In a speech at West Point the NATO affairs adviser to the US President declared that Britain had ‘lost an empire and had not found a role’, he also said that ‘Britain’s attempt to play a separate power role – that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States is about played out’. The President in question was Jack Kennedy, the adviser was former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and the year 1962. While it is reassuring to see that some ‘traditions’ do not change, it is surely time for Britain to move on.
That time may now be upon us.
Brexit has proven the most vexacious political project of recent time. It is, to quote Churchill (his view on Russian foreign policy) a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. We have never known what Brexit really was or where it was going, and the most confused of all were its promotors. The tortuous path to a deal of sorts is now close to an end, for better or worse.
I don’t want to go into the detail of any deal that may soon materialize or whether it will hold (it will become law!) but I do want to stress that Brexit is highly significant to our age because it is both the faultline and crucible of so many issues of our time. With the year ahead upon us, it is time to take stock of these.
Brexit was the first significant fracture in the globalized world order. Britain led globalization in the 19th century and London was arguably its epicentre in the 20th and early 21st centuries. That this phase of Brexit is now closing suggests that the process towards a new world order is underway (as per my TED Talk), but equally the fact that Brexit has taken so long suggest that the process towards ‘something else’ will take a long time.
There are many other fractures in the globalized world order to come and to speculate, I can think of Turkey’s exit from NATO, China’s scramble for Africa, the Emirates and India becoming a new ‘power’, the growing impact on geopolitics of climate damage, and the even deeper irrelevance of bodies like the WTO (World Trade Organisation).
Brexit has also fractured history closer to home. On hearing that the vote in the north east of England had turned for Brexit in the early hours of that fateful vote, my first thought was that the long history of the United Kingdom and Ireland had been smashed.
Scotland will most likely become independent, and the lesson of Brexit is that this process should happen in such a way that bolsters Scotland’s economy, and preserves close and open ties to England, Wales and in particular Northern Ireland. In turn, there is now much talk about a united Ireland, though if referenda on this question are to take place, then at very least this needs to be preceded by much greater interlinking infrastructure between Ireland and the North, and most importantly a Marshall style plan for Northern Ireland’s economy and society.
One of the errors in the immediate aftermath of Brexit was the failure of European leaders to grasp the import of Britain’s vote and the possibility that the factors that motivated Brexit might
ripple across Europe. The past five years saw the rise of radical politics across Europe, though this has largely been contained by the centre.
With cyber wars being waged above, below or around us, Europe is still behind the US and China in terms of what Emmanuel Macron calls ‘strategic autonomy’ (effectively the need to be self sufficient in AI, cyber capabilities, 5G and so on), but the Brexit process has shown and burnished its strengths in two respects. One is the formidable heft and expertise of European technocracy as exemplified by Michel Barnier (who surely deserves a knighthood) and more importantly by the rise of the concept of solidarity, where the EU has at nearly all times spoken with one voice on Brexit. Like the crisis management lessons learned during the euro-zone crisis, the lesson of solidarity is something that needs to be diffused across EU foreign policy.
On a somewhat related note, Brexit could have been cast as a struggle between populists and technocrats, both in the sense of the struggle between Whitehall and Westminster, and London and Brussels. It recalls Yeats’ line in ‘The Second Coming’ that ‘the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity’. This has been a major theme of our times – laws, science and democracy under attack from morally free wheeling populists. The failure of Donald Trump to be re-elected and the many failures of Brexit, suggest that the ‘brave’ are regaining their conviction, and that the ‘worst’ need more than intensity.
In this context, my final thought is what happens to the Brexit Dream? There is some comfort to be had in the fact that Britain is good at reinventing itself, especially it seems after wars with the French! It is likely however, that the task of filling out the template of Global Britain will fall to a new generation of politicians, and potentially activists from outside politics. It is telling that one of the most socially impactful public figures in the UK this year is the footballer Marcus Rashford whose literacy and school meals program have repaired the shortfalls in government spending. Professional politicians should take notice.
Theresa May often stated ‘Brexit means Brexit’. At first, it appears a meaningless comment, but the longer Brexit has gone on and become its own (il)logical universe, the wiser ‘Brexit means Brexit’ sounds. It is however, time to move on.
Have a great week ahead,