In just over three weeks, Britain will face its most important election since 1945 when Clement Attlee became Prime Minister, healed the ravages of the Second World War and created the proud welfare state. Given the boisterous Boris Johnson’s one-point programme — Brexit, or exiting the European Union — the voting this time will affect relations with continental Europe, the shape of the country that was once Great Britain, and a vision of the global future.
Boris Johnson’s dramatically phrased “do-or-die” deadline for leaving the EU has been extended from October 31, 2019 to January 31, 2020 giving him time to counter opponents within and outside the Conservative Party’s ranks. His own political career may not survive the election. Nor can another hung Parliament be ruled out. Even if an overwhelming majority of the new Parliament rejects a no-deal Brexit or fails to approve of the deal that Boris Johnson negotiates, Britain may crash out by default. As this column has noted before, there is also a real danger of the United Kingdom breaking up. Scotland might go its own way while Protestant-majority Ulster might sink its religious differences to move towards some form of unification with the Republic of Ireland whose Indian-origin Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, has set a new level of liberalism for a Roman Catholic nation.
Opinion polls show Boris Johnson’s Conservatives lead with 41 per cent support compared to Labour’s 29 per cent, and 16 per cent for the Liberal Democrats led by a gutsy 39-year-old Scotswoman, Jo Swinson, who has already rejected the notion of supporting Labour’s enigmatic Jeremy Corbyn. Similarly rebuffed by Johnson, Nigel Farage, whose Brexit Party enjoys six per cent support, has agreed not to put up candidates in any Conservative-held constituency to show that like Barkis, he is still willin’. However, opinion polls are never foolproof. Despite similar predictions when Theresa May, the last Prime Minister, called an election in 2017, she didn’t get a majority. Her Brexit plan was voted out no fewer than three times.
Boris Johnson’s pitch is to blame Parliament for not keeping to his deadline and project himself as the people’s champion battling the establishment to prevent it thwarting the public will as expressed in the June 2016 referendum. That ignores his own arrogant manoeuvres to bypass Parliament and its laws, but he must reckon with Mr Farage and Ms Swinson. While the Brexit Party is wooing hardcore Leavers, the Lib Dems have joined smaller groups like the Greens and Wales’s Plaid Cymru under the “Unite to Remain” banner. Together, they might rob Mr Johnson of a Conservative majority.
Many voters are fed up with Brexit. Many don’t want the hassle of another referendum. Their focus is domestic, with the main reason for opposing the EU being the haunting fear that membership does not allow them to be masters in their own home. The argument is that on its own, Britain can export more to the United States, China and India than if it is shackled by agreements negotiated by Brussels on behalf of 28 member countries.
It is also argued that the British are historically committed to the free market whereas Europe’s regulatory framework is intended to protect workers’ rights. This explained Britain seeking exemption from the social chapter of the EU treaty, which it signed in February 1992. There are other historical, economic and cultural differences, but the British public’s principal objection was that EU membership meant the uninhibited entry of working-class Europeans like the legendary Polish plumber. Their English equivalents feared they would be jostled out of jobs, government housing and schools for their children, with immigrants placing an intolerable strain on all social services.
Two facts testify to the superiority of Britain’s attractions. Up till the end of September, more than 1.8 million EU, European Economic Area and Swiss nationals had applied to remain in Britain after Brexit. At the same time, most of the 1.2 million UK citizens who live in continental Europe are pensioners who have opted for the least expensive domicile. They are worried about access to the free medical facilities they enjoy as British subjects once the divorce becomes final.
Many more contentious issues will have to be sorted out at the end of January 2020, when we will know whether Britain will leave the EU without a deal or if the new Parliament approves a deal. If so, the terms of that deal will be relevant. But whatever happens, it is difficult to understand the buoyancy with which Mr Johnson and Mr Farage paint the future in the rosiest of hues. They seem to have forgotten that Japanese and French car manufacturers have threatened to reconsider their present plans for production, some even warning that a no-deal exit might force them to reconsider their future in Britain. On top of that, other countries which are aware that Britain needs an agreement more than they do can afford to set conditions and play for time. US President Donald Trump’s reported expectation of American access to the British market for agricultural products like hormone beef and chlorinated chicken, which are now banned in Britain, and of being allowed to buy parts of the NHS should also be borne in mind. In any case, it will take five to 10 years to clinch trade agreements. Britain may not find it easy to attract investments during that period.
The real regret is not economic. It is political and philosophical. A European Union of which Britain is a member could have signalled hope of future harmony for a fractured world. Brexit means the end of a dream. The scanty silver lining to that cloud is that the new Parliament might decide on a second referendum, and that British voters might then reverse their verdict. But that is a very distant hope....