The British Crisis: Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Hans Kundnani, senior transatlantic fellow, will be delivering on-the-ground reports from London as Brexit unfolds. Check back for regular updates.
The United Kingdom may now be in the midst of the most acute crisis it has faced since May 1940 - not that you would know it from walking around London today, where there was as much discussion about the England football team's ignominious defeat to Iceland on Tuesday night as there was about the consequences of its momentous vote last week to leave the European Union. Meanwhile in some other places in England where a majority of people voted to leave, there is a new mood of optimism rather than fear. My friend Helen Pidd, the northern editor of the Guardian newspaper, was in Blackpool yesterday and tells me she has rarely seen people there so happy.
There has been unprecedented chaos in the UK in the last four days since it first became apparent in the early hours of last Friday morning that the UK was really going to vote to leave. The British population initially appeared to have made a clear choice to leave the EU 43 years after it joined the European Economic Community. But the referendum revealed a country that is deeply divided along class, generational and geographic lines - and these fault lines are now deepening. Over three million people have signed a petition calling for a second referendum on membership of the EU and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is making preparations for a second referendum on independence from the UK. There is now a danger that the UK will literally be torn apart. The highest priority of the new prime minister who will succeed David Cameron will, or at least should be, to reunite the country - not least to prevent a break-up of Britain.
Meanwhile, it has become apparent that, incredibly, the leading figures in the campaign - and in particular Boris Johnson, the favorite to become Conservative party leader and thus prime minister - simply have no plan. During the referendum campaign, they evaded questions about what kind of relationship with the EU they wanted. Johnson quipped that his policy on cake was that he was in favor of having it and in favor of eating it. In practice this meant he wanted to restrict immigration from the EU to the UK while at the same time keeping access to the single market - something that experts repeatedly said was impossible. But in his column in the Telegraph on Monday he reiterated this fantasy. Meanwhile other leading leavers have backtracked on their promise to reduce immigration and even denied they ever made it.
What happens next is unclear. Even if Johnson had a coherent idea of what kind of relationship with the EU he wants, and even if it were feasible, he does not have a democratic mandate to negotiate it. Even under more normal circumstances, a new prime minister would be expected to call a general election (it is generally accepted that Gordon Brown made a mistake by failing to call an election after he succeeded Tony Blair). In this extraordinary situation, it is hard to see how a general election can be avoided. But both the Conservatives and Labour are currently in meltdown and it is conceivable that either, or both, parties could actually break up. It is therefore not even clear what political groupings will even contest a general election - let alone what type of government might emerge from such an election.
This extraordinarily fluid and unpredictable situation means that Brexit is not yet a done deal (some such as Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman have even begun to argue it will never happen). As my colleagues Rosa Balfour and Daniela Schwarzer and I argued a couple of days ago, European leaders are therefore making a mistake by putting pressure on the UK to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would begin a formal two-year negotiation on the UK's withdrawal from the EU. Invoking Article 50 will neither produce certainty and stability nor do anything to stop the Eurosceptic surge, which began long before the UK's vote to leave the EU. Instead European leaders should wait and see what happens in the UK while focusing on resolving the differences between them on how to reform the EU.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.