The Chaotic Kingdom

Theresa May, edited. London, May 2017.

Sometimes I wish the United Kingdom would finish its prolonged post-imperial suicide.  Divide the kingdoms and make Cornwall great again.

To adapt a Polish saying, for the past two and a half years the British have been a pimple on the ass of progress. They have dragged Europe and the world through a tortuous divorce conducted by a dedicated Brexit ministry with thousands of hands and no visible work product except reports. 

Despite billions of pounds spent in Brexit preparations and a legion of solicitors, Theresa May’s government cannot get its EU divorce agreement through parliament and is now simply going to march out of the EU house.  A forced walk it may be, but a walk the Tories fashioned through their own mismanagement. 

We can almost see May rising in parliament after her defeat to sing that HMS Pinafore standard, “the British tar is a soaring soul,” whose “energetic fist should be ready to resist / a dictatorial world”.  No one is impressed. Europe is displeased and deeply annoyed.  Trump and Putin, on the other hand, are beaming at the prospect of the UK outside of the EU.

From where I sit in Arizona, the edge of Anglophone dominion in North America, Brexit might seem a distant issue.  To the contrary, it is very close. Brexit represents another instance of nationalist efforts to build walls and prevent migration.

The EU is built on free movement and that is an anathema to those who believe in distinctive national purisms that Fichte and other romantic Europeans posited.

In Arizona, similar notions of a historic Anglophone American character drive the xenophobia and wall-building that Donald Trump represents.  As has happened so many times before in their transatlantic political and cultural relations, the US and UK have the same problem.

Three Cheers for Chaos

There are 10 weeks until Brexit comes into force on March 29 2019.  The EU leadership has made clear there will be no amended agreement nor a parliamentary majority, no matter how many more begging pilgrimages Theresa May makes to Brussels. 

Even if she survives as prime minister, May cannot help but treading water to avoid drowning in the obvious: there will be no better deal offered by the EU. 

Theresa May built her government on achieving a good Brexit deal and now there is nothing.  Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, supported the government bill by asking rhetorically “Do we opt for order?  Or do we choose chaos?”  Parliament preferred chaos to May’s plan. 

By British government estimates, Brexit will have heavily adverse economic effects.  Estimates range from a 4 to 8 per cent drop in GDP.  The government inevitably will carry the blame for a trade drop-off, new tariffs, unemployment, displacement, and the forced relocation of both British and EU citizens. 

A British exodus from Europe is already on. Pensioners are alarmed over their potential inability to receive retirement incomes and health services. In Spain, the number of registered British residents has dropped precipitously and the expat community faces a rapid decline. 

At the same time, EU nationals in the UK face a precarious future and changed circumstances could force many to repatriate, possibly with EU countries pushing out UK citizens.  We appear to be at the brink of a massive internal migration within Europe. It’s the first time anything like this has happened since the Second World War.

Businesses, banks, and financial services have been making preparations to relocate operations from the City to Europe for nearly three years now, anxious to not lose access to the common market, which is nearly ten times the size of that of the United Kingdom, a veritable island economy isolated from the EU.

Those who dislike all things capitalist may rejoice at the sight of fleeing bankers, but forecasted job losses – ranging from a Bank of England estimate of 75,000 to independent estimates of 200,000+ lost jobs – are no laughing matter.

As frictionless trade disappears, entire sectors of the UK economy are facing severe crisis or extinction, including the auto industry.  Altogether, an estimated 2.5 million jobs are at risk from a hard Brexit. Predictions suggest that smaller regional or local firms will be hit hardest since these rely heavily on intra-bloc trading. 

Universities face massive de-funding from the EU and of even more importance, the loss of large numbers of European students and faculty.

How the Irish border issue gets resolved is beyond ken at present.  Either there will be border controls or there will not. 

An in-between solution is not going to happen because the EU’s integrity is at stake, not to mention Irish concern for preservation of the Good Friday Agreement’s terms that provide for the Republic of Ireland’s voice in any constitutional changes in Northern Ireland. 

The Unionists hold the fate of Theresa May’s government in their hands and she cannot afford to alienate their support in parliament. 

The economic and political consequences of a departure from the EU were clear before 2016 when the Brexit campaign triumphed.  Yet this profound constitutional change took place based on false promises of rich savings and brighter futures made by its promoters in UKIP and the Tories.  Brussels became a satanic mill whose regulatory powers sapped English liberties.    

For its part, much of the Labour Party saw an opening for a post-Brexit left political programme and nurtured strong resentment against the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF) for their mistreatment of Greece in its sovereign debt crisis. 

Further, Labour joined in an unholy marriage of convenience with Mr Brexit, the fatuous liar Nigel Farage, by refusing to push remaining in the EU. Espousing a not uncommon leftwing Euroscepticism, due to the neoliberal policies enacted by successive European People’s Party-led European Commissions, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been heavily criticised for not pushing for a second referendum, as some polls indicate a majority would vote to remain in the EU.

Labour, instead, has pushed for a better Brexit deal, drawing intense criticism from all sides.  A line of wishful thinking goes that a Brexit-drive social crisis will make socialism attractive again.  Even if successful, this is a very short-term strategy that involves the destruction of a profoundly consequential relationship with Europe that will require generations to repair.  All will not be as before, and it is not only a matter of waiting in a different airport queue.

Anti-European Identity Politics

Brexit rejects a European identity. It constitutes an anti-European shift, one that finds its parallel to Donald Trump’s opposition to NATO

The EU’s great project has been to foster a continental rather than parochial national identity.  The Union has advanced a long distance towards that goal and contrary to the populist view, is more popular with the European public than ever.

EU membership has been a bright, shining goal in impoverished towns and regions from Portugal to Poland. EU social schemes and community investments have been transformative to an impressive degree, particularly in newer Union member states, which receive massive transfers from Brussels to improve local infrastructure, health and education.

At the same time, as a result of the 2007-8 financial crisis, longstanding nationalist parties, such as UKIP, France’s National Front, and Italy’s Lega Nord, used the Union’s neoliberal response to move Europe to the right. Brexit was the most successful initiative to come out of this period, the rise of Germany’s neofascist Alternative für Deutschland party the second.   

Europe is not in a forgiving mood over Brexit. This is a polite divorce but there is profound anger towards the United Kingdom. The Irish and French press, to take two neighbours, drip with understandable scorn towards Theresa May and her incompetent handling of the Brexit negotiations. 

The customs union for which Labour hopes will be difficult to achieve and could take years of negotiations to secure, during which EU-UK trade relations will wilt.  The UK’s GDP ranks behind California and once Brexit comes into force will likely fall out of the top ten within several years. 

A measure of justice might be had if Brexit condemns the United Kingdom to slide slowly into backwater status, visited largely for London’s cultural attractions, in no so small part a consequence of the UK’s imperialist past. 

The British never gave fulsome welcome to independence beyond their own.  It took colonial independence movements and mass protests to strip the empire from their hands, lending special irony to claims that Brexit is about re-establishing British independence. 

The best we might gain from Brexit’s impending disaster would be if it gives fresh impetus to Scottish independence and, more improbably, leads to the isolation and collapse of colonial Unionism and the reintegration of Northern Ireland into an Ireland united in its fullness. 

The prospect of a once-imperial, now-disintegrating United Kingdom gives some of us a wan, ironic smile.

That reaction gets tempered by acute awareness that Brexit should concern people all around the world, not only in the UK and the European Union.  The EU project emerged from post-war efforts to ensure peace prevailed in Europe and competing nationalisms no longer governed that continent. 

Twentieth-century history illustrates repeatedly that people around the world – including my adopted home of Arizona – die in massive numbers when Europe fractures and fights.  Brexit constitutes such a fracture and its longer-term consequences dim prospects for European cooperation, security, and peace. 

Photograph courtesy of Duncan C. Published under a Creative Commons license.