One of the best opinion pieces in the wake of Brexit—Britain's June 23 referendum vote in which a majority voted in favor of the UK leaving the European Union (EU)— is Simon Jenkins' in the Guardian of the 6th of July, "Ignore the prophets of doom. Brexit will be good for Britain," with a subhead: "A stale leadership class is on the way out and the property bubble will burst. I can’t see the bad news."
Brexit is starting to deliver. British politics was constipated and has now overdosed on laxative. It is experiencing a great evacuation. It has got rid of a prime minister and is about to get rid of a leader of the opposition. It will soon be rid of a chancellor of the exchequer and a lord chancellor. It is also rid of two, if not four, Tory heirs apparent. Across the spectrum the left is on the brink of upheaval and perhaps historic realignment, if only the Liberal Democrats have the guts to engineer it. The Greens and Ukip have both lost their leaders. An entire political class is on the way out. As Oscar Wilde said of the death of Little Nell, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh.
During the referendum I was persuaded neither by project fear nor by Brexit’s projected sunny uplands. I thought, and still think, time and compromise will eventually stabilise Britain’s relations with the EU as not so different from today. Whether the stabiliser is joining the European Economic Area (within the letter, if not the spirit, of Brexit) or some other arrangement – who knows? I voted remain because I felt Europe’s future to be so precarious as desperately to need Britain’s more forceful presence. I feel that more strongly after the news that the European parliament leader, Martin Schulz, wants to move the EU swiftly to a “one government” federal constitution.
I think most in the leadership class in the UK, as in the USA, are worse than stale.... they're bought and paid for (at times paid off) by monied interests.
But, whither the fresh UK (or USA) leaders?
Jenkins writes provocatively, as it seems to me one must do to be widely read online, that Brexit can't possibly be bad on balance now or later. Surely, the more reasonable position, albeit less provocative, is that Brexit may be a net good for Britain...or it may not be. It's simplistic to assume it'll all work out for the best no matter what, and Jenkins, unless I'm misreading him, comes perilously close to blithely asserting such an opinion.
Brexit will be good only to the extent that there's vision and leadership to navigate the UK's way into sufficiently beneficial treaties and other formal and informal relationships, including with the EU, in the coming years. But at this time—and it's still admittedly early days!—my biggest concern is that I don't see nascent vision or new leadership such as may be required.
Hopefully, such things will emerge. To the extent that that leadership could be Parliamentary, having a General Election before negotiations get substantially underway might be wise insofar as it could allow challenges to sitting MPs who many voters may consider to be in that stale leadership class.
However, I'm not sure the needed leadership will emerge from Members of Parliament (MPs). Can up-and-coming, perhaps even somewhat revolutionary or, to use a trendy term, "disruptive" new politicians unseat incumbent MPs when the stale leadership class includes party leaders who control much of the candidate-selection process. And wouldn't challengers more than likely be young, that is, of the age demographic that was Remain, i.e. most in favor of the UK staying in the EU. If so, could they possibly hope to win enough seats to make a difference when a majority of UK voters seem to not share the political priorities of the younger generation?
Maybe from the ranks of business leaders or expert diplomats and negotiators will arise new leadership. But, surely a majority of them would be considered by Brexit voters—i.e., a majority of Britons—as also part of that stale leadership class.
I'm temperamentally conservative and risk-averse, albeit politically left of center, so I believed with some reluctance and caveats that on balance Remain was the best option. Here in February, I outlined my concerns about both the UK's continued EU membership and Brexit.
I want what's best for the UK relative to the Brexit situation. That may sounds strange, even suspect, given that I'm an American. Why would I even care? The interests of my own republic take precedence over the interests of the UK, of course, but—to be honest—the interests of the UK are of far more concern to me than the interests of the EU, despite the fact that the EU is in part a humanitarian, high-minded, and progressive endeavor, born of a morally laudable desire to reduce the likelihood of conflict in Europe.
But, the EU seems also to be an increasingly cold, technocratic and undemocratic endeavor, too, with leadership that is quite possibly too unaccountable to the European demos and too out of touch with Europeans who globalization has left behind. It might be noted that there were left-of-center voices for Brexit during the debate, such as Giles Fraser, not just nationalist ones or nativist ones focused on stirring up resentment against immigrants, and the lack of democratic accountability on the part of the EU's leaders was among their complaints.
I guess I should declare my interest, such as it is, or perhaps it's best termed a rank bias, maybe sentimentality, or even what some might term retrograde over-emphasis on notions of national sovereignty. But, I'm not an absolute relativist; I don't think all nations are equal, and since the mid-1990s when I was a Research Assistant in the House of Commons and then an assistant to the Bishop of London's Chaplain to the Homeless (Church of England), I've had great affection for and felt gratitude towards the UK, and my circle of friends and associates there has only grown larger in the years since.
So, I'm very interested to see what kind of UK leadership emerges. That doesn't mean I care nothing for the EU or its nations. I hope for new EU leadership, too, because the project is, I think, still worthwhile but needs reform.
And I am also eager to see who among the allies of the UK will reach out, too.
For instance, President Obama said that Brexit would put the UK at the back of the queue in terms of trade negotiations with the US and others. But, President Obama has only five months left in office. Then a new administration will arise and set its own agendas. I think a Trump or Clinton administration would be unwise to put at the back of the queue either the Special Relationship or, more practically speaking, our nation's relationship with the world's fifth largest national economy and third largest national military budget.
In terms of other trading partners's relationships to the UK, I cannot say—China, African nations, Commonwealth nations, what will they do? Can, should they send the UK to the back of queue?
Illustration by Eve Bee.
See also "The beauty beneath Brexit's bedwetting" by Irvine Welsh in the Guardian.