Britain’s Brexit: A self-destructive act?

To describe how quickly and drastically things can change in politics, Harold Wilson, who served twice as Britain’s Prime Minister in the 1960s and 1970s, once said: “A week is a long time in politics.”

Brexit

However, judging by all that has happened in and to Britain after its shell-shocked vote to leave the European Union in last Thursday’s referendum, it is probably more correct to say a day “is a long time in politics.”

Not only has Britain’s Brexit vote suddenly and completely changed the fortune of its political elite, it has also impacted the country in abrupt, profound and dangerous ways.

Economic and political crisis

Britain’s vote to leave (Brexit) the EU by 52% to 48% – a result most pollsters, bookmakers and markets had failed to predict –  in June 23 referendum, shocked many people, including those who had backed and campaigned for Britain’s Brexit.

In fact, the Brexit vote, which is depicted as a massive hurricane or earthquake, created shock waves that shook Britain’s financial market and political establishment.

When opinion polls released after voting ended at 10 pm on June 23 suggested a Remain victory, the pound rose as high as $1.50. However, a few hours later, by 4 am on June 24, once Britain’s Brexit was confirmed a few hours later, it slumped to $1.3224, the lowest since 1985.

Despite assurances from its governments, UK financial markets remain very volatile, with sterling finding a new low at $1.3151 on June 27.

Reverberations

Britain’s vote to exit the EU has caused other domino effects. Britain’s credit rating has been downgraded from stable to negative. Banks and companies are now planning to relocate away from post-Brexit Britain.

In a nutshell, what financial and economic experts, who were depicted by leading Brexiteers as scaremongers of ‘project fear’ during the referendum campaign, had warned has come true.

The core message of the Brexit camp was ‘Vote Leave, take back control.’ However, and ironically, in the awake of its win, Britain has lost control. This is a reason why both Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London, and Michael Gove, Justice, two leading Brexiteers, were uncharacteristically subdued in their first post-referendum press conference.

Brexit vote has also shaken the country’s main political parties. It has ousted Prime Minister David Cameron, who just helped the Conservative Party to win a majority – the first in nearly 20 years – in May 2015.

Cameron’s decision to hold the EU referendum, which is seen by many as a risky gamble, has backfired catastrophically. Not only has it abruptly and fatally ended his political career, it has also put the country he has led since 2010 in financial, economic and political disarray.

The Labor Party is also in a deep crisis. Though most of his cabinet have resigned and majority of Labor MPs voted in favor of the no-confidence motion in him on June 28, Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition leader, has refused to step down.

He has been strongly criticized for his lackluster involvement in the referendum campaign. Although it is a pro-EU party, with the exception of London, most of the Labor Party’s heartlands in England and Wales voted to leave.

With the leaders of its two main political parties being not completely in charge though still in office, Britain almost lives in a political vacuum. At a time when the country is facing huge and unprecedented challenges and desperately needs a strong and united leadership to overcome them, such a void is quite alarming.

This, coupled with deep anxiety caused by uncertainties over when the UK officially leaves the EU and what a post-Brexit Britain will be, puts its economy in greater risk.

Divided and weakened country?

Another real danger revealed – and caused – by the Brexit vote is the United Kingdom’s deep division. The division is not simply between those (52%) who voted Leave and those (48%) who chose Remain.

The referendum’s result patterns showed deep, stark and bitter divides between young and old, rich and poor, well-qualified and less qualified, with the former largely voting for Remain and the latter mostly backing Brexit.

The United Kingdom is a deeply divided country, gravely separated by not only income, age and education, but also – and more alarmingly – by nationality and geography.

While England (53.4%) and Wales (52.2%) voted for Brexit, Scotland (62%) and Northern Ireland (55.78%) voted decisively for Remain

This division is a real concern for the UK’s unity.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has sought a second Scottish independence referendum whilst Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has called for a referendum on a united Ireland.

During the referendum campaign, many people, including Britain’s two former prime ministers, had warned that a vote to leave the EU could split the UK.  Such a warning was rubbished by leading Brexiteers.

However, now it cannot be ignored because it could lead to the UK’s disintegration. If the concerns of Scotland and Northern Ireland are not effectively dealt with, the UK’s divorce with the EU could potentially lead to the break-up of its own union.

By deciding to leave the $14 trillion single market of 27 countries and turning its back on its closest neighbors, Britain has not only put its prosperity and unity under threat but also undermined its place in the world.

On June 29, the EU’s leaders held a meeting in Brussels and for the first time in 43 years, Britain was excluded. From now on, this will become a norm because though legally it is still a member, the UK has already quit the bloc politically.

In a statement after the Brexit vote last Friday, Boris Johnson, who is now the favorite to succeed David Cameron as prime minister, said Britain’s exit from the EU provided it with a “glorious opportunity” to find its “voice in the world again.”

Yet, instead of offering the UK an opportunity to find its voice, its omission from the EU, which, despite its flaws, has become a global actor, potentially diminishes its global voice and influence.

The US and other non-EU allies of Britain have maintained special and strong relations with London partly because it has been a member of the EU.

For Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a very Euroskeptic and far-right party, and supporters, June 23 was the UK’s “independence day.”

But for many others, there is no cause for celebration. This is because, instead of generating great excitement, joy, celebration and triumph, Britain’s Brexit and its aftermath has brought about confusion, shock, turmoil and anger.

Some regard the Brexit vote as a political and economic disaster, describing it as “the most disastrous single event in British history since the end of the Second World War,” while others call it an act of self-destruction or self-immolation. For many others, their country’s Brexit has now become a Regrexit.

Never before in Britain or any other democratic countries had an election’s result caused such strong reactions.

Judging by what the UK has witnessed and suffered during the past five days and given the fact that those who had campaigned to leave the EU do not have any plan for a post-Brexit Britain, those reactions are understandable.

During the past few days, a number of people in business, media, diplomacy, politics and academic circles have raised questions over whether, if so, how the vote could be overturned. However, all of this is speculative. It is extremely unlikely – if not completely impossible – to revert what British electorate decided last week.

The question for the UK and its political elite is how to overcome the multiple crises it is now facing and find its “voice in the world again.”

The UK can only do so if it has strong and credible leadership that is able to unite a divided country, restore investors’ confidence and especially forge a friendly, constructive and cooperative relationship with the EU. This relationship was already greatly damaged by and during the referendum campaign.

Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers, and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.

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