LONDON – The small majority for “leave” in the June 23 referendum on membership in the European Union has caused a political meltdown in Britain and economic uncertainty. This has had repercussions in the EU and worldwide.
The problems have been exacerbated by the failure of the leaders of the “leave” campaign, who made promises to voters that they cannot fulfill, to offer viable alternative policies. It is now clear that they had not even thought out any realistically achievable objectives.
In Britain’s parliamentary democracy, party leaders are no longer chosen by members of Parliament but by unelected party members outside Parliament. So when Prime Minister David Cameron decided that he had to resign as his campaign for “remain” had failed, the choice of his successor as leader of the Conservative Party and next prime minister fell to the limited number of paid-up members of the party.
The Conservative Party leadership contest has shown British parliamentary politics in a poor light. Back-stabbing and back-biting have been the order of the day. Boris Johnson, the populist former lord mayor of London, at the last minute, in a vicious piece of political treachery, lost the backing of his “friend” and co-leader of the “leave” campaign, Michael Gove. This was too much even for members of the Conservative Party and both Johnson and Gove were soon out of the race.
Andrea Leadsom, an inexperienced junior minister but enthusiastic “leave” campaigner was left as the only challenger to Theresa May, the long-serving home secretary who had been a lukewarm supporter of “remain.” Leadsom, an ex-banker and political neophyte, had some enthusiastic Conservative Party supporters, but the backing of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which has been trying to split the Tory party, and of a wealthy UKIP supporter upset Conservative members of Parliament. She “exaggerated” her CV and was less than frank about her tax returns. She also made an error of judgment in asserting that she was better qualified than May to be prime minister as she was a mother whereas May was childless. Her support was clearly ebbing away and on Monday she decided to quit the contest.
May will thus become Britain’s next prime minister on Wednesday. She has committed herself to respecting the results of the referendum and it will thus fall to her to negotiate the terms of British withdrawal from the EU and the issues that will arise over Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar, which had large majorities for “remain.”
Among the many other pressing issues to be faced is the status of the many EU nationals living and working in Britain and the parallel issue of the status of British nationals in Europe.
May has undertaken to decrease migration from the EU. No one has a clear idea how this can be done without harming the economy. If EU nationals are barred from lower paid work, there will be dire problems.
The immigration issue may be at least partly solved by a possible recession caused by Brexit. Some Europeans may also decide to go home because of the reported increase in hate crimes and cases of xenophobia.
The most important economic issue is access to the European single market for goods and services, including finance. There is no certainty about the arrangements that may be possible to make with the EU and other countries. The uncertainty is exacerbated by the growing British current account deficit.
Foreign-owned companies are already considering their future in Britain. If free access is assured they may be more inclined to stay. One depressing feature of the referendum results was that places like Sunderland, which has benefited so much from Nissan’s investment, and Derby — where Toyota and Rolls-Royce are located — had significant majorities for “leave.”
A well-led opposition ought to be able to roast the Conservative Party, which now seems to be increasingly dominated by right-wingers although May has declared that she will curb big business. But the Labour Party is in even greater chaos than the Tories. Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader elected last year, has lost the support of the majority of Labour Party members of the House of Commons and most of his shadow Cabinet have resigned. But Corbyn insists that as he was elected by members of the party in the country he will stay on as leader, and as he still has the backing of trade unionists and of his left-wing supporters, a split in the party may be unavoidable.
As if the political chaos and economic shock — which has caused the pound to fall to a record low against the dollar — were not enough for a fortnight, the long awaited official report of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War was released on July 6. This recorded a catalog of shocking intelligence, planning and equipment failures. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, many former ministers, intelligence chiefs and military commanders were excoriated for misjudgments and incompetence.
The report will inevitably make future governments even more reluctant to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. It would be unfortunate, however, if it makes Britain still more inward-looking.
British people are looking hard for a silver lining to the dark clouds that sit over the nation in what so far has been a wet and cool summer. England, having been beaten by Iceland in the European soccer championship, had to find solace in the victory of Andy Murray in the men’s tennis final at Wimbledon.
Britain is not finished, but it needs to undertake some critical self-reflection or, to use a Japanese phrase much loved by leader writers for Japanese newspapers, “jiko-hansei.”
Hugh Cortazzi was Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.
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