The British Crisis: Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Hans Kundnani, senior transatlantic fellow, will be delivering on-the-ground reports from London as Brexit unfolds. Check back for regular updates.
In a GMF policy brief three years ago, I quoted the Dutch-American strategist Nicholas Spykman who in 1942 wrote about the way that British policy towards Europe seemed to move in "a long series of cycles." Britain instinctively sought what he called the "enchanting illusion" of isolation, but would always be pulled back by events on the continent. After all, Britain was geographically part of Europe — “how much, she is now learning reluctantly under constant air bombardment." It seemed to me that, as it recently debated leaving the European Union and dreamt of a neo-Elizabethan future of trade with emerging economies around the world, Britain was in yet another phase of disengagement from Europe — but that it would ultimately be forced to re-engage, perhaps at a time of crisis.
However, since the vote to leave the EU almost a week ago, it has become apparent that this time it's different. It is the U.K.'s act of disengagement that has itself prompted the crisis. Instead of belatedly intervening to prevent the emergence of a continental hegemon, as in the past, Britain is itself now the problem. In the both Europe and the United States, and elsewhere, the U.K. is perceived as an anarchist. Meanwhile, since the referendum, an ugly undercurrent of xenophobia and racism has come to the surface. The United Kingdom has acquired a strange kind of soft power that attracts far-right figures like French Front National leader Marine Le Pen. Put simply, Britain is suddenly the bad guy — and not just in Europe, but also beyond.
There seems to be little awareness of this perception of the U.K. though. Even as it has unleashed turmoil, Britain remains stubbornly parochial. There is much discussion here about whether Brexit can be reversed, in particular about whether a snap election should be held (Boris Johnson's advisers have said they do not want to hold one). But in part because of an election may be imminent, the focus of the British media has now reflexively shifted to the fate of the two main political parties. This parochialism is made worse by the way MPs seem to be putting the survival of their parties ahead of the survival of our country. The biggest barrier to holding the much-needed general election seems to be the fear both Conservative and Labour MPs have of losing their seats.
It is this disconnect, in part, that explains why the Leavers still insist that they can deliver the fantastic promises they made to British voters. It is possible that they are right that the EU will soften its current position and even agree to some kind of informal negotiation before Article 50 has been invoked. It is even possible - though it seems extremely unlikely to me - that the EU will agree in the end to allow the U.K. to somehow restrict immigration while simultaneously retaining single market access. But even now, the Leavers, "led" by Johnson, seem not to even engage with these questions, let alone explain how they intend to square the circle.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.