Following the disputes, division and disinformation in our national narratives, the road from the referendum of June 2016 to spring 2022 has been bumpy in the extreme. Some may find it amusing, in a dark sort of way, to enjoy politicians being exposed for illicit parties in Number 10 or finding themselves at the ‘could do better’ end of forging trade arrangements, where few actual deals have emerged. Yet behind all this is lies one big question: what is Britain’s role in the world, after the folly that is Brexit?
We have abandoned direct access to one of the largest markets in the world, conveniently located next-door. Labour markets and supply chains in the UK are disrupted. More specifically, we are left aghast about trading arrangements in an Irish setting.
Britain on the wrong side of history
Britain is clearly on the wrong side of history. War in Europe now highlights the ongoing debate at the heart of the British establishment about the affordability of increasing defence expenditure. This would compromise already stretched public spending on social objectives. UK contributes to Nato but would now not be part of any EU army.
The journalist and commentator Paul Mason (in the New Statesman) asks whether the Ukraine war has invalidated Brexit. He for one is never frightened of talking truth to power. Questioning whether Britain could ever ‘go it alone’ in economic, military, and diplomatic arenas, poses complex questions. Britain, a past powerful actor on the world stage, is in the present century a diminished bit-part actor, despite beliefs in certain quarters that the ‘Old Empire’ still stands for more than a brand of IPA (India Pale Ale).
Until recently, Putin of Russia and Xi of China, seemed a relatively distant nuisance for good ol’ Blighty. Might that be because we all have nukes and dare not do anything worse than engaging in cyber-warfare? Well not now since the invasion of a sovereign European state.
Is Britain a free agent?
Mason bravely identifies four reasons why Britain is less of a free agent “ducking and diving across Asia, the Americas and the Pacific” in search of free trade and showing distain for existing trading blocs.
- Firstly, China and Russia have forged what seems to be a “strategic economic alliance”, contrary to any “rules based global order”.
- Secondly, despite Russia having only 3 percent of global GDP (gross domestic product), sanctions on Putin’s regime will still have impact on the structures of global trade, notably energy.
- Thirdly, the energy war “may last until the end of the carbon age” and with Europe’s dependency on Russian oil, we will soon be part of “continental energy crisis, requiring continental solutions”.
- Finally, and crucially, the European Union en bloc must develop itself into a global power to prevent it becoming a pawn on some international chessboard.
It’s worth noting that the strength of the Chinese and Russian alliance will depend on what a broad Chinese view on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine really means.
The rhetoric of Brexit had it that the EU was a fading economic power and that the UK would do better outside. But surely the opposite is emerging? In geopolitical terms the EU will become stronger, not only because it must, but because collaboration in areas such as space exploration and co-ordinating humanitarian work outside the EU is already occurring.
Johnson’s fading image of the ‘sunlight uplands of Brexit’ is now fraught with unforeseeable outcomes. Mason cheerily signs off stating that Brexit was driven by xenophobes, Little Englanders and ‘Putin Stooges’ (ouch!). The EU is far from fading and now has an imperative to achieve strategic autonomy beyond an economic powerhouse serving for its 500 million or more citizens.
Democracy vs state capitalism
The mindsets of Putin and Xi are no longer about Marxism, Maoism or any other idea pursuing some once perceived ‘greater good’. In both cases, rampant state capitalism operates within long-established imperial geographical areas. They crudely maintain territorial power, exchanging goods and services on their own terms. There are also human rights issues galore.
The EU is a union of democracies, many arisen from nation states that are outcomes of imperial break-ups in Europe. As if this world view needs much validation, the outcry over Ukraine is based in the violation of a people who chose to become their own nation state some 30 years ago. The cost of the Russian invasion is catastrophic, but Ukraine is doing well in standing up to a thug from the Genghis Khan school of entente cordiale.
Renewable energy cries out for investment
Then there is energy. Germany leads the EU in oil, gas, and coal importation, mainly from Russia. This is not a good situation, added to which, in a flurry of green policy conversion, the Germans abandoned their nuclear energy programme.
Britain too has an uneasy relationship with nuclear power. Against a background of serious decommissioning of reactors, there is uncertainty around a new reactor at Wylfa, Hinkley Point C is under construction, and investment is becoming available for Sizewell C.
Yet as a whole, Europe has areas of high rainfall, mountains, lots of wind power and a southern belt of sunny countries all suited to renewable energy development. Germany may be in a cleft stick but, across the continent, renewable energy cries out for more and more investment.
Collaboration and realignment with the EU
The desired model across the political, environmental, and economic landscape is for an extension of democratisation and genuine collaboration in markets for labour, goods, and services, and in related realms of culture, research and education. What’s there not to go for in better re-aligning the UK with our EU neighbours? Brexit, a last roar of the British Lion, now sounds more like the feeble mewling of a sickly kitten. It is imperative to form strategic alliances, sustainable economic development and democratic expression that benefit us all.
And Ukraine? Defending an emerging nation-state can only be made better if all interests line up alongside it. Putin must be defeated, and sooner rather than later. I am aware the devil lurks in complex detail, but history shows that united democracy will prevail. And Britain better be part of this united democracy!