What will Brexit Britain be like?
The signs point to Brexit Britain becoming a kind of hybrid nation: more welcoming to foreign capital but more hostile to foreign people; freer, but weaker.
At 11 p.m. on Friday, Britain will leave the European Union. Big Ben will not bong—it’s too expensive—but the United Kingdom will secede from its defining economic and political relationship of the past fifty years. In Parliament Square, under the silent clock, Nigel Farage, the country’s most influential populist politician since Oswald Mosley, will headline a Brexit celebration event. The invitation to the rally asks people to “come in good voice to sing some patriotic songs and bring along as many Union flags as they can, to wave in a patriotic display of pride.”
Since the referendum, in 2016, Brexiteers have sought to characterize leaving the E.U. as an emancipatory act—an independence day for a country that once ruled the largest empire in history. In March, 2019, when Brexit was first supposed to have taken place, Boris Johnson had resigned from the government. “It was meant to be the week when church bells were rung, coins struck, stamps issued and bonfires lit to send beacons of freedom from hilltop to hilltop,” he rued.
Johnson summoned an image of faithful farm workers “weaving through the moonlit lanes of Sussex, half blind with scrumpy, singing Brexit shanties at the tops of their voices and beating the hedgerows with staves.” Now that it has come to pass, Brexit Day will be muted by comparison. As Prime Minister, Johnson is expected to celebrate with a low-key party in Downing Street. Some Remainers have pledged not to handle a new fifty-pence coin commissioned by the government to mark the occasion. The whole thing feels fairly peevish—that is to say, properly British.
But what will Brexit Britain actually be like? At the moment it happens, Britons will cease to be citizens of the E.U. Until the end of 2020, however, the country is officially in “a transition period,” while it negotiates a future trading relationship with the bloc, so nothing will immediately change. On the surface, the second phase of the Brexit talks may well resemble the first: the E.U. will play hardball, led by its arch-rational lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, of France, and there will be periodic spasms in Westminster, as Johnson’s government figures out how to respond. But a larger, subtler process of divergence will have already begun. Brexit has always been fascinating to me because it contains a genuinely difficult question: Will a country like Britain be better off trying to navigate the challenges of the twenty-first century deeply embedded in an international bloc, or out on its own, with greater freedom to maneuver and, in theory, listen to its population?
In 2000, Dani Rodrik, an economics professor at Harvard, first described what he has since called his “impossibility theorem,” in which the nation-state, democracy, and global economic integration are mutually incompatible. “We can have at most two of these three things,” he wrote. Britain’s forty-seven-year membership of the E.U. turned out to be a case study in the impossible. In 2016, a narrow majority of voters chose what they perceived to be democracy and sovereignty over the economic logic of being part of a huge supranational market. Last October, at the Conservative Party conference, in Manchester, I listened to Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott, the former Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia, making the case that Brexiteers often like to make: that there is no reason why the U.K., with its economy, its history, its language, should not be able to flourish alone, like Japan or South Korea or New Zealand. Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave and now Johnson’s senior adviser, often quotes David Deutsch, the celebrated physicist, who sees the nation-state as better equipped to correct itself in a complicated world than a vast, slow-moving entity like the E.U. “Error correction is the basic issue,” Deutsch said. “And I can’t foresee the E.U improving much in this respect.”
But it is striking that these arguments are almost always made by those who wish to shrink the state or, in Cummings’s case, redesign it altogether. A long time ago, it was common for British politicians on the left, such as Jeremy Corbyn, to denounce European integration as a project that mostly benefitted the bloc’s richest countries and their largest corporations. But, in the twenty-first century, the E.U. has been a steady advocate for human rights, action on climate change, digital privacy, and the rules-based international order—even when that has proved awkward for its members. Last week, with an eighty-seat majority in the House of Commons and Brexit Day in sight, Johnson’s government removed an amendment to protect unaccompanied child refugees coming to the U.K. from the legislation that will finally set Britain free.
Margaret Thatcher was one of the architects of the E.U.’s single market. She positioned Britain as a free-trading entry point to the more regulated economies of mainland Europe. You don’t have to be Henry Kissinger to see that the obvious course for Brexit Britain is to try to become—in some form—an offshore competitor. Earlier this month, Sajid Javid, the Chancellor, who is a former derivatives trader for Deutsche Bank, told the Financial Times that “there will not be alignment” with many E.U. goods regulations in the future. Since the eighties, successive British governments have had a remarkably relaxed attitude to foreign companies playing vital roles in the economy, or owning critical pieces of infrastructure. The U.K.’s busiest airport, Heathrow, is owned by an international consortium led by a Spanish company and the Qatari government; its busiest port, Felixstowe, belongs to a Hong Kong investment firm. On January 28th, the government gave its approval for Huawei, the Chinese technology company, to help build Britain’s new 5G cell-phone network, over the objections of the U.S. government and other security partners. Brexit is often characterized as a populist rebellion against the forces of globalization, but the reality of life outside the E.U. means that they will probably only accelerate. Things that are distinctive, British, and publicly owned—like the BBC—will be vulnerable. This week, the national broadcaster, which is under threat from streaming services and ideological opponents in the Conservative Party, announced that it will cut four hundred and fifty jobs from its news division.
Brexit Britain won’t be unrecognizable. Since 2017, mainly under the influence of Michael Gove, Johnson’s wingman during the referendum, the country has committed itself to an ambitious environmental agenda. Last year, Britain passed legislation to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Like Theresa May before him, Johnson plans to inject billions of pounds into the National Health Service, the final great edifice of the British welfare state. Last December, the Conservatives won their decisive election victory with the help of constituencies in northern England, which have traditionally voted for Labour but which backed Brexit. Since then, Johnson’s government has promised to “level up” economic prosperity in the U.K. by signing off on ambitious infrastructure projects, such as HS2, a high-speed rail link that is forecast to cost more than a hundred billion pounds.
As far as I can see, the signs point to a kind of hybrid nation: more welcoming to foreign capital but more hostile to foreign people; greener but more conservative; freer on the world stage, but weaker. There will be shiny totems—a few new trains and hospitals—but the general safety net for most citizens, in terms of their rights and benefits, will be cut away. Brexit has always been a mythical endpoint, which means that governments will be able to justify a great variety of things in its name. It is the perfect project for Johnson, the most flexible of Prime Ministers. More than anything, the enterprise appears unstable. The most obvious tensions will be geographic. In December, the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland voted overwhelmingly for anti-Brexit parties. This month, the U.K.’s devolved assemblies in Belfast, Cardiff, and Edinburgh all rejected the government’s legislation to take Britain out of the E.U.—votes that were ignored in London, which is itself not a Brexit city. As the Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote in the Guardian on Sunday, “While Johnson likes to talk of 31 January as ‘this pivotal moment in our national story,’ there is neither a settled nation nor a shared story.” Britain was a deeply divided country before 2016, and it led to Brexit. What will be the next rupture?