The Financial Express
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Great Britain or Little England?

Great Britain or Little England?

During the hectic negotiations with European Community (EC), the predecessor to European Union (EU), Great Britain struggled hard to convince the European leaders, particularly De Gaulle, about the genuineness of its loyalty to the new Europe. Ever suspicious of `perfidious Albion', Europe hemmed and hawed. At that time, in the Seventies, a small book was published in Britain titled Great Britain or Little England, with the implicit warning about the dire consequences of being left out  of the European project for a common market that was taking shape across the English channel.

Fast forward forty five years and Britain is seen struggling with Europe again. This time it is trying to wriggle out of the EU which is accused by its politicians of gnawing at sovereignty relentlessly ever since it was admitted as a member. The slew of concessions granted by European Commission (EC) at Brussels to placate the irate British politicians over perceived loss of their sovereign power did not prove enough of a mitigation to stop the British government from trying to break away from the continent. The incipient resentment continued to rise and reached fever pitch during the second tenure of Prime Minister David Cameron who, in spite of having managed to wangle a few more important concessions from Brussels, was forced to call a referendum on Britain's continued membership in EU. This exercise in direct democracy by West Minister, came to be known as Brexit, abbreviation of Britain's exit from EU. It had a populist ring and the gullible electorate seemed to lap it up with much relish because of the razzmatazz. In the event, only 52 per cent of the voters participating in the referendum opted for Brexit. This was not a big margin of majority by any standard. But this was lost on the powers that be in Britain and the verdict was thought to be unequivocal in favour of Brexit. David Cameron resigned from his post without any fuss, paving the way for Britain's sententious exit from EU.

Theresa May, who succeeded him in No. 10 Downing Street, solemnly proclaimed, `Brexit is Brexit' even though she had worn the label of a `Remainer' (in EU) until the referendum was held. Clearly, she cast her lot with the Brexiteers, setting aside her personal conviction in a show of unabashed political expediency. Brexit became the all-consuming pre-occupation of her government and the focus of the agenda for what was seen as the transitional government under her watch. She prided herself on heading the Brexit government at such a juncture and went about it with the zeal of an unrelenting warrior. But the captains of industry and finance saw the downsides of Brexit and cautioned May about the risks of a hasty and sweeping departure from established institutions and practices under EU. Time and again, they told her that since becoming a member of EU, Britain had become joined at the hip with the common market and a surgical operation to separate the two would inflict incalculable damage to the British economy. A sudden and major rapture in the body economic would not only be bloody but would also result in a steady haemorrhage, bleeding the British economy white, they warned.

A sober Theresa May gave up the mantra of `Brexit is Brexit' at any cost and sought a mutually satisfactory exit deal from the policy makers of EU. At the core of this negotiated deal would be a retention of a semblance of common market and a customs union, she suggested. As part of this compromise deal, the Irish Backstop was held up as a concrete instance, providing for a free flowing border with no customs check, as has been the case under EU. Being more than a compromise, Irish Backstop was touted in the proposed deal as embodying the `best of both the worlds'.      

Held out as a shining example of pragmatic economic diplomacy, Irish Backstop turned out to be the nemesis for Theresa May. The hard line Brexiteers saw in it a Trojan horse through which EU bureaucrats would retain their stranglehold over Britain. They raved and ranted, fulminating against what appeared to be a `duplicitous' Prime Minister. The revolt by hardliners in the cabinet and the members of parliament (MPs) proved to be ugly and reminded many about the proverbial `long knife' that had been used in the past to cut ambitious prime ministers down to their size or to put paid to their tenure altogether. Rebuffed publicly more than once, a tearful Theresa May announced her resignation, paving the way for a hardliner in No. 10 Downing Street who would deliver Brexit `at any cost'.

In the race for party leadership that ensued, Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who had later resigned as foreign secretary from Theresa May's cabinet in protest against her `soft' Brexit policy, became the winner, hands down with two-thirds majority.

Bombastic and mercurial, Boris Johnson had mesmerised the party members with his rhetorical flourishes and blistering pronouncements on the burning issue of the day, Brexit. In his opening address, he thundered that there would be no `ifs' and `buts' about Brexit and he would lead Britain out of EU, come hell or high water, by October 31. In a not too subtle attempt to twist the arms of European leaders he threatened to withhold the payment of withdrawal fee amounting to 35 million pound sterling. As regards Irish Backstop, he bluntly announced that there would be no such thing in his plan for exit because `the buck stops here'.

The responses to Johnson's announcements have been quick and unequivocal. The EU representative in charge of Brexit observed that the terms of withdrawal agreement reached with Theresa May would not be changed and negotiations would not be re-opened. More damaging appears to be the prospects of keeping Northern Ireland within Great Britain in the absence of a soft border with the Irish republic. The moderates in Northern Ireland have made no bones about their preference for a union with the republic in the south that allows them to enjoy the benefits of a common market. The Scottish nationalists cannot be expected to sit pretty, seeing Northern Ireland break way from the union. It would only be a matter of time before a new referendum for Scottish independence would follow the departure of Great Britain from EU even if Northern Ireland dithers on breaking away. If Scotland becomes independent on the back of a referendum, Wales would come under the domino effect and follow in the footsteps of the northern neighbour. With Northern Ireland straining at the leash, Scotland becoming `scot-free' following a referendum and Wales following suit, Great Britain would be reduced to little England, making the spectre of the 1970's book a reality.

If the political fallout of Brexit appears as dire, the economic consequences would be no less damaging and far-reaching. To begin with, the pre-eminence of British financial world would be lost in the absence of a common market. Major manufacturing units, including the tech sector would make a beeline for the continent to enjoy tax-free status. With these would depart the much vaunted brains that power the British economy viz the innovators, managers, venture capitalists, researchers and tech wizards. These inevitable developments would leave Britain a devastated economy, as under a major catastrophe from which it would be difficult to extricate itself. Britain may try to compensate for these downsides of Brexit with closer ties with America and may even try to rebuild the commonwealth into a trading bloc. But in the fast changing global economy that has already overtaken Britain, the promotion of a new institutional arrangement for trade and growth would not be easy. For one, the commonwealth member countries are already too integrated into bilateral and multilateral agreements to break free and join a new framework under the leadership of Britain. For another, having abandoned them in favour of EU, Britain has lost their trust and may not be able to recover the same anytime soon. Britain outside of EU, will be `alone on the beach' as Mathew Arnold had written and Winston Churchill had made so much use of in his wartime speeches. But this time around, mere rhetorical flourish would not deliver the country from the impasse that it would find itself in following a `no-deal' Brexit. Given this bleak prospect, why would Britain be hell-bent to crush out of EU at any cost? If the other 27 member countries of EU can live with Brussels' bureaucracy why can't Britain? Why are the benefits of belonging to a bigger organisation less attractive than the abstracted `glory' of an independent but smaller entity? Why, indeed? The questions beg for answers. 


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