It’s been a while since I last discussed the Brexit; way back in mid 2016 I suggested that the very notion of a Brexit was both bad economics and a misreading of history, but the British voters disagreed with me …
Now, Philip Stephens, the associate editor and chief political columnist of the Financial Times, takes a pessimistic look at how the Brexit might unfold:
“Familiarity,” he begins “is a distorting prism. All too easily the extraordinary becomes the unremarkable, the aberrant the commonplace. This is what has happened in Britain following the referendum decision to leave the EU. The attempt to wrench the nation out of its own continent has triggered a national nervous breakdown. Only the British cannot see it … [and, now] … Open plotting against an enfeebled prime minister, civil war in the cabinet, a ruling Conservative party riven by faction, a Labour opposition led by a life-long admirer of Fidel Castro, parliament imprisoned by the referendum result, paralysis at the heart of government — all have become the stuff of everyday politics. Britain was once a sturdy, stable democracy. Anger and acrimony are the new normal, as likely to elicit a weary shrug as incredulity.“
“Historians,” he goes on “will scratch their heads in wonder. These are truly extraordinary times. Britain is upending the economic and foreign policies that have set its national course for half a century. Nothing in modern peacetime matches the upheaval. The impact on the nation’s prosperity, security and role in international affairs will be felt for a generation and beyond. Unwrapping decades of integration is a task of huge complexity … [and] … yet Theresa May, the prime minister, dare not set out her preferred course for a post-Brexit settlement lest she be toppled by her own Tory MPs. Instead she pleads with Germany’s Angela Merkel to tell her what Berlin might offer in terms of a future relationship. The humiliation is excruciating.“
Mr Stephens goes on to explain that: “Brexit is an act of protectionism promulgated by English nationalists who inexplicably style themselves free-marketeers. Every study produced in Whitehall suggests departure from the single market will leave Britain poorer and less able to promote its interests overseas. Throwing up barriers across the Channel will weaken its voice across the Atlantic.” I agree fully, but I also agree that the referendum results have taken on a meaning and strength that is both unreasonable and strangely compelling to politicians.
“Baffled historians, he adds, “will search in vain to find a single official in the high echelons of Whitehall — from the cabinet secretary down — who thinks Brexit is anything less than a catastrophe. But what of “global Britain”, the bold Elizabethan future imagined by the Brexiters? Alas, the historians will discover, the vision amounted to no more than rhetorical flatulence on the part of Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary.“
In short, Mr Stephens finds nothing in Brexit that serves British interests. “If there is a slim hope that Britain can emerge wounded rather than broken,” he concludes, “it lies in the possibility that things will get still worse in the short term. Mendacity, chaos and division could end in complete paralysis — with parliament failing to agree on any form of Brexit. If Britain does remain part of the EU after all this, it will be because, in its present state, it is simply incapable of leaving.“
There is another problem: Europe is broken, it is in serious need of repair. The necessary reforms to the EU would be easier for the sensible, pragmatic Austrians, Danes, Dutch, Finns, Germans and Swedes to implement if they had Britain as an ally inside the EU, but that appears to be too slow and problematic a process for the British nationalists to accept.
While I think that Theresa May has been a serious disappointment as Britain’s prime minister, I am absolutely certain that she, or any Tory for that matter, even the bloviating Boris Johnson, would be infinitely preferable to the loony left-wing nut Jeremy Corbyn; but Mr Corbyn’s campaign is being helped by obtuse European leaders and negotiators who want punish Britain with a so-called “hard Brexit” deal. If that happens then I suspect the Brits will punish the Conservatives by holding their noses and electing a Labour government. Neither Britain nor Europe will be well served by that outcome.