Brexit will be the greatest shift in Britain’s foreign orientation since the Second World War; but the debate about what this means has not yet properly begun.
Since the referendum, domestic politics have driven Brexit policy. Theresa May sought to please the Eurosceptic wing of her party. She set out negotiating objectives that sever Britain’s economic and legal relations with the EU; while simultaneously hoping to replicate many of the benefits of membership of the single market and customs union.
Jeremy Corbyn has maintained ‘constructive ambiguity’, but recently consented that Labour would seek to remain in the single market and customs union during a transitional period before Brexit. This stance is also motivated by domestic politics. Corbyn was touring Scotland at the time of the announcement, and, since the June election, ‘soft Brexit’ seems the best way to pressure May, whose party leadership is compromised.
The Brexit debate lacks – an omission evident during the referendum campaign – any appreciation of why Britain joined the European Economic Community in the first place. Calculations about Britain’s future economic posture were of course important when Britain turned to the EEC in the 1960s, but the root causes of Britain’s shift to Europe were political.
In 1957, then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the 1922 Committee that ‘the most important moments in our history have not been when we have conquered, but when we have led’. Macmillan saw he had to move the Conservatives away from empire and towards Europe, but understood that both ends of the transition had to be obscured.
Subsequently, modernisers in the Conservative Party saw the EEC as a forum for the exercise of British political influence. Edward Heath understood it passionately, and saw opportunities to move Britain away from the Atlantic alliance to deeper engagement in Europe, and away from nationalism and the violence it had brought.
Margaret Thatcher understood it instinctively, and saw the EEC as an opportunity for Britain’s economic leadership and a bulwark against the infiltration of communist influence. At Bruges in 1988, she told the Europeans: ‘Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringe of the EEC. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.’
Labour first applied for membership under Harold Wilson in 1967. Wilson’s Cabinet accepted that the alternatives for Britain were worse. The Commonwealth were diversifying their trade and no longer looked to Britain for leadership. In an economic grouping with the United States, Britain would be dwarfed. Outside the Community, Britain might technically be more free, but, as the Cabinet accepted, ‘it would be a freedom to submit to disagreeable necessities’. Britain’s political influence would rapidly decline, dwindling into neutrality – a ‘Greater Sweden’ – dependent upon the beneficence of larger economic groupings, but devoid of influence.
In 1975, Wilson won the referendum he called on continued membership of the EEC, as two thirds of voters cast a ballot to remain. After the 1983 general election defeat, the burgeoning of ‘social Europe’ helped Labour to embrace EEC membership. In the 1990s and early 2000s Labour was the party of Europe. But the slow fall-out of the Iraq war, and the Greek debt and migrant crises, led many to doubt the EU’s methods and principles, and, questioned what Britain’s overseas orientation should be.
It is this – Britain’s place in world politics – that is absent from the current debate. The most ardent Brexiteers have competing visions of Britain outside the EU. Many hold optimistic views of Britain’s influence, and dismiss the EU’s insistence that Britain cannot be both in, and out, of Europe.
Others believe that membership of the world’s largest single market inhibits Britain’s ability to trade freely around the world. Their vision is of Britain as a nimble trading nation; but also of a Britain in which markets function with less regulation and in which the role of the state is cut back to tiny levels. They see not a Greater Sweden but a Greater Singapore.
Some – vocal during the referendum campaign – favour a kind of protectionism, restricting free movement of people, even if the price for that is a brake on free trade. For their part, Labour Eurosceptics traditionally regarded membership as preventing any British government from controlling its investment, economic and regional planning policies.
None of these visions – radical free trade and free market; nationalist protectionism; a socialist planned economy – seems likely to command majority support in a UK general election post-Brexit.
This highlights the failure of the centre-ground and exposes the divides of the current Brexit ‘phoney war’. The government must still hope that it can find some way to have its Brexit cake and eat it. The devil, if this course persists, will be in the details of the negotiations. Much will depend upon the progress, or lack thereof, of talks with the EU, and the reaction of voters once the compromises Brexit demands become clearer.
Many who supported remain in both the Conservative and Labour parties seem to be waiting on this. Some expect ‘buyer’s remorse’ will become widespread; others perhaps hope that the negotiations can deliver a deal not so far short of existing arrangements.
The blunt truth is that there is not a political vision of Britain outside the EU but working closely with it that can bring Britain the same political influence that came with membership.
If, therefore, the current Brexit path continues, Britain will either crash out of the EU on a ‘cliff edge’; accept transitional arrangements that prolong existing relations but (ultimately) without influence over the form of those relations; or negotiate a ‘bespoke’ arrangement that brings the benefits of membership without the perceived costs.
Only the last outcome – also the least likely – could preserve current ideas of Britain’s world role broadly as they have been since the 1950s: Britain ‘punching above its weight’ in international organisations and relatively balanced in orientation, with membership of the EU bolstering Britain’s influence in America and the wider world.
Anything else seems sure to mean that Britain’s relationship with the EU will be the central muddle of British politics for the foreseeable future; or alternatively, Britain’s political parties will fracture, and there will be a radical, long-term reorientation of Britain’s domestic politics and place in the world, with no clear destination currently visible.
By Helen Parr, Senior Lecturer in at Keele University.