Update (October 29, 8:30 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect the latest developments concerning a U.K. general election.
This was to be the week when the United Kingdom left the European Union. Instead, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has seen that dream dashed as the Oct. 31 Brexit divorce deadline was extended despite his statement last month that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask for a further delay. He is now left pinning his hopes on a new election so he can try to get a wider mandate to quickly withdraw from the European body.
The Brexit saga, of which this week’s events are only the latest chapter, is at heart a story about the U.K.’s failure to understand its place in the modern world.
The Brexit saga, of which this week’s events are only the latest chapter, is at heart a story about the U.K.’s failure to understand its place in the modern world. For all of our modern history, we have defined ourselves — as imperialists; winners in wars; purveyors of cool culture — in terms of our relationship with the rest of the globe. Now that we can no longer agree on what that is, we don't have a shared view of what or who we are.
The divisions created during the last three years are so deep that, whatever the outcome of the next general election, we will not be coming together anytime soon. Friends and even families have fallen out. We remain divided amongst ourselves, as well as cut off from the outside world.
Our imperial history lives on in the heads of some Brexit supporters like the worst of hangovers. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s verdict on the Britain of more than half a century ago, that it had “lost an empire” and “not yet found a role,” still rings true. Many of those who support leaving the E.U. seem unable to get over the glorious benders of the past and think that disengaging with the European continent will somehow restore the golden age in which they imagine we once lived.
In an interconnected world where cooperation can bring benefits, some in Britain prefer to seek confrontation, believing that our past means we are powerful enough to do so. As the Brexit-supporting Sunday Times put it last year: “A people who within living memory governed a quarter of the world’s land area and a fifth of its population is surely capable of governing itself without the help of Brussels.”
World War II is used by Brexit supporters as an even more immediate reference point; Britain’s role in the victory over Nazi Germany is a reason why we should have the confidence to go it alone. Leave.EU, one of the groups that campaigned for Brexit and which continues to agitate for the most severe form of separation from the E.U., apologized recently after it tweeted a picture of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany with the caption, “We didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut.” (This blatant racism was, thankfully, too much even for some of those who support their cause.)
In fact, World War II actually strengthens the argument of those who want to keep their tight relations abroad: Britain may well have been on the winning side in World War II, but it was part of a victorious alliance. It is hard to imagine that victory without the United States or the Soviet Union.
Internationalists, though, are as likely to see British culture as the key to asserting a place for the U.K. in the world. Music, TV series, Premier League soccer: All are emblematic of a different type of British leadership, one built on taste and cachet.
Alas, that appeal also seems out of step with our current reality. London’s Evening Standard reported in January 2019 that the number of E.U. visitors to the British capital had fallen by 750,000 in 2018 (even though the pound’s relative weakness made such trips cheaper). The paper called the decline in visitor numbers a “Brexit boycott.”
The conduct of our bumbling political leaders on the world stage has added to the soft power deficit. Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s hubristic failure to make the case for the U.K.’s continuing membership in the E.U. started the country down its current path. He assumed he could undermine the anti-E.U. forces in his party by calling a referendum, winning it and silencing them. He lost. The country voted 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the E.U. As a result, Cameron resigned.
Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, was too politically weak to deliver on her own promise to leave the E.U. Now Johnson’s clownish style is being lampooned in capitals around the world. His personal style was once offset by his steadfastness, but even he has been humiliated by the Brexit divorce deadline extension.
Most substantively — and damaging — Johnson’s confrontational style has done nothing to bring people together to support his plan or otherwise unite the country. In an unusually outspoken intervention, the head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on Sunday warned Johnson and other politicians to moderate their language in a “polarized and volatile” society.
Those of us who have witnessed social and political transformation elsewhere (in my case, the former Soviet Union, the collapse of which I covered as a journalist and a TV news producer in the 1990s) sense that we in Britain are entering a long period of uncertainty given how dug in each side is with no common vision of the country to rally around.
However long this process takes, and however it ends, Britain will have changed, and its status in the world will only have further eroded.
At the end of it, the majority of the population is likely to end up disappointed, irrespective of how they voted on Brexit in the past and may do in the future if the government’s opponents succeed in getting a second referendum. “Leavers” may well not get the promised land they were hoping for, or “Remainers” will always resent losing their European citizenship, and the rights to reside and work in 27 other countries, that went with it.
Those Remainers may be defeated — for now — but they are not giving up. An estimated 1 million took to the streets Oct. 19 to show their opposition to the government’s plans. The numbers were impressive, though the atmosphere often felt subdued in comparison to past demonstrations. Their determination to present a more internationalist face to the world, though, is unlikely to dissolve. Numbers like that suggest they can be a significant future force in British politics.
Yet however long this process takes, and however it ends, Britain will have changed, and its status in the world will only have further eroded. Perhaps it takes outsiders to see us as we are. Acheson is also said to have once told a British official, “You must learn to live in the world as it is.” Yes, we must.