the last hundred years.
The last scenario, which I’ve added, is the one the Brexiters sort of want us to believe will happen – and it’s this: that, after Brexit, our politics will return to what they were with the Tories and Labour happily trading blows and taking it in turns to form governments (clearly they would hope for more wins for the blue side than the red), as the people of Britain contentedly carry on, albeit with less Europeans in their midst and an increased sense of well-being because they’ve reclaimed their democracy, taken back control, if you will.
Is this realistic?
No, and it gives me no pleasure to write this – Brexit has changed Britain forever. The issue or Europe will not go away – in future, just about every aspect of public policy and politics will be seen through the prism of Brexit – every success will be lauded as ‘look how wonderful this is, wouldn’t have happened if we were still in the EU’ and every failure will be blamed squarely at our absence from the European decision making forum. The political parties will not return to ones based loosely upon the class divisions of the early twentieth century, but instead coalesce around the issue of Europe.
This will not go away. The next decade will not see Britain either return to what she was, or rise to claim some kind of prominent role within the world. This isn’t ‘remoaning’ this is just dead eyed realism.
And that is what frustrates me most, because by then, by the time the fallout from Brexit will have filled all of our lungs, my children will be adults, whilst I, just like David Cameron, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and everyone else who brought this about will be coming to the end of our own inglorious careers.
Will it all have been worth it? Will the society created on the back of a dodgy rhetorical promise of ‘taking back control’ be any better for my children?
Not a chance.