Well, we’ve gone and done it. After 43 years, Britain has voted to “take back control” and leave the European Union. The question on everybody’s lips in the United (for now) Kingdom this morning is “what next”?
It’s a strange question to be asking after months of campaigning; in truth, it should have already been answered by the “leave” campaign, but they never quite managed to get around to it. All the British people were given were vague assurances that everything would be alright once Britain regained control over its destiny.
But as the financial markets crash, the pound sinks, the British union creaks, and David Cameron announces his exit from 10 Downing Street this morning, it doesn’t feel like anybody is in anything approximating control. We have stepped off a cliff. And with no concrete plan for next steps agreed, we’re in for years of uncertainty as Britain figures out how to cut itself out of the European fabric.
This post-Brexit turmoil had, of course, been foreseen by the experts, who had spent the entirety of the referendum campaign warning against a rash decision to leave. No matter; facts and logic were roundly beaten by emotion.
“I think people in this country have had enough of experts,” spat Michael Gove, a leading Brexiteer, when pressed over the unanimity of professional opinion against an exit. How right he was. But while such populism helped to get his campaign over the finish line, can it help him to chart a course for the much more difficult race ahead?
One thing is certain: they’ll need the help.
Britain’s ability to cushion fiscal shocks is now limited. Britain’s current account deficit is already gaping, and a downgrade to its credit rating – a distinct possibility post-Brexit – would make that debt harder to front. There are also dozens of trade deals in need of re-negotiation, what with Britain having ceded control for trade negotiations to the European Union in the 1970s. It will take years to sort it all out, something that will be of no comfort to markets, or the people hoping to work in them.
For a nation that has supposedly regained control, Britain is now even more reliant on the kindness of the strangers it has just snubbed. Once Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon is invoked, triggering the secession process, it will be left to the countries to which Britain has just flipped the bird to determine precisely to what degree our wings will be clipped.
I’m guessing the rump of the European Union will be in no mood to dish out favours. Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders have already renewed callls for referendums in their countries. The EU will need to set a tough example to any other European countries feeling emboldened by Britain’s gamble. If one more country were to go, the whole union could fold. Brussels will lead efforts to squeeze Britain until the pips squeak, even if it runs counter to rational short-term interest.
What’s worse, it’s not just the European Union that’s now in question; Britain’s is looking pretty rickety this morning. The Scots voted heavily to remain, and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon was quick to hint this morning at a second referendum on Scotland’s relationship with the United Kingdom. And what of Northern Ireland, a newly non-EU country faced with an Irish EU neighbour to its south? What will the re-imposition of a border do the hard-won peace there? These are hideously ugly questions.
So, how did we get here?
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The easy answer is David Cameron. Had the soon-to-be former prime minister not promised a referendum, angry Britons cry, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Of course, had he not promised the referendum in 2013, he might not have made it to the election in 2015, let alone the referendum of 2016. The vote on Europe had to come at some point, and it was probably better that it came sooner rather than later if the Conservative government was to get anything done in their mandate. He rolled some expensive dice and lost.
With the government now stopped dead in its tracks so early into its majority mandate, and with the country now looking at itself through a badly cracked mirror, it will be up to the discredited political class to pick up the pieces and earn back the people’s trust. It’s going to be a tough slog.
Part of why people now feel so disconnected from their politics and politicians is the gap between rhetoric and action. It’s one thing to promise, it’s another to do. The leave campaign promised a post-Brexit land of milk and honey. Anything less will leave jaded voters with an even emptier view of their politicians at a time when the country can least afford it.
A lack of straight talk – about immigration, about the dislocative effects of globalization, and about the benefits of European membership – is what brought us to the precipice. If migration stays high, and the economy continues to lay low, the resulting populist anger will be something even Nigel Farage and his barrels full of snake oil can’t control.
As bleak as the short to medium term picture now looks for Britain, the long-term view could yet be worse. And if hard times do come to pass, there won’t be anywhere or anyone for Britain to crawl back to ask for a second chance.
Happy Independence Day everyone.
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