The Brexit litmus test: too many politicians, not enough statesmen
History suggests Brexit will be a graveyard not just for today’s crop of politicians but also for generations of leaders to come.
Britain’s departure from the EU is on a par with the Irish question that proved so spectacularly unmanageable for a succession of some of the greatest figures in British political history and caused lasting damage to reputations and careers.
‘We live in an age of great events and little men’, a young Winston Churchill wryly noted at the turn of the 20th Century. Brexit is one such event. Britain’s current misfortune is the absence of political figures with the stature and capabilities to manage the process of leaving the EU and coping with its aftermath.
As in Hotel California, there is a difference between checking out and leaving. The clean break so close to the hearts of the hard Brexiteers is a fantasy. Geography is immutable and explains why countries trade most with their neighbours. There is a fundamental tension between Britain’s need for a close relationship with the EU’s single market, and the vision of Britain as a global trading nation.
Of course, some politicians will claim that they can square the circle and succeed where Theresa May has failed. These aspiring leaders should first reflect on the lessons of recent years: they show that the forces of history have the power to throw up intractable problems that politicians fail to anticipate. The catalyst for Brexit is a perfect example.
David Cameron initiated the 2016 Brexit referendum with two goals: to prevent traditional Tory voters from shifting to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and to reduce to manageable levels the Conservative Party’s deadly schizophrenia over Europe.
Cameron and the supporters of this move had no idea of the Pandora’s Box that they had opened. Nor did they see how easily they could lose control of the agenda they had set.
Of course, Cameron presented the referendum in different terms: as a path to widening EU reforms beyond consolidation of the Eurozone.
He had a point. There was considerable merit in starting a debate about the role of member states that did not want to be part of the single currency but wanted to keep the broader benefits of EU membership. After the near meltdown of the Eurozone in 2011, the EU’s focus was on greater integration among members of the single currency to avoid a repeat.
Yet behind Cameron’s positive words was the threat to other EU countries that Britain could end up seeking an existence outside the EU if it could not find an appropriate ‘new settlement’.
This was red meat to the champions of Brexit who now, thanks to UKIP, were drawing on the public’s concerns about high levels of immigration rather than traditional Eurosceptic thinking about national sovereignty and accountability of EU institutions.
Raising the possibility of leaving the EU unleashed grievances in society that had their origins in long-standing economic weaknesses. Of course, these had much less to do with the EU than with the inability of successive governments to improve Britain’s economic performance, and especially, to increase productivity. The EU was an easy whipping boy.
However, Cameron and his advisers did not see this coming and were not prepared for the fallout. Nor did they recognise that there would be no appetite among other EU countries for limiting freedom of movement. Perversely, the threat of Britain leaving united the EU into making few concessions to keep it inside the Union. To show flexibility was to provoke copycat movements in other member states and risk the EU breaking apart.
The net effect has been to multiply divisions within British society that have made the Conservative Party and the Labour Party dysfunctional. As a result, government and parliament are unable to cope with the Herculean challenge of severing the ties of EU membership while keeping the country stable and prosperous.
The problem is only going to become worse.
As the Brexit process goes to its next stage regardless of whether it is ‘hard’, ‘soft’ or simply delayed, it will create more divisions and irreconcilable problems. As a result, the issues of Scottish independence, Irish peace process and preventing the value of the national currency from sliding even further are certain to re-emerge.
To have reached this point is a remarkable outcome for a country that just 150 years ago was a world leader projecting influence to all corners of the globe…
Britain has reached this point because of a collective failure by the political class to understand the historical processes at work in today’s world as the global balance of power shifts to accommodate the rise of China and India and a traditional strain of isolationism re-emerges in the United States. Britain has fallen short of taking the lead in this domain while losing its trade and industry niche. The transatlantic pillar on which the Brexiteers wish to build their vision of a ‘global Britain’ no longer exists in the form they imagine. Washington’s calculus about the value of the UK as an ally has also changed considerably.
To advocate leaving the EU, you must have a strategy for doing so. That requires understanding properly what you are leaving and what you are very unlikely to gain. Despite their obsession with the EU, the Brexiteers understand remarkably little about it.
How did they not see that insisting on leaving the customs union would turn the issue of the Irish border into the largest obstacle on the path to an orderly Brexit? Once again, Britain is struggling with the legacy of imperial rule in Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement had put those demons to bed.
Who among the current crop of Conservative politicians knows anything about the deep and lasting divisions from over a century ago in the Liberal Party over the Irish question? These led to the formation of the Conservative and Unionist Party in 1912 to oppose William Gladstone’s determination to grant Home Rule for Ireland.
Cameron should have done. Over 100 hundred years later in an effort to slow momentum towards a second Scottish referendum, he put ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ on ballot papers for the 2016 Scottish Parliament election. The purpose was to demonstrate to the 55% of the Scottish electorate who had voted to remain in the United Kingdom in 2014 that the Tories stood for preserving the Union.
If the political class had a consciousness of history, it would see that the divisions of the past can be self-perpetuating if not properly managed for lack of insight into historical integration processes. Brexit will inevitably create new divisions on top of old ones. It requires much more than unpicking 40 years of ties that have bound Britain to Europe. The task is nothing less than re-establishing a place for Britain in the world – but with fewer political, economic and diplomatic tools to do so.
The omens are discouraging. Since the Referendum, the government has made a series of tactical errors in its efforts to take Britain out of the EU. These include notably the ill-conceived decision to pursue a ‘hard’ Brexit leaving Britain outside the single market, the customs union and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. This was inevitably going to collide with the realities of the Irish border.
When she called a snap election in 2017, did Theresa May’s team think for a moment about the dangers of finding themselves dependent in parliament on the DUP? Familiarity with history would have bred caution because of the damage that the Irish question has done to political leaders and parties going back to the nineteenth century.
In 1885, Gladstone depended on the support of 86 Irish MPs who backed Home Rule. Elections had failed to produce a sufficient Liberal majority. This led to the tabling of the First Home Rule Bill that was defeated by an alliance of Tories and dissident Liberals. The central issue was Ulster and the protection of its majority Protestant population. Gladstone saw no reason for it to enjoy special protection. The question divided the Liberal Party for the next 20 years.
Before Gladstone, Disraeli had fallen foul of the Irish question despite his attempts to ignore it. Yet a new agricultural crisis brought another episode of famine to Ireland and Disraeli was forced to confront it. London’s response was meagre and Disraeli’s anti-Irish rhetoric in his re-election campaign backfired badly.
Salisbury fared better on the Irish question than Gladstone because he was a deep thinker on the issue. Before he became Prime Minister, he had reflected on the causes of Ireland’s underdeveloped economy and the options for addressing agrarian violence. Yet he too was unable to develop the support for maintaining the union with Ireland that he sought.
Balfour strongly opposed Home Rule and acquired the nickname ‘Bloody Balfour’ for his use of force in putting down insurrection in Ireland. He too swam unsuccessfully against the tide of history.
After the 1910 General Election. Irish Nationalists again held the balance of power because Asquith’s Liberals had a majority of just one seat over the Tories. The pressure for Home Rule became unstoppable and the Third Home Rule Bill eventually passed in 1912. Asquith was widely blamed for failing to protect the interests of the Ulster Protestants.
Lloyd George’s career foundered on the Irish question. His introduction of partition led to the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921. He underestimated the IRA’s ability to fight and its support in the population. Attempts to defeat it by force were unsuccessful and Lloyd George had to sue for peace. The results were bitter: civil war in Ireland and a rebellion within the Conservative Party that led to his resignation in 1922.
Partition was the eventual price of Irish independence because the political leaders of the day could find no other solution to the Ulster question. This division imposed enormous costs on both sides, climaxing in 30 years of the Troubles.
The failure of political leaders of this calibre to cope with the Irish question should surely have been in the minds of the politicians driving Brexit. Taking Britain out of the European Union is very different from joining it in the first place.
Ireland’s internal contradictions are now once again playing out at the centre of British politics. The Brexit referendum results in Northern Ireland revealed a striking anomaly; 56% of the electorate voted to remain while the pro-Leave Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) polled the highest number of votes in the 2017 General Election.
Ignorance too of more recent history led to the casual disregard for the impact that Brexit would have on Ireland. EU membership was one of the factors that brought the UK and the Republic of Ireland closer together and helped resolve the conflict.
Over the past 30 years, the EU has invested heavily in cross-border co-operation in Ireland to promote economic and social stability. Few other regions of the EU have benefited so handsomely from such attention.
Was it really so difficult to see these problems coming? The Good Friday Agreement, like any peace agreement, is vulnerable to shifts of political attitudes. The issue of Brexit easily plays into the divisions between Unionists and Nationalists and threatens to magnify them if, as appears likely, Northern Ireland will eventually find itself in a regulatory environment closer to the EU than the UK once it is outside the EU.
Recent opinion polls show that moderate nationalists in Northern Ireland have already become more assertive in their support for a united Ireland and that other non-DUP voters have been shifting to pro-unification positions in the hope of staying in the EU.
Like Ireland from the middle of the nineteenth century, Brexit is sowing divisions in British society that could last decades. While it is clear that Britain’s political class requires renewal after such a serious failure, the question is whether Britain’s Time of Troubles can bring to the fore great leaders who will heed the lessons of history and mitigate the radicalism that spawns conflict and irreconcilable positions.
The divisions in Britain’s political class today look like those between the Lilliputians and Blefescudians in Gulliver’s Travels with the Lilliputians squabbling over which way to crack an egg. The only difference is that there is no Gulliver to stand above the fray.
Now a further delay to Brexit has been agreed, yet Theresa May is still trying to leave her mark on this part of history with the tenacity of a fanatic, only to see her personal influence dwindling, the government disintegrating and the Conservative Party being divided even further. Similarly to the Home Rule issue, Brexit has no simple solution; no single leap is enough to overcome this obstacle. Politics made in haste are unsustainable and only serve the tactical strivings of today’s politicians whose time will be over in a heartbeat. Busy seizing the moment, they will not be the ones defining the future world order. A final decision on getting a ‘divorce’ or living in a common-law marriage with Europe requires time, and a long time at that. The next General Election holds the potential for delivering a degree of clarity on the issue. Today, we need new politicians capable of more than mere reflex action but those with a global vision and a knowledge of history. A great country, one that Britain has once been and should be, needs the kind of statesmen described by James Freeman Clarke: “The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election while the statesman thinks about the next generation.” Events following an election and, possibly, another Brexit referendum, should bring such people to power and the country back to the forefront of science, industry and trade. This would give people confidence in the future, provide businesses with predictability in law and the stability needed to attract investment and assure Britain’s neighbours of a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the country.
Alexander Temerko is a UK industrialist, and a member of the IEA’s Advisory Council.