Disunited Kingdom, European Disunion

Where to start? I’ve been waiting for things to settle down a bit before exploring the implications of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, but there’s not much sign of that happening. So I’m going to have a go at making sense of some of the implications of the vote.

A reasonable place to start is with this piece from Matt Yglesias, written on Friday as soon as the results were known. He identifies one winner and four losers from the vote; I agree, but I want to add a few more in each category, plus a very important doubtful. I’d also suggest that some wins have something of a pyrrhic quality, while some losses may have a silver lining.

Southern eurozone – winner

Most of the debate prior to the referendum, logically enough, was about whether Britain would be better or worse off without the EU. There was very little discussion on whether the EU would be better or worse off without Britain.

It’s easy to see ways it will be worse off: it will lose a large and wealthy member, suffer a blow to prestige and risk a domino effect that might see pressure for similar moves elsewhere. But it will also lose its most recalcitrant member, the one that has done the most over the years to slow the advance of federalism and the construction of genuine democratic cross-border institutions. For those who want to “deepen” the EU, that’s going to be a gain, at least once the short-term dislocation is past.

As Yglesias says, that’s particularly relevant to the southern European countries who have found themselves constrained by a common monetary system but unable to rely on common fiscal or welfare policies. “A Europe without Britain will be one that’s set on a more rapid course to even deeper forms of fiscal integration.”

David Cameron – loser

Fairly obvious, this one. It was Cameron’s referendum, and he’s taken, as he had to, the prime responsibility for its failure.

Still, it would be nice if his critics acknowledged the paucity of alternatives that he had. The Tory backbench was fiercely Europhobic; without something to offer them, they would have destroyed Cameron’s leadership, or his re-election prospects, or both. So he took a gamble: it didn’t pay off, but it came very close.

If he’d got that extra 2%, he would be being hailed now as a tactical genius. That’s politics.

George Osborne – loser

Perhaps even more obvious. Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, was the heir presumptive for the party leadership for the pro-European wing. That’s now a non-starter; he’s announced he won’t contest the coming leadership election, saying (perhaps with a degree of understatement) “I don’t think I can be the person to bring this party together at the moment.”

That’s not to say that the pro-Europeans are out of the running. Home secretary Theresa May, who campaigned for “remain” but is seen as more flexible on the issue, is rallying support and will be a strong contender for the leadership. But the ballot may well come down to being less of a “for or against Europe” affair, and more “for or against Boris” (see below).

The British economy – loser

Superficially, this was a bone of contention during the campaign. The “remain” side said that leaving would be economically ruinous; its opponents downplayed the risk. But the “leave” campaign didn’t waste much time on economic issues: its real beef was cultural, and it encouraged its voters in the belief that it was worth paying a price in unemployment or impoverishment if it meant there would be fewer immigrants.

In the short term there’s certainly been a sharp economic shock. But as Yglesias says, the real risks to the economy are in the long run. And while they probably won’t be as bad as some alarmists have said, all the signs are they will be plenty bad enough.

To cushion the blow, the new government will want to do a deal with the EU that will reproduce as much as possible the benefits of membership. But the more they succeed in that, the more they risk reigniting disaffection among “leave” voters who had been expecting real change – because preserving the benefits will only be possible by preserving some of the costs as well. You can have integration or you can have autarky, but you can’t have both.

North-eastern Europe – loser

Although Britain has been the main foot-dragger in the EU, it hasn’t been the only one. A number of countries, as Yglesias says, “prefer a looser union,” including Denmark, Sweden and several of the newer Eastern European members. Without Britain there as a counterweight, those countries may find the balance swinging towards a degree of federalism that they’re not entirely comfortable with.

While I think this is a real issue, I’m not convinced that it’s going to be a major problem. Britain’s position was always unique; its different history gave it a different perspective on the EU’s purpose, and its geographical location allowed to detach itself both physically and psychologically in a way that other countries will find difficult. Without it, striking a comfortable balance on the question of federalism might not be easy, but it will at least be easier.

That’s it for Yglesias’s winners and losers; what follows are some of mine.

Vladimir Putin – winner

The Russian president has cast himself, particularly in the last couple of years, as the chief antagonist of European integration and (partly as a consequence) the patron of the European far right. On both counts, last week was a triumph: his British henchman, Nigel Farage, delivered for him. The result will boost the morale of other far-right parties and divert attention away from any sort of common resistance to Putin’s ambitions.

But there’s a longer-term risk in this as well. If the EU, without Britain, goes down the road of greater integration, it may end up as a stronger rival to Russia, and one more able to stop any rogue members from drawing on Russian patronage.

There’s also the chance that if Britain successfully builds a new friendly-but-not-intimate relationship with the EU that is seen to be mutually beneficial, that may one day serve as a model that a post-Putin Russia could imitate.

The Conservative Party – winner

This one will probably seem counter-intuitive, particularly for a party heading into a divisive leadership battle. But assuming that Brexit is accomplished – and regardless of how much economic or constitutional pain comes with it – the Conservative Party will at least have put behind it the issue that has divided it for more than two decades.

It’s impossible to overstate how debilitating the debates over Europe have been for the Tories. Of course the divisions won’t disappear overnight, and some will reappear in other forms, but the major issue they have fought over will no longer be there. Once the immediate passions of the debate have cooled, it’s likely that the Conservatives will emerge as a more formidable force – especially given the disarray in the Labour Party.

Scottish nationalism – winner

Plenty has already been said on this score. The Scots were induced two years ago to stay in the UK, in part by the fear that as an independent country it would be difficult to get back into the EU. That position has now been reversed, and the Nationalists are moving to take full advantage.

Their argument for being treated generously by the EU will now be correspondingly stronger. Then, they were told that if they left the UK, they would have to apply to the EU as a new member. Now, they will be able to say “But we haven’t done anything – it’s the rest of the UK that voted to leave. We’re an existing member, and we want to stay.” (In the same way that if Scotland had voted for independence last time, that wouldn’t have made England a “new” EU member.)

It’s not clear whether the EU will buy this argument or not, but since they’re not feeling too kindly towards the English at the moment, I think it’s fairly likely. And presumably the Nationalists will want some reassurance, even informally, on that score before they push ahead with a new referendum.

UKIP – loser

The UK Independence Party would appear to have had a great victory. But for a single-issue party, that’s a big problem: what does it do now?

This is the flip side of the benefit to the Conservative Party: UKIP clearly attracted a lot of voters whose only real disagreement with the Tories was over Europe. With that issue off the table, most of them will drift back. UKIP can try to paint itself as the only safeguard against the referendum result being reversed, but that’s not much to build an electoral platform on.

More likely it will try to transform itself into a general hard-right party, a track it has already started down. Some years ago I described it as “a very typically northern European far-right party. Not a traditionalist, neo-fascist party (the British National Party has that territory covered), but a party that pays lip service to liberal economics and even ‘libertarian’ values while being fanatically anti-immigrant, not unlike the Progress Party in Norway.”

The problem is that similar parties on the continent have proportional representation to help them win seats. With first-past-the-post voting, even the 12.6% of the vote it got last year only won UKIP a single seat. It may be able to secure itself a niche on the hard right, but it will be a small one.

Jeremy Corbyn – loser

Another obvious one. Labour leader Corbyn has always been lukewarm about the EU; that could have been an asset, if he had been able to mount a campaign that acknowledged the EU’s faults but made the case to stay in and improve it. But if that was his intention he failed dismally.

Now his parliamentary colleagues, who have never had much time for him, are making a determined effort to remove him. Their plan seems poorly thought out, and suffers from the lack of any obvious replacement, but at best it will leave Corbyn fatally weakened and his party more divided than ever.

Boris Johnson – loser

Like UKIP, Johnson would seem to have had a big win last week, but appearances are deceptive. Nigel Farage at least has the consolation of seeing the triumph of a cause he believes in, but for Johnson, who seemed to have no strong belief either way, it was all about personal advantage. And on that basis he hasn’t come out well.

Until last week, everyone was thinking about the succession to David Cameron being a ballot in two or three years time. By then Johnson would have been well placed: he’d positioned himself on the side of the debate that had fewer competitors on the front bench but was more popular with the grass roots, and after the passions of the referendum had cooled – assuming “remain” had won, as most expected – he would have been a plausible unifying candidate.

Instead, he has become the focus of discontent, both from those who supported EU membership and from those who opposed it but now feel (or will come to feel in coming months) that they’ve been misled as to its implications. And Johnson, an intelligent man for all his playing the fool, seems to realise that. On Friday he looked a bit like one would expect Donald Trump might feel were he to win the presidency – silent horror that something that started out as a lark had actually borne fruit and taken him prisoner.

Northern Ireland – loser

This is possibly the most worrying consequence of the result. The peace agreement in Northern Ireland depends heavily on freedom of movement between north and south, and nationalist sentiment was strongly in favor of “remain”. But there seems no prospect of getting a consensus on what to do next: the province as a whole voted 55.8% for “remain”, but the unionists are still in the majority, and the majority in unionist areas voted for “leave”.

For Ireland itself there is at least an upside; although it will have to tighten its border controls on one or both sides, it will be a likely place of refuge for businesses looking to relocate from England while keeping an English-speaking environment. But it’s hard to see any way forward for the north that doesn’t pose a serious risk of a return to bloodshed.

Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen – ???

This is the big unknown. Last week revealed an unsuspected strength in the forces of populism and xenophobia, which are a threat in many other parts of the world as well. Does this threaten further electoral nightmares such as the election of a president Trump this year or a president Le Pen next year?

Certainly it suggests we should not place too much confidence in opinion polls that lean towards the more respectable positions; there may be dark undercurrents that they are not picking up. But in terms of the influence on people’s thinking, I’m not sure that the Trumps and Le Pens of the world will necessarily benefit.

There is already quite a lot of “buyer’s remorse” visible in Britain, and the result could be a valuable example of how voting has real consequences – warning people against a protest vote that could go horribly wrong. It also makes the world look a more dangerous and unpredictable place, and one would expect that to help Hillary Clinton: people are less likely to think this is the time to put a madman in charge.

Nonetheless, mass psychology is an uncertain thing, and it may be that the far right will gain from last week a momentum that will lead to further victories. On that sobering note, let’s await what the future brings.



6 thoughts on “Disunited Kingdom, European Disunion

  1. Spain, France and Italy are unlikely to support a secessionist Scotland as any precedent will be used against them by such regions as Catalonia and Corsica. Scotland will not secede if instead of a plebiscite an Australian style referendum is offered. Then the details will be on the table before they vote, not determined after, including the loss of about 14% GDP in subsidies from England, and determination of such issues as the division of the national debt and what is to happen to the nuclear submarine fleet, the armed forces etc.


    1. Thanks David. I think Spain is the only big problem; none of the others seem terribly worried about secessionists these days. But it’s hard to tell just what the Spanish will say since they’re busy putting together a new government. The rest of the EU will probably be very generous with the Scots, since for them it will be a big coup to keep part of the UK in. There’s also the prospect of a lot of new economic activity from firms relocating from London – Edinburgh and Glasgow will be competing with Dublin for the new business.


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