7 April 2016

Brexit and Britain reborn

By Madsen Pirie

I have witnessed occasions on which the UK has undergone a break with the past and moved with confidence into an uncharted future determined to do things differently and to become better in consequence.

One was in the early 1950s.  Exhausted by war and the privations of the post-war government with its continued shortages and rationing, the future seemed drab and bleak.  In a short space of time three things happened to renew the nation’s faith in itself and its confidence for the future.

The 1951 Festival of Britain showcased the nation’s technical expertise in a reprise of the 1851 Great Exhibition a century earlier.  It captured the imagination and boosted the country’s self-esteem.  Winton Churchill was returned to office, and his government began the deregulation and the end of rationing that closed the chapter on World War II.  King George VI, beloved and esteemed for inspiring Britain through the dark days of war, died and was succeeded by a young Queen Elizabeth, aged 25, who represented the passing of a torch to a new generation.  These three events renewed the nation and lifted its spirits.

I witnessed a similar jump-shift in the late 1960s.  In the space of a year the mood of the country shifted.  Deference to the old establishment evaporated.  Background ceased to matter, and the emphasis moved to talent rather than to breeding.  Where you were going became vastly more important than where you had come from, and a new generation of achievers made its presence felt.  In fashion, music, literature and the arts, talented young people broke through to achieve prominence.

It was a very exciting time to live in.  The country exuded a confidence that anything was possible, and that ability could now win through to success.  The nation shook off the shackles of conformity and faced a new and uncertain future with the confidence that it could break new ground and meet new challenges.

There is a distinct prospect that this could happen again following the June referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.  This has been the comfortable norm for half a century.  Britain plods along to a predictable future, conforming sometimes reluctantly, but always acquiescing in the future the EU maps out for itself.  More conformity, more integration.  Britain is in a rut, locked into a Europe that seeks to protect itself from a wider world.  It is a fine future, probably a safe future, but it is a boring one.

It may be time to stir the waters, to break out into a new and uncertain future that Britain can make for itself as it has done before.  It may be time for the nation to renew itself again, to break from the past and to move into uncharted waters with the confidence that it has the resources and the energy to navigate them successfully.  Yes, a vote to leave the EU would be a step into the unknown.  But it would be a bold step, an adventurous step, and it would lead to an uncertain future in which we would depend on our own resources.  It may be time for Britain to step into that wider world, to break with the past and the predictable future that it portends.  It may be one of those times in which the nation can renew itself and reshape its future into whatever it can make it become.

Madsen Pirie is the founder and current President of the Adam Smith Institute