How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On the night of January 31, with little fanfare, without even a Big Ben bong, the United Kingdom will officially leave the European Union. After almost 50 years of EU membership and three years of bitter division over the vote to leave, the moment of formal departure is a historic milestone. But to say that the British are finally “getting Brexit done,” as Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed ad nauseam, is hopelessly optimistic. Friday marks the beginning of a new and uncertain phase of Brexit, not its end.
The British government still needs to negotiate the terms of its future relations with the EU, a task so complex that many doubt it can be completed by the end of the year, when another ominous deadline looms. In the meantime, the country will be stuck in EU purgatory, bound by the bloc’s laws and regulations but powerless to shape them. Trade deals with other countries remain to be hammered out. And at home, the toxic fallout of Brexit division will linger—and potentially reshape British politics for years to come.
Westminster has agreed to pay Brussels a hefty divorce bill, but beyond that much of its future relationship with the EU remains unknown. Predictions about the terms of an eventual deal are usually rooted more in the hopes and fears of the speaker than in any real evidence. Pessimists such as William Keegan, a columnist for The Guardian, predict economic catastrophe for manufacturing and agriculture. Government officials offer Churchillian sound bites about the “sunlit uplands” ahead, but they have been less forthcoming with detailed plans about how to manage the movement of goods, people, and services.
Brussels has no interest in creating a Singapore-on-Thames on its doorstep
The rights and access to social benefits of the 2.7 million EU citizens who have applied to stay in the United Kingdom remain unclear. (There is chatter of adopting an Australian- and Canadian-style points system for immigrants but no published plan.) Downing Street has expressed its determination to leave the EU’s customs union and single market, and to use that freedom to strike new trade deals, including with the United States. At the same time, the government hopes to maintain easy access to markets across the channel through a “zero tariff, zero quota” free trade deal with the EU, according to Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay. Of course, Brussels has no interest in creating a Singapore-on-Thames on its doorstep—a hyper-deregulated competitor that would undercut EU prices and standards on matters such as workers’ rights, environmental protection, and food safety. Trade negotiations will be lengthy and contentious.
For London, a drawn-out process means trouble. If Johnson fails to negotiate a mutually satisfactory deal with the EU by the end of the year, the United Kingdom will crash out of the EU’s economic framework, with all the risks of a “hard Brexit”: tariffs slapped on British goods and services, disrupted supply chains, and reams of customs paperwork while Kent strawberries and Dutch flowers rot in lorries. Even if that worst-case scenario is averted, Brexit will cause costly disruption in the British economy. Indeed, it already has; according to Bloomberg Economics, the price tag stands at around $170 billion today and will balloon to roughly $260 billion by the end of 2020—more than the United Kingdom’s total payments to the EU budget over its 47 years of membership. In an ironic twist of fate, the regions expected to be worst hit by the loss of EU regional aid, and by potential tariffs down the line, are pro-Leave strongholds in the Midlands and northern England. For what it’s worth, the United Kingdom has signed trade deals with a handful of countries, including Lebanon, Tunisia, and Liechtenstein—but these are unlikely to compensate for the loss of unrestricted access to markets of 450 million people across the channel.
The arrangements with Brussels may be less fraught, in the end, than the arrangements Britain must make with itself in the wake of all the acrimony and strife of the Brexit years. British politics has the potential to be transformed.
Already, in December, Britain’s general election demonstrated the monumental political shifts that Brexit has occasioned. Johnson campaigned against an unpromising backdrop: nearly ten years of austerity cuts under successive Tory governments, doubts about his flamboyant character, and fratricidal division within his party over Brexit. And yet he triumphed, with the Tories winning their largest parliamentary majority since 1987 and their highest vote share since 1979. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party, by contrast, won the fewest number of seats since 1935 and suffered its fourth successive defeat. The party waving the Remain flag most passionately, the Liberal Democrats, lost its leader’s seat and returned with barely enough MPs to squeeze into two London cabs.
The arrangements with Brussels may be less fraught than the arrangements Britain must make with itself.
Johnson likely owes his victory to his focused message. He repeated, with great discipline, the Conservative Party’s ultra-vague “Get Brexit done” mantra. Corbyn, meanwhile, assiduously sat on the fence on Brexit, angering both Leavers and Remainers. (Labour also offered a Christmas tree of policy promises and was divided over allegations of anti-Semitism within its ranks.) Johnson further understood the appeal of “one-nation conservatism,” blending traditional flag-waving Union Jack nationalism with a commitment to social welfare services. The Tories aggressively targeted the Leave-voting mill and mining districts of northern England, the traditional heartland of Labour, with pledges to end austerity and splash the cash. In many of these areas, they prevailed.
For now, with a substantial majority, a signed withdrawal agreement with Brussels, and opposition parties demoralized and distracted by internal leadership contests, the Conservative government enjoys largely unfettered power in Westminster. That success may fade once Labour and the Liberal Democrats overcome the shock of their electoral drubbing and settle on new leaders—but it may also presage a lasting political realignment around deep cultural divisions between young and old and the country’s north and south.
After the Tory landslide, Johnson acknowledged that many pro-Leave Labour voters had “lent” him their vote based on his pledge to “get Brexit done,” with some constituencies changing hands for the first time in a generation. Whether he can turn that toehold into a foothold depends, in part, on the success or failure of his one-nation Toryism gamble. The government has promised more public spending in northern England, especially on hospitals, higher education, and railways. But such investments will take many years, even decades, to bear visible fruit, and in the meantime many cities in the north face spending gaps.
Even if public investment eventually improves living conditions in depressed areas in the north, it will do little to address the cultural rifts that drove the vote for Brexit in that region as much as elsewhere in the country. Deep divisions between cosmopolitan liberals and social conservatives will persist, with one side embracing globalization, multiculturalism, and openness to social change, the other retreating into nationalism, xenophobia, and resentment about the loss of traditional values (a clash that is in part generational, and one that bears striking similarities to debates in contemporary U.S. politics). Those cultural wars may end up benefiting Johnson, but that is not a given. If the promises of the Brexiteers fail to materialize and the United Kingdom’s power, prosperity, and status all suffer, people may grow disillusioned with the government. And if, with Brexit in the rearview mirror, the mania of recent years subsides and the political agenda shifts to traditional bread-and-butter concerns such as health care and schools, the opposition parties, particularly Labour, may regain support in their heartland areas. In that scenario, the December election may prove to have been a one-off deviation rather than the harbinger of a long-term populist realignment.
The signing of the withdrawal agreement on January 24 was “a fantastic moment, which finally delivers the result of the 2016 referendum and brings to an end far too many years of argument and division,” Johnson said. The Brexit civil war has indeed ground to a halt, at least for now. Whether the truce will hold is another matter. Most Remainers, staring into the abyss of electoral defeat, have moved on from denial to grief. They may yet turn to anger if the political and economic impact of leaving the EU is as disastrous as some predict.
It is safe to say that Johnson’s bluster about “taking back control” will be severely tested. Leaving the EU has increased pressures for another Scottish independence referendum. And the imposition of customs for goods traded between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain is likely to accelerate demands for Irish reunification. Faced with London’s diminished role in the world, the foreign office will seek to bolster transatlantic ties, as always, but with unpredictable results, given U.S. President Donald Trump’s questionable loyalty and his love of tariffs. A costly and traumatic divorce may just be the beginning of the United Kingdom’s troubles.
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