How Brexit could strengthen us

Amid all the bad news about Brexit – the lies on the bus, the shrinking economy, the paralysed opposition, we are prone to forget the benefits it is bringing us. I am talking about our understanding of the European Union. Politicians who have for years loftily ignored it are at last being forced to find out a bit about how it works. Large numbers of the population who had hardly heard of the EU before the referendum are gaining some glimmer of what it’s all about.

So a nation for years isolated in its cocoon, benefiting from EU membership without giving it much thought, has had to stop taking everything for granted. Whatever the outcome, it will have been an education. And I would argue, there are two outcomes which might even strengthen us.

First, and most desirable in my opinion, would be an exit from Brexit before it happens. Fears are sometimes expressed that this would result in a furious backlash from angry Brexiters crying that they had been betrayed, but I am far from convinced. A resounding victory for Remain, with Britain welcomed back into a successful and flourishing European Union, would see many soft Leavers claiming they were  Remainers all along, for everyone likes to be on the winning side.

And the result could indeed be resounding. The very prospect of reversing the Brexit folly, once firmly on the table as a realistic possibility, would encourage many dormant Remainers to emerge from their shells, and could make for a landslide victory for common sense. Britain, with its new-found expertise in confronting populism, would lead the EU in resolving problems in Poland and Hungary. In this scenario Johnson, Farage and the rest, far from organising a backlash, would be lucky not to be put on public trial.

However, history’s judgement on them will not be unduly harsh if no Brexit takes place. If I drive my car carelessly and nothing happens, it is quickly forgotten, but if I kill or injure someone, it is a very different matter. For everyone’s sake and especially the leaders of Brexit, the Brexit car crash should be avoided.

But if it can’t be avoided, then surely this act of self harm should be done cleanly and properly. Do we really want to end up passively dependent on other European countries, unable to express our wishes? A fudged or soft Brexit is the worst of all worlds, which satisfies nobody. Remainers will resent losing their EU rights, while Leavers will feel that they have been stabbed in the back, their dreams betrayed. In other situations, compromise can be constructive, but not here. With Brexit, fudges can only breed grudges.

Which brings us to the second way the country could be strengthened – through a clean, hard Brexit. In this brave option we confront our worst fears, and there will be certain satisfactions. The older patriotic Briton revives his proud Battle of Britain spirit, the joy of sacrifice, the stiff upper lip, we will see it through. The comfortably-off lady in the shires, bored with her cosseted life, who voted Leave for a bit of excitement, gets her wish granted in full. Most important of all, the Brexiters have a fair crack of the whip. They can burn the regulations on their bonfire and start afresh. And if they succeed, good luck to them.

But if it all ends in tears, it will be for the upcoming generation to begin again. To re-apply to join the EU when the lessons have been thoroughly learnt, the hard way, by a Britain more sober than before. A chastened Britain, a wiser Britain, a poorer but less arrogant Britain, may contribute more in future than it can today.

* John King is a retired doctor and Remain campaigner.

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  • Jonathan Reeve 22nd Feb '18 - 7:17pm

    England has chosen an unwise Cold War with the EU when in a weak position, no longer financed by North Sea Oil: that is my main beef with Brexit. Britain, even England was united in intention with Scotland, has never in 500 years prevailed against a united Europe except in close alliance with Russia. Even at the height of our power after Waterloo we wisely sought in Europe to divide so that we might continue to rule.
    Once we leave, for a long time we shall be in a similar relationship to the EU as the ham-strung Canada has with the USA: the familiar street relationship of the lightweight with the heavyweight. We shall always have to give way when there is a direct clash of interests. Our previous influence through EU membership and payments with our main trading partner will have disappeared. Brexit must be stopped, because I fear a major social reverse with unpredictable and irrational consequences (e.g. paying for health care or its widespread disintegration as tax receipts evaporate) will follow, not a rational re-evaluation of how to fix what went wrong.

  • I spoke to someone yesterday who commented, rather chillingly, that Brexit is ‘good’ for the UK as it is finally exposing us for who we really are as a country: we no longer rule the waves and we struggle with the basics of diplomacy and negotiation. He also said the EU will in some ways be relieved to see the back of us, always heading off to Brussels as we were with our special demands and requests for rebates etc. We are even doing this now in the current Brexit negotiations, still thinking we can have our cake and eat it. But the game is up and the sooner we realise it the better. We have been well and truly found out.

  • John Marriott 22nd Feb '18 - 9:16pm

    How true, Jonathan and Judy. The words of the late Dean Acheson come to mind as well.

  • I think Britain’s involvement with the EU and the EU generally is symptomatic a imperialism. The idea that you have to be a big player on the world stage, the need for a big project with big ambitions, the idea of leading Europe and all the bombast involved. I suspect this is why the Conservative party were so keen to join it in the first place. Even now the some of the most vocal supporters for staying in tend to fret about UKs global standing. The irony being that Britain was actually more ridiculously imperial in Europe. This was especially true of the Blair and coalition years with the endless destructive flag waving militarism of attempting to restructure the ME with colonial superpowers and that other post-colonial would-be super power, France.

    So, yes, Brexit really is good and is doing pretty much what I wanted it to do. To me taking back control was as much about containing global ambitions by re-asserting the primacy of national politics and reminding politicians that they are our elected representatives/ employees ( rather than our leaders) as it was about removing the UK from the EU.

  • John Marriott 23rd Feb '18 - 7:00am

    Glenn, not only is Britain behaving like an imperialist vis à vis the EU. Large tranches of the British public, from all strata, are still behaving like that. Brexit, if ever completed in its purest form, might finally make them realise just where we are as a nation. But what a potentially lethal price to pay!

  • @ John Marriott “not only is Britain behaving like an imperialist vis à vis the EU. Large tranches of the British public, from all strata, are still behaving like that”.

    You have a point, John – well illustrated by an appetite for films such as ‘Darkest Hour’, and ‘Dunkirk’ – and the Yesterday channel with its obsession with the Third Reich. They paint an uncritical picture of Churchill as ‘the Great Leader’ (see the statue at the head of this thread) who, singled handed, saved Britain and its Empire.

    It was ordinary folk, plus American intervention after Pearl Harbour, who saved this country. Churchill, was in fact was a reckless gambler politically and personally and had a disastrous and highly illiberal record. The people rightly rejected him in 1945.

    David Lough’s recent book on Churchill’s finances show he was saved from bankruptcy (and prosecution by HMRC for ‘interesting’ tax schemes) by millionaire donations in 1938/39. See the review below :

    The truth behind Churchill’s debts and reckless gambling…/no-more-champagne-churchill-and-money-david-lough-revi...

    The myth is also pushed by that Walter Mitty, Boris Johnson, and by the Brexit loving Daily Mail and Daily Express and their non dom proprietors for their own purposes. Like Churchil’s involvement in the Zinoviev letter affair, they will do anything to discredit their opponents.

  • Arnold Kiel 23rd Feb '18 - 9:55am

    The idea to “let them experience life outside in he cold for a while” occasionally comes to my mind as well. But it would be the misled who will pay the price, not the liars.

    There is one thing worse than imperialism: being to only one who relinquishes any imperialist defences. What “control” are you “bringing back” in the shadow of technological, financial, commercial, and military empires being built to the UK’s West, South, and East?

  • John
    Obviously I disagree. I think the flag waving and wars that went on in the Blair and coalition years were far more imperial. Thatcher, Blair and Cameron were much more imperial than May. Can you imagine a post-Brexit Britain wasting billions on flag waving exercises like the millennial dome or the Olympics? I think military interference in former occupied and colonial countries is a habit we share with France, again born of imperialism. I also see the fretting about a post-Brexit decline in influence and the chide of “little Englander” as a hangover from imperialism too- wasn’t it originally aimed at opponents of second Crimean war? Generally speaking, I think internationalism often becomes a kind pseudo imperialism because it pumps up the idea of politicians as world leaders rather than as local/national representatives. So to me the Brexit is a good thing because it puts domestic politics first and far from being imperialistic is in fact a kind of localism.

  • Re the picture: Churchill spoke of a United States of Europe and wanted Britain to join the EEC so I think he would remain favorable towards Europe.

  • Katerina Porter 23rd Feb '18 - 12:13pm

    The lack or hostile information on the EU we have had for decades because most of the press, the Murdoch, Barclay brothers are hostile and Boris Johnson sells. The EU is big enough to take on Google and Monsanto in a way we never could and is some protection against the multinationals. In 1975 the press was mostly positive. In the Remain campaign I think Cameron did not say anything good about what the EU is, and what it has achieved. The hostile half of his party would have objected, He ran a fear campaign as for the Scottish referendum which had narrowly succeeded. and It was also badly funded compared to Leave.
    For the United States of Europe it is worth remembering that uniting the States of America was a difficult process even ending in a civil war and Alabama and California could not be and have remained very different.

  • Thanks for these comments. I should add that the strategy of exposing the Brexit extremists by giving them their head, which I have articulated here, is a dangerous road to go down. The more likely outcome in practice is some kind of fudge, or as Chris Davies put it in his prescient article last year, ‘a lion that quacks rather than one that roars’.

  • There are many risks with the hard brexit approach you advocate. It might have done satisfaction, but the permanent economic damage from companies leaving, the loss of the rebate, and the country’s reputation for keeping its word (like on the Irish border) would be devastating.

  • That’s right, it would be a destructive thing, like a purification by fire, the hope being that out of the ashes a better Britain might be born. I would not go so far as to say I advocate it however; as indicated in the article an exit from Brexit is clearly the desirable outcome.

  • Christopher Haigh 23rd Feb '18 - 3:06pm

    Listening in to Andrew Neil last night it would appear TM, who is not a natural leader of opinion, has managed to get herself venturing in to no mans land. She’s got a sort of cabinet which wants EU divergence but a parliamentary party requiring the opposite. The labour party are also waiting in the wings to support our membership of a customs union with the EU in a parliamentary vote. It seems best that the prime minister should best have a complete reshuffle of her cabinet to better reflect her parliamentary party.

  • Some interesting thoughts here from a Greek economist on the similarities between the British and Greek economies

    He writes “Both enjoyed debt-fueled prosperity. UK government debt rose even more aggressivelythan its Greek counterpart. Successive governments in Greece ran deficits for many years. They were committed to public services such as free healthcare and free education. Both countries maintain an expensive army, a large civil service and have spent billions to host Olympic games.The Greek government recently managed to reign in its deficits and currently experiences a structural surplus in its budget. The UK is still waiting.”

    He concludes “The UK elections on June 8 delivered a paralyzed government. A slim majority and the heterogeneity of any coalition government will mean a government that cannot move left or right, forwards or backwards without losing precious support and likely collapsing.

    Greek governments in the decade before crisis hit the country provided the perfect example of how the fear of political cost can lead to a disastrous lack of action on the economy. In addition to deep structural challenges, low productivity and a mountain of debt to repay, the UK now also faces the prospect of a bad deal with the EU, negative business expectations, exhausted monetary and fiscal policy options and grave threats to its lucrative financial sector.

    Even an effective and decisive British government with a clear mandate would find it difficult to steer the economy out of harm’s way. For the paralyzed and ineffective government that came out of the last UK elections that task may prove impossible: public trust will ebb away, market confidence will dip. Greece taught us not to sail into those headwinds if we can avoid it. The prospect of fresh elections may not be palatable, but it sure beats entrusting the futures of a generation or more to a government barely worth the name.”

  • Peter Martin 23rd Feb '18 - 9:51pm

    @ JoeB,

    The big difference is that the UK has its own freely floating currency. The UK can never become involuntarily insolvent. Greece doesn’t. It uses someone else’s currency, the euro, and so it can become insolvent. It can default on debts.

    It seems such an obvious thing to say but nevertheless it does need saying. I’m sure the author of the article, Prof Alexander Tziamalis, must know this too but he ain’t going to say it himself!

  • Peter,

    to be fair to the associate professor he does not claim that the UK will face insolvency. His argument is “the falling pound and rising inflation that followed the Brexit referendum make a devaluation of the pound unproductive. A devaluation would further harm consumers’ disposable income and consumption, and would sound like a distress call to skittish investors. Interest rates are already at rock bottom levels and a further reduction now would have little effect.
    And what about fiscal policy? After all, national debt in the UK stands at what seems like a paltry 88% of GDP compared to Greece’s 181%. Perhaps the UK could finance investments, boost consumption and buy its way out of the Brexit uncertainty and impending recession? Greece tried this from 2004-2009. Nearly a decade later, the mounting debts of that era keep Greece in an economic coma.
    And there are more reasons why using fiscal policy would be dangerous for the UK. If the UK wanted to add to its total debt, currently at about £1.7 trillion, the international money markets would see the UK stumbling into Brexit talks at a time of political fragility while asking for very large amounts of money to refinance debts and run fiscal policies on top. To compensate for the increased risk, investors will seek higher interest rates.
    The debts would then become more costly to service, denting the impact of any exuberant fiscal policy and further justifying a skeptical view of the UK from financial markets. Greece will tell you how it ends up if you get the balance wrong.”

  • Teresa Wilson 24th Feb '18 - 2:43pm

    I agree with much in this article but I have a problem with the conclusion that “if it all ends in tears, it will be for the upcoming generation to begin again”. I am (hopefully) due to retire withing the next ten years and am not by any means wealthy. Will I survive a car crash Brexit that leaves the country on its economic knees. Will the disabled? What about those on zero hours contracts? Maybe many of them did vote to leave. Many of my generation also did (though not me). If a soft Brexit means there is some money left in the kitty to pay my pension, and keep the NHS and the welfare system working, I don’t care if a few Brextremists are upset. The people suffering will certainly not be the likes of Johnson, Gove and Mogg.

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