Brexit may not be good for the UK, but it’s right for it

Chandrahas Choudhury

In the end, Brexit happened with a whimper, almost as a sideshow. On Jan. 1, after months of haggling and while preoccupied with the coronavirus disease crisis and the new mutant variant raging within its borders, the UK began its new (one is tempted to say socially distanced) relationship with the EU.

Everything came down to the wire, with a trade deal between two of the world’s largest economies finally brokered on Christmas Eve by negotiators who could not see eye to eye until the very last moment. It was then rushed through the British Parliament between Christmas and the new year by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had staked his entire political reputation on “getting Brexit done.”

Despite the last-minute drama, there was a sense of anti-climax and weary resignation about it all. The new deal, only welcomed because it was better than a no-deal exit, put a “mission accomplished” stamp on the long, tortuous political and legislative journey that became inevitable when a small majority of UK citizens voted to leave the bloc — of which the country had been a member since 1973 — in a June 2016 referendum.

On balance, it is probably a good thing that Brexit is now done and dusted. Even during those 47 years of membership, the UK, despite benefiting enormously from tariff-free access to the world’s largest single market, was the most conflicted major country in the EU. Neither of the UK’s two major political parties, the Conservatives and Labour, could bring themselves to commit consistently and unambiguously to the European project (they often each had internal wars over the question of Europe).
And so, despite the very small margin of victory for the “Leave” vote over “Remain” in the 2016 referendum — 52 percent to 48 — and the recent polls showing that many who voted to leave have had second thoughts, the secession of the UK from the EU is probably the best outcome for all sides. No relationship, whether personal or political, can be secure when one side is always changing its mind, and then changing it again.

Here in the UK, despite some hand-wringing by liberal commentators and by young people with an internationalist outlook, the majority of the population seems to have accepted Brexit in quite a sanguine fashion. Neither the short-term disruptions to trade because of the new customs regulations now in force nor the projections of a long-term cost to the economy of something like 6 percent of gross domestic product as a result of exiting the EU single market seem to have shaken the reflexive Euroskepticism of a preponderance of the British public, or shaken their conviction — as much a matter of heart as head — that they are better off going it alone.
No relationship, whether personal or political, can be secure when one side is always changing its mind, and then changing it again.

This attitude has deep roots in history. The great historian of medieval Europe, Friedrich Heer, wrote that Englishmen “have been in the habit of thinking of their country as an alter orbis, a world in itself, distinct from continental Europe.” Not even the integrative force of decades of globalization and visa-free travel, and the gradual expansion of modern British life into the continent (for example, nearly a million Britons now own a home in Spain), have been able to change the basic British predisposition.

The main features of this worldview are a love of the British monarchy and parliamentary democracy (seen as being the oldest in the world and the fount of parliamentary systems globally) and suspicion of continental attitudes to life. Such doubts have, in the last three decades, crystallized into the belief that the EU is essentially a suffocating bureaucratic project, designed to erode British sovereignty and fray British liberty by statutes rather than war.

Therefore, evidence-based arguments about the folly of leaving the world’s largest single market cut no ice for many on this island, which, having once dragooned a large part of the globe into an empire and now at the end of nearly a century of retreat, seeks to cut ties with any union larger than that in its own name. As the late British philosopher Roger Scruton, the darling of the British conservative press, put it in an essay in The Times in 2017, for many British people, the fundamental question about Brexit “was not: What will make us better off, but rather: Who are we, where are we, what holds us together in a shared political order and on whom have we conferred the right to govern us?”

Hence the paradox of Brexit. The EU, the partner that has less to lose, seems more disconsolate about the divorce, while the one that has more, the UK, seems jubilant about its enhanced power to legislate and trade without interference from Brussels.

But both sides stand to lose in the medium to long-term. The EU, already facing dissent from some of its remaining member states, will find it harder to enforce its authority, while knowing that any more departures from the club will mean a considerable loss of face and legitimacy. The UK, meanwhile, may soon have to accept a fissure from within, with calls for a new referendum for independence in Scotland (itself the most pro-EU part of the UK) gaining strength in the wake of Brexit.

For now, history speaks loudest in the voice of those 17 million or so denizens of the UK for whom Brexit represents a long-awaited “Independence Day” and a chance to sing “(Self) Rule Britannia” with pride and joy in the great history of their world-shaking island.

Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.