PREDICTABLY an eleventh-hour trade deal was reached to seal the Brexit process triggered by the 2016 referendum in which a majority of self-pitying, self-harming British voters turned their backs on the most constructive development in European history. Perhaps the real possibility of the British and French navies coming to blows over fish while Russian submariners laughed fathoms below was enough to embarrass even English right-wing populists. And ‘no deal’ was always a matter of bluster.
Brexit is far from over. In a sense it has only just begun. Will Britain with its new rogue state status courtesy of the Internal Markets Act adhere to the deal? Outside the European Union (EU) it will be less secure, less influential and less prosperous. With Donald Trump gone it will be less useful to the United States; and the cutting of its international aid budget will mean less soft power to exercise. In short, a much lesser Britain.
In the longer term Brexit has watered the seeds of national disintegration. In ten years’ time the United Kingdom will probably no longer exist. An independent Scotland, member of the EU, is a stronger proposition after Brexit and the pandemic. A united Ireland is politically much more complicated, but economic imperatives may prove irresistible. Even Wales, having had a taste of its own pandemic management, may favour independence.
The idea of Hadrian’s Wall and Offa’s Dyke becoming international boundaries is surreal, but all too possible in the mad world of Brexit. The identity of millions of people who consider themselves British will evaporate as Great Britain becomes Little England. And this is conservatism, the product of a Conservative Party government? Like the American Republican Party, it has been captured by crass right-wing populist nationalism.
The reasons how and why this extraordinary saga has unfolded are complicated and have yet to be fully unpacked. Xenophobia, nationalist angst, existential crisis and anti-intellectualism all played their role. They are part of a broad syndrome of self-delusion summed up pithily by Afua Hirsch: the British, she said, have no idea just how unimportant they are in today’s world. And this in turn suggests a total misreading of their own history. One of the Brexit campaign’s demands was a return of national sovereignty (although its supporters showed scant regard for parliamentary sovereignty once the referendum had been won). It’s a trans-Atlantic echo of MAGA, Trump’s ‘Make America great again’.
The popular version of British history has a dual centrepiece: ‘winning’ World War II; and the empire upon which the sun never set. It’s true that had it not been for Britain and its imperial allies (including South Africa) victory over fascism would have taken much longer. (Ironically many Brexiters would have been appeasers in the 1930s.) And the empire left a legacy that does have positives. The rule of law, an independent judiciary and an incorruptible, professional civil service are just a few.
But other aspects were less than heroic. The triangular trade of slaves, raw materials and finished goods – mercantilism – was an exploitative system that underpinned British prosperity and power. Ports like Bristol and Liverpool thrived as a result of slavery. And in order to keep this system functional there were regular punitive campaigns and periodic massacres. The empire was built on economic exploitation and military repression, spiced by opportunism and altruism. It is not a particularly glorious or exceptional history, but in fantasy form it feeds some British perceptions of both present and future.
Underlying Brexit is the arrogant idea that the British exhibited particular abilities and character traits in the past that have been suppressed by the European Commission in Brussels. Disengagement, termed independence and sovereignty, will unleash a glorious new epoch. Here lie delusion and danger. Both British history and the nature of the modern world have been grossly misrepresented. Today safety and prosperity lie in bridge building and closer ties with neighbours who share trade and basic political and cultural values. Just as the United States is set to bin the mirages of the Trump presidency, so Britain is about to pursue its own set of unicorns. It is sobering and salutary to think that had the EU been the organisers of football, from whose competitions English teams were about to be expelled, Brexit would never have happened. Such are the irrational priorities of modern society.
It is perhaps appropriate that the final stages of the post-Brexit deal were beset by fish. The fishing industry is a minute part of the British economy, reliably reported as less important than Harrods department store in London. Yet the image of brave fishermen battling the elements to bring their catch ashore to picturesque little ports lingers in popular mythology; like blue passports, village life, and donkey rides on the beach in the summer holidays. These were all symbols of a yearning for the past deeply held by many Brexit voters. Much of it existed only in their imagination.
It is a severe object lesson in the importance of a balanced and realistic view of history. Enough of the British have got it sufficiently wrong to steer their country in a direction that defies evidence and common sense. At the same time South Africans are making similar mistakes, simplifying their past and reducing the future to empty slogans, which could have consequences that become just as self-defeating.
Published in the Witness, 5 January 2021