LONDON – But is it worth all the trouble? That was the question about the whole upheaval of Brexit (the decision to go a separate way from the European Union) put to Britain’s chief finance minister, Philip Hammond, in a recent interview.
His answer was that the British people had decided on withdrawal in a referendum and that was what the government was therefore doing. It was, he implied, “the will of the people” and that was that.
Unfortunately, this answer falls well short of what is required on two counts. The first — a lesser but not unimportant point — is that it is not “the British people” who have decided, it is a majority of the British people, which is a very different thing .
Majorities, at least in free societies, have to take account of minority views — in this case the views of the 48 percent who voted to remain in the EU. Moreover, “the will of the people” — the phrase which some insist on using — can mean anything that those who hold power interpret it to mean.
It is the mantra by which the former communist dictators of Eastern Europe ruled, cynically calling their countries people’s democracies. And it comes down to us from the chilling political tradition of Rousseau, Nietzsche and others, who believed that a nation’s heroic will could be distilled and mobilized to justify any kind of repression of those who disagreed, and any kind of sacrifice in the name of the people.
But there is a second and much more serious reason why this is an inadequate answer to the question. If the British nation is to be taken along this new route, involving a fundamental change of direction and complex negotiations to get there, then there needs to be a truly inspiring and positive case for the decision.
It is not enough to say that the majority decided on it, or simply assert that it is the people’s will. The government must believe it is the right course in the long-term U.K. interest and persuade a deeply divided nation accordingly.
That means setting out the real reasons why, in the view of the nation’s leaders, the whole Brexit process is indeed worth it and makes sense for the U.K. in the context of history and world development, even if there is a short-term price to pay in terms of dislocation and readjustment.
Such a case can indeed be made for moving on from, and disassociating from, the current EU model — at least partly — even though many may disagree with this course. But it requires a breadth of view and a power of explanation and narrative which have frankly been missing so far from the debate so far.
It begins with the quite difficult and novel notion that the digital era and the cyber revolution have changed the terms upon which nations relate to each other.
It is a paradox that the technological whirlwind of today promotes simultaneously both lofty globalization and intense localization. National sovereignties are swept up in the impersonal forces of hype-connectivity and information flows across all frontiers, yet in response people feel empowered more than ever to assert their own local identity and establish their own roots. The one phenomenon triggers the other.
The 20th-century EU model, with its underlying ambition to integrate all European nationalities into a single union, failed to anticipate this rising tide of feeling. Too late, or too late for the British, and now perhaps others, its leaders have realized that its top-down hierarchical structure and its homogenizing tendencies are simply out of date in the 21st century.
On top of the paradox there is the observable fact that international trade patterns have changed. The idea of a protected bloc, however large, like the old EU, no longer fits in with the mesh of global supply chains and networks which now dominate world trade. When products are not only traded everywhere but actually made everywhere, tariff wall areas — heavily protected regulatory areas become unsustainable and start melting away.
Then, on top of paradox and fact comes the reality — namely that the EU, as a result of these entirely new conditions, is in desperate need of fundamental reform. Grass roots revolt, labeled populism but in fact reflecting many discontents, is challenging not only the structure but the very philosophy of the union.
The colossal flow of refugees and migrants, itself the product in part of the information revolution, is one obviously divisive pressure within the EU. Trying to make the single euro currency fit all states is another, of which the Italian political turmoil is the latest example, with more to come. Fierce challenges to EU authority from Poland and from Hungary are a third and fourth.
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron tried hard to push reform from within the EU, but his efforts were rejected. The majority British vote to leave the EU was the outcome.
Finally, a government that believes Brexit is the best road has to inspire, to carve out a possible new role for Britain and to reassure people as to what lies ahead. In short, there must be a vision splendid, a goal to be striven for. This has to be rooted in realism and with a clear acknowledgement of gains and losses, yet lift people’s eyes and hopes, thus undergirding the whole endeavor.
The outlines of that vision are there to hand. In a transformed world of networks the U.K. should be ideally placed as a global hub of trade, services, data communication and connectivity of every kind.
In reach are new trade deals in Asia, with both China and Japan, revived linkages and closer affinities with the whole Commonwealth network of 53 nations, including, above all, the Indian giant, a re-forged “deep and special relationship,” with the rest of Europe, and further vigorous expansion of trade with the U.S. — already its biggest single country export market and long-standing ally.
These are the key ingredients of the right “answer” that is required to those who question the whole worth of the Brexit project. But they will need to be argued with a refreshed vigor and flare if the Brexit cause is to gain united support and prevail.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.
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