Watching David Cameron announce his resignation following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last Thursday elicited a curious mixture of feelings. The Prime Minister has always been good at looking the part when responding to momentous events, and this was a performance exquisitely calibrated to invite empathy flow in his direction from those watching. Then I remembered that he was the architect of his own Waterloo. However, unlike Napoleon’s last desperate roll of the dice, Cameron’s final stand was largely driven by the smaller matter of internal party management. As so often in his career, manoeuvres for short term tactical gain won out over the strategic longer game. Over such trivialities can hugely consequential ramifications ensue, and we can’t even begin to imagine what longer term impact this will have on Europe. As for Cameron’s gift for presentation, was he anything other than a PR man in the end? The sober analytical side of me told me that I should be contemptuous of Cameron and where he had led the country to, and yet my feelings were more complicated. Maybe this weakness made me the real compassionate conservative.
The turmoil precipitated by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last Thursday currently appears like it might even exceed some of the prognostications of Remain’s “Project Fear”. Many things have marked the intervening period, including a rush on the part of many to educate themselves on the implications of Brexit, a retreat on the part of some chief Leavers from mendacious claims they made during the campaign, and the implosion of the two parties that have dominated British politics for a century. The tragedy for the Labour Party is that, while they didn’t set in motion the chain events that have brought us to where we are today, it is they who are under greater existential threat. Whether it is because of their more ideological plasticity, a greater instinct for survival, or it is simply the case that “the facts of life are conservative”, as Thatcher famously remarked (I’d like to think not, but let’s at least consider the point), there is always going to be a Conservative Party.
The Labour wars have now seemingly entered a stage that can only be described as a battle to the death. It can’t be avoided now that Jeremy Corbyn cannot command unity within the Labour Party, and in the pyretic political climate nationally, they face the threat of being eaten alive by Ukip as the country drifts rightwards. Corbyn has also rightly attracted criticism for not merely campaigning tepidly to remain in the EU, but there are also grounds to suspect his own office sabotaged Labour’s pro-EU platform. The suspicions that Corbyn and his ilk have nurtured in relation to the EU are to a degree well founded, but to declare the EU to be nothing other than a capitalist plot, as some on the left do, is little more than tinfoil hatted crassness. However, it is understandable why Corbyn’s supporters are digging in. His elevation to the leadership is an opportunity that might never come around for them again. And they might be justified in their revulsion at certain members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, many of whom have never truly been brought to account for voting to bring death and destruction to Iraq, an issue that will never go away so long as Britain’s elected representatives have an eager propensity for supporting military action when the opportunity arises. It is also not certain how many members of the PLP are truly cognisant of the intellectual and economic con job that the government’s austerity policy represents, and how many still acquiesce at some level in the Thatcher settlement that devastated swathes of Britain in the 1980s, both of which contributed to the despair that drove the Leave vote. At this point, a split even worse than that which occurred in the 1980s appears inevitable, but that is an issue for another post.
Returning to the topic at hand, the vote to leave has excited levels of disappointment and anger at odds with the supposed transactional (and no more) relationship the British were assumed to have with Europe. It also devastates the notion that the political project of “Europe” is an artificial, unwieldy construct with no purpose in the 21st century. The incongruity of the EU operating as both a vehicle for the pan-European ideal and as another failed adherent to the “Washington consensus” has made it difficult for many to rally to its cause in recent years, as though the former couldn’t be sincere if the latter represented a significant part of its character. Yet the outpouring of dismay now the EU is in mortal danger is not synthetic or ersatz. Internationalists across the continent will weep if it is destroyed.
But what will happen next? The past week is unprecedented in my lifetime, but that hasn’t restrained me from embarking on the ultimate mug’s game, and that is trying to predict the political future. To assist me in this task, I have borrowed the Kübler-Ross model, the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), and adapted it as necessary to plot the series of events Britain (and Europe) is now experiencing. However, it should be noted that not everybody is experiencing these stages at the same speed.
I would argue this phase has arguably concluded. The result was a jolt to both sides of the debate last Friday morning. It is curious to hear of people imagining it wouldn’t happen, even though polling had indicated it was always a strong possibility. There are stories of “Regrexiteers” indicating that they merely wished to make a protest, as though they didn’t envisage the dramatic implications of the decision they made. Even some Remainers who tended towards the catastrophist tendency are a little taken aback by everything that’s happened since, especially the reaction of the markets and the pound’s sharp drop. Events of epochal significance, once properly digested, will usually knock anybody back.
This is the phase we are currently in, as people try to make sense of what has happened, and contemplate what the future now holds in store. This is not such a problem for many Leavers, who are content to let things unfold. It’s perhaps a different story for those with buyer’s remorse. And it is especially a problem for the politicians who drove Brexit, as they will be compelled to take ownership of the situation they have created. Remainers are expressing a variety of emotions – despair, fear and anger among them. Some are advocating a second referendum, which, even though this referendum was technically non-binding, is surely politically unfeasible. Incandescent, boiling rage would ensue. Most people are still trying to compute where they stand in the world, a particular problem for those who feel unmoored by the result. Needless to say, members of the Labour Party, and to a lesser degree the Conservatives, will be confused for quite a while.
One of the reasons that walking back from the referendum result is difficult is that Britain’s European partners are already moving with speed. They moved pretty quickly towards the clarity stage because they had already made some plans to deal with Brexit, unlike the British. The Remain side didn’t because they didn’t want to create the impression they were contemplating defeat, and it wasn’t their obligation to do Leave’s work for them. Leave made no plans because they apparently don’t have any. The rules of the game will become apparent once Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered, which the remaining EU nations want to get on with, while Britain pleads for more time. It is reasonable for some sense of equilibrium and governability to return to Britain before embarking on that process, but the cynicism of the Leavers in seeking to prevaricate and delay needs to be called out. And it will be.
Bargaining also features on my suggested Brexit progression, but I’ve slipped it in at No. 4. After triggering Article 50, the serious business of withdrawal begins. It is difficult to predict what will happen at this stage, because there will be multiple actors with multiple agendas operating. It has been noted that Britain is severely lacking in trade negotiators, so the British team will need to be seriously beefed up for a start. Politically, it is unclear what exactly Britain will want and what they can get. It will be a government fronted by Brexiteers, that much seems likely, but they have a pie in the sky wish list that will likely be given short shrift by the EU. For Europe’s part, there will be some combination of good cop and bad cop in the dynamic of their stance. They won’t want to harm a significant trading partner too much, so they will probably get a softer time than Greece have endured. However, they will have to go a bit hard on them, pour encourager les autres. And not forgetting this is also an opportunity to pursue the project without a notoriously difficult partner to contend with.
Brave New World
Here I must confess to being so unsure as to what the long term future will be, I hesitate to make a firm commitment. But I do see the broad outlines of two potential outcomes, neither of which point to Britain reaching the sunny uplands for thirty or forty years, and both of which involve the breakup of the nation – leading to an independent Scotland and a rump UK. One is a complex outcome in which there may be some rebalancing of the economy leading to some long term benefit. Or rather, the creation of some new winners along with some new losers. An outcome in which both sides of the debate will claim vindication, akin to the way that econometric data never really changes anybody’s worldview or intellectual position on economics. A reduced Britain and Scotland that manages to engage amicably with the world, evolving new identities and outside relationships. Neither better or worse than before on balance. Just different. The other scenario is one reflected in the initial market reaction, a long term decline from which there will never be a complete recovery. A future land beset by economic woes that will be reflected in the aggravation of those social problems and racial tensions that already exist, and which already appear to have been exacerbated since the referendum. A realm that will be vulnerable to a hard right takeover, with the added danger of a potential descent to civil war in Ireland. A place where outsiders might fear to tread.
Of course, it could all have been so different last week had Remain sneaked home. It has to be remarked that Britain already had a fantastic deal in Europe. All sorts of opt outs that Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron had negotiated over the last 35 years, an array of privileges that no other country enjoyed. Yet the narrative of the last few decades has been a weird obsession with the regulations that make the single market a level playing field, and the absurd impression that Britain is a passive actor that has indignities inflicted on it by an EU that has taken the nation hostage. If Britain tries to reapply at some point in the future, most of those goodies previously enjoyed won’t be on the table. It has long been established that voters don’t really do gratitude. It appears whole political systems don’t either.