Brexit, the Morning After
In London it was cool, clear and sunny early in the morning of Friday 24 June as the Brexiteers celebrated their ‘Independence Day’. The pound plunged, global stock markets reeled, Prime Minister David Cameron announced his intention to step down in October, and the challenges of splitting from the EU confronted many who had not previously been aware of their existence. And Donald Trump arrived in Scotland to visit one of his golf courses. Rain was forecast for the afternoon.
Sitting with an old and dear friend at dinner the previous night, we had, inevitably, discussed the referendum. A highly educated woman, she had voted to leave the EU because she was ‘fed up’. I pointed out the almost exclusively EU staff running the restaurant might soon have to apply for work permits. She responded that of course they would be allowed to stay. She had not contemplated the possibility that outside the EU, the country’s immigration policies might not permit such a simple solution.
Estimates for the time required for the UK to extricate itself from the EU range from two to four years, during which negotiations will also have to begin with individual member states for new trade agreements. The administrative and political burden of these activities will be a huge distraction for civil servants and politicians from other pressing issues, and a boon to nobody but lawyers.
The fractures in the nation revealed by the heated referendum debate, and now the result, are becoming vividly apparent. First, the governing Conservative Party needs to find a way a way to put itself back together again. It may well fail.
Pro-Brexit Conservative members of parliament wrote to David Cameron asking him, sincerely one assumes, to remain as Prime Minister, an invitation he declined. The battle over his successor between now and October may well prove the party is irreparably ruptured.
The Labour Party also will have to reconsider many of its policies, not least on immigration. There is additionally the continuing concern about the performance of Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
And the question will arise as to what, now their objective has been achieved, will UKIP, the UK Independence Party, do with itself. It is unlikely to disappear quietly in the night.
Geographically the referendum results were ominous. Scotland voted to remain, as did Northern Ireland. Major cities, above all London, also voted against leaving. It was the suburban and rural English who carried the day for Brexit.
While it is improbable that Sadiq Khan will demand independence for London, and the reaction of the Scottish will remain unclear for some time or at least until the price of oil improves, the outcome has revealed deep cultural, political and attitudinal differences within the United Kingdom.
As a consequence of these divisions, the insistence of Brexiteers that the UK will continue a powerful political and economic force in the world, more than able to extract favourable terms from the EU, now looks seriously flawed.
During the referendum debate it was obvious that everyone on both sides of the debate was struggling with and fighting over innumerable unknowns: the attitude of the EU partners to the UK departure, the economic costs, gains, losses and opportunities of Brexit, the impact on Britain’s standing in the world. As the Danish physicist Niels Bohr once remarked, it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.
However, apart from a diplomatically weakened UK there are other factors that are now much more clear. First, both the potential benefits and costs predicted by each side of the Brexit debate will prove to have been exaggerated; secondly, the progress of the negotiations to leave the EU will be bumpy and difficult with occasional major squabbles; thirdly, the economy of the UK – and possibly of the rest of Europe – will be adversely impacted throughout the negotiations for departure. Troubled and troubling times lie ahead.