Britain’s Brexit dilemma

Autumn has come to Britain with the normal conventions of politics in a state of flux. Ever since Britain voted to leave the European Union, the ordinary rules no longer apply. A tense political atmosphere has only underscored the scale of the task ahead as Britain contemplates a new relationship with Europe amid uncertainty. The underlying issues that the referendum has brought out should matter not just to Britain but to representative democracies elsewhere too.

It would be an understatement to say that the debate over Brexit is turning out to be fairly heated. The recent weeks have seen reports of cabinet divisions and bitter arguments. To add further fuel to a combustible mix, Donald Tusk, the European Council’s president noted that that the only choice is between a ‘hard’ Brexit and no Brexit at all. Meanwhile, the government has relented after much pressure to allow Parliament a vote on the eventual terms of a deal. All this comes before formal negotiations have even started.

The British government is clearly on defensive. With the alarming fall of the pound in the currency markets, the economy is reeling from short-term pressures and a perceived loss of confidence. The off-setting boost to exports hasn’t really materialised as yet. One explanation is that importing raw materials for production has become much more expensive than anticipated. Consumer confidence has also been spooked. More trouble seems to be brewing in Scotland where the spectre of separatism has been reignited given that Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain within Europe.

Might this bother the right-wing panjandrums within the Tory party enough to soften their stance? If anything, it has hardened their rhetoric. Seen from their perspective, a firm exit from Europe would be necessary at all costs in order to “take back control” from Brussels. Their narrative has been framed as one about reviving Britain’s destiny as a sovereign power capable of determining its own choices and willing to strike deals with emerging markets. It is a worldview that prefers to see Brexit as an opportunity to break free from the shackles of a centralising and bureaucratic EU.

On the other hand, the realists within the Tory party cannot be chastised for agonising over the possibility of economic harm due to Brexit. They remain worried that sacrificing Britain’s unrestricted access to Europe’s single market would be an act of self-immolation. Given the shambolic nature of the Labour party at the moment, it is the Tory pragmatists that are turning out to be more vociferous in providing a credible challenge to the government.

Nonetheless, the leavers did persuade the electorate. The referendum result cannot be wished away. More problematically, the British government will now need to reconcile the political and economic idealism of the leave campaign with actual expectations from their core voters. The truth is that while Boris Johnson and Michael Gove raised the idyllic prospect of a liberal economic approach and an open outlook unencumbered by Brussels, this posture wasn’t the basis on which the referendum turned in their favour. Rather, it was a crude anti-immigration campaign that resonated with sections of the electorate that despise globalisation and prefer isolation.

It has contributed to an increasing political discourse, narrow minded rhetoric with little regard for balanced views and nuanced considerations. The irony is that more than ever, a post-Brexit Britain needs to embrace international relationships with openness and gusto. An inward and isolationist Britain is unlikely to win new friends overseas. In November, Prime Minister Theresa May is due to visit India. She will need to bear this in mind – if Britain wants to be seen as ‘open for business’ the perception of openness will matter greatly.

On a related note, the broader lesson from the Brexit fall-out is that the referendum result was determined by an alienated section of the electorate that became ultimately fed up by constantly having its concerns ignored by the establishment. From a socio-economic perspective, the voter profile in this category tended to be less-skilled and unlikely to have benefited from globalisation. The point is that while this frustrated voter base found spectacular expression in the referendum its discontent was simmering for a long time. In the United States, the same raw voter anger can be detected on a larger scale and has contributed to Donald Trump’s rise.  Across the EU, an upsurge of support can also be seen for particular far right movements and leadership on the same premise.

The upshot is that centrist governance will become increasingly more difficult unless the concerns of this large voter segment are compassionately and substantively addressed. Britain has just woken up to this truth and its mainstream parties are finally coming to terms with this necessary adjustment. If representative democracies choose to ignore this undercurrent, the risk is that extreme positions will eventually squeeze the moderate centre with parlous consequences.

Author is a London-based lawyer and political commentator.

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