The British vote to head towards the EU exit door in June 2016 was a watershed moment in post-war Britain, comparable to 1953 and 1979. In leaving the block, the UK is challenging the orthodoxy which has held sway since the signing of the Treaty of Rome back in 1957 – the orthodoxy that the European Union is the be all and end all. It is the political equivalent of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517. The UK is making a buccaneering statement of intent – that there can be a different relationship with Europe beyond fiscal and political union. Much like the Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago, it will work because it has to work.
However, depending on which commentator or writer you read, this is either the biggest catastrophe since Suez (Dominic Sandbrook), the Munich Agreement (Alan Bennett) or the loss of the American colonies (The Washington Post). Hysteria is a particular British trait.
CJD (Mad Cow Disease) in 1996 was expected to kills millions 20 years down the line. It didn’t. The Millennium Bug on January 1 2000 was supposed to ensure the nation’s infrastructure would shut down – from life support machines to ATMs. It didn’t. Not joining the Euro in 2002 was supposed to mark the end of London’s pre-eminence as Europe’s financial capital with banks upping and moving to Frankfurt and Paris. It didn’t. In fact in September 2017, the z/Yen Global Finances Index placed London number one in its list of the world’s financial centres. Frankfurt was 11th and Paris 26th. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was supposed to relegate the Labour Party to history. He didn’t. In the 2017 election the party gained rather than lost seats and won a larger share of the vote than the winning parties managed in 2005, 2010 and 2015.
Now some people attach the same sense of pessimism to the UK’s divorce from the European Union – believing the only outcome can be a catastrophic one. But since no member state has ever left the EU, nobody really knows what the consequences will be. Critics often confuse change with decline. Every 30 years or so a seemingly implausible change redefines the British nation and is always referred to by the critics as “decline”.
From 1945 to 1955 it was the creation of the NHS, nationalisation, end of Empire and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, coupled with the technological change of television, jet aircraft and the atomic bomb. In the 1980s it was the arrival of Mrs Thatcher and the microchip and the switch from being a manufacturing society to a consumer one. Between 2016 and the mid-2020s it will be a change that begins with withdrawal from the EU and is likely to end with the Coronation of a new monarch. Whether or not that period turns out to be a good thing or bad thing will be for the historians to decide.
Since it is the first to detach itself from the European Union, then the UK could become arguably become the world’s first meaningful globalised nation. After all, there are 195 countries in the world and 167 (soon 168) aren’t in the EU. Our future as a world nation under a Union flag may be the only road ahead in a world which may be dominated by the rising power of China and India and the continuing power of the United States. And as if to back this up, a little-noticed poll by Globescan for the BBC World Service in 2016 found that 47 per cent of Britons agreed with the statement: “I see myself as a global citizen than a citizen of my country.”
In one sense, Britain is already half-way there: it is, uniquely, a member of Nato, the UN Security Council, the G8, the G20 and the Commonwealth. In the 2017 rankings of world soft power nations, the UK came in second – just behind France and ahead of the USA, Germany and Japan. China, for example, ranked just 25th (behind Poland and Greece), despite having spent billions on promotion. The UK’s post-imperial role has been to define itself through membership of the international community – and its post-European role will be the same.
There is something which has been missed in all the criticisms of Britain retreating in on itself and turning its back on the world – and that is: exactly how is leaving a Union you were never really part of “retreating inward”? The UK never joined the single currency, was never a part of the Schengen Agreement and turnout in elections to the European Parliament were lower here than anywhere else in the EU (just 36 per cent in the final one during 2014).
I will give two examples of the UK having a new relationship with Europe and the rest of the globe. January saw the opening in London of the new US Embassy, a spectacular $1 billion creation – and the most expensive embassy in the world. In July 2020 – with the most splendidly ironic timing – Wembley Stadium will host the semi-finals and final of the European Football Championships. Just as the UK leaves Europe, the UK will welcome its soccer best. These are hardly symbols of a country retreating in on itself and turning its back on the world.
The UK has a number of institutions which might be described as “global” rather than “British” or “European” – such as the Financial Times, the BBC World Service, Oxford and Cambridge Universities and the Premier League. In 2017, the FA produced stats about how successful that league had become – from hooliganism and muddy pitches to a global brand with 1.3 billion fans in the 189 countries which broadcast Premier League matches. From isolation in Europe to an upbeat “anything’s possible” attitude in the game. Now, the lucrative Premier League – the old First Division now bankrolled by Sky TV’s billions – is the very epitome of transcending borders. There is massive overseas capital invested in the game and the league is a polyglot convergence point for European, South American, American and African talent and a lot of expatriate Arab oil and Russian Oligarch money.
Just as the Victorians were the industrial revolution generation, the post-war peoples were products of the social metamorphosis and today’s generation are part of the digital transformation of the country, then the new epoch is the globalisation generation – citizens of a world nation that belongs to a world with AI and automation at the centre.