Come Thou Long Awaited… General Election
On the 23rd June 2016, despite torrential downpours across parts of the country that impacted public transport systems, the people of the United Kingdom carried out the single biggest democratic exercise in its history books. 17.4 million citizens across England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar voted to leave the European Union. The following morning, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation and was replaced within three weeks by Home Secretary Theresa May. May promptly laid down a variety of non-negotiable red lines that have since painted the British into the tightest of negotiating corners, reducing her degree of manoeuvre regarding the range of economic, political, security and social frameworks on offer between the UK and the EU and the latitude over the actual order in which issues could actually be agreed.
Spotting both procedural weaknesses and substantive absences in the UK position, the EU adopted a near-sacral unity between both Member States and its institutional stances, defiant over the inviolability of its four freedoms, dominant over the negotiating agenda in insisting that issues to do with the ‘divorce bill’, Ireland, and the reciprocal rights of EU and UK citizens be dealt with before anything else. May managed to return a deal that ticked these three boxes to which the EU had agreed, but which the UK then turned down in early 2019 on three separate occasions. Ultimately, it cost May her job. After a lacklustre leadership campaign, Boris Johnson took office in late summer 2019 with a promise to ‘get Brexit done’. After a gaffe-strewn series of constitutional and legal mishaps that left the country reeling throughout through the autumn, Johnson managed the unthinkable: returning a renegotiated deal from Brussels and getting initial agreement on the nature of the deal from the House of Commons. But the timing to fully examine the Boris Deal suited neither Parliament nor him and somewhat piqued, Johnson called the long-awaited General Election for 12th December, the first such pre-Christmas election in over a century.
The election campaign pitted personalities and manifestos. Televised leader’s debates represented the form (with trust the key casualty), while policy promises, from the veracity of their costing to the vigour of their messaging represented the content. With Johnson now confirmed with the squeakiest of minorities, Britain is now on its third “Brexit Prime Minister”, its third extension of Article 50 from the EU, and until Johnson’s or some other Brexit deal actually passes the hurdles of Parliament, still a member of the European Union, with its own Members of the European Parliament thanks to the May 2019 election. The election campaign attempted to nail up a variety of key domestic issues, chiefly the holy trinity of health, education and – brought into harrowing salience – domestic security, with strident calls for improved climate change focus. It’s clear however, that until the date of departure and long beyond it – Brexit will continue to dominate the political discourse of the UK, with knock-on effects on its European and international partners in diplomatic, trade and security terms.
A Declining Britain?
In many ways, the referendum on EU membership reflects, and refracts a host of attempts to establish and consolidate Britain’s location on the global stage. To some, this history speaks of inescapable decline: Britain struggling to rework its former imperial identities and structures into an unreceptive and even antagonistic arena. To others, Britain has cultivated a broader bandwidth with international security organisations like NATO, new bilateral relations with North America and Asia, reconstituted Commonwealth connections, and the obligations and opportunities afforded by membership in 1973 of the European Economic Community in 1973. Many observers argue that Britain was and remains an awkward European partner, sceptical of the ‘deepening’ of key European policies and institutions leading to ever-further integration, and anxious over the ‘widening’ of the geographical size and geopolitical scope of the EU as more Member States were added throughout the 1990s, 2000s (now numbering 28).
However, while the UK – like all Member States – works to prioritise key national interests when working alongside other European states and institutions, this is an unhelpfully selective reading of its Union history. The UK pushed hard under Thatcher to complete the Single Market, ensuring the Single European Act of 1987 put the foundations in place for enhanced cross-border trade and commercial activity. Close geopolitical and geoeconomic links were forged between either side throughout the 1990s, from the tussle to get the Maastricht Treaty passed in Parliament that constituted the EU proper, to Blair and Chirac’s historic 1998 decision at St Malo to take the lead in developing European Common Security and Defence Policy. While the UK stepped back from adopting the Euro, leadership on foreign policy, east-west relations, enlargement, security and defence, development, climate change policy and education policy all count as areas of significant material cooperation on both sides.
Old habits, however, die hard. Many today suggest that Britain’s rationale in the 1975 referendum was purely market-driven, with neither understanding of nor agreement on the future political shape and ambitions of the EU. A close reading of the results of the time show this narrative to hold little water, but the sense of an oblique Europe seemed to have taken hold in Britain just when the Union itself was taking shape on the continent.
Three core factors lie at the heart of Brexit: first, an ashamedly anti-EU press, which has ensured that the majority of British readers on both centre-right and centre-left have imbibed a blend of anti-Brussels, anti-establishment, anti-European policies for the better part of forty years, with little scope for balanced reporting, considered reflection or active critique.
Second, little attempt by both the UK and the EU to explain to ‘home’ audiences what EU Membership actually entails in terms of benefits (funding) and obligations (budgetary contributions). Lazy approaches to deconstructing the key EU institutions, policies and personalities – wherein the UK is a key part – by government, educations and industry alike has produced ignorance at best and xenophobia at worse. In consequence, key EU policies including integration, enlargement, and particularly the operation of the Single Market including freedom of goods, services, capital and people, remains singularly misunderstood in the UK, reduced perennially to simplistic and weaponised arguments about democratic deficits, rebates, and immigration.
Third, the material impact of the 2008 financial crises, compounded by a decade of austerity-driven cuts to British public services leading to political disaffection, economic differentiation and social disenfranchisement. Here – the cause is refracted: those responsible are variously local government, big business, Westminster, Whitehall, Brussels, or globalisation more generally. Against this complex environment, the argument that Britain had been institutionally hoodwinked by the EU for long enough was a simple one to articulate. The various 2016 leave campaigns suggested simply that the time had come for a moment of true national resurgence: a take-back campaign allowing Britain to leave the EU swiftly and easily on the one hand, and by doing so, reclaim key items from the Brussels security-deposit box: namely, its laws, money and sovereignty.
For those who voted Leave, the argument that none of these three phenomena are in any sense absolute or reclaimable, and that the UK had historically benefited disproportionately to other Member States precisely because it had pooled its laws, budget and sovereignty with Europe was not important. For Remainers, the years since the Referendum have seen increasing struggles in Parliament, civil society, business and education, to reclaim a European membership that was never effectively deployed nor defended from the outset.
Apparently, Brexit is quite tricky…
Certainly, a variety of complicated chickens have come home to roost. Decoupling from the EU has proven to be achingly complicated and drawn-out. Nailing down free-trade agreements absent the largest trading bloc in the world before actually having left the Customs Union is proving tough. Maybe in the long term, FTAs with Australia and New Zealand will indeed be easier to strike, but emerging economies in the Commonwealth such as India now appear less keen on forming stronger ties with Britain, with the UK no longer the gateway to the EU it once was.
Always existential at best, the ‘special relationship’ has also never been more precarious. The Trump Administration has proven dangerously volatile, preferring tariff spats to trade talks, and highly personalised, social media-driven diplomacy rather than multilateral alliances. US food and environmental standards remain key problems in any future trade talks with the UK. At home, the eye-wateringly complicated border trade-off between security and trade has torn at the fabric of Britain’s long-standing Good Friday Agreements with Northern Ireland (who voted Remain), severely tested its relationship with the Republic of Ireland (whom the EU has defended stoutly), and threatened to unpick the very fabric of the United Kingdom itself by imperilling its relationship with Scotland (who voted Remain).
When is a Border Not a Border?
Of all the mistakes of her catastrophe-strewn premiership, I suspect the greatest was Theresa May’s overhasty decision to call a General Election in 2017. Assuming she would increase her passable but not impressive majority to a welterweight, the Conservatives lost so many seats that the could only form a confidence and supply partnership with the 10-seat Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to pass her legislative agenda through the House of Commons. Given that Northern Ireland voted to remain while the DUP as a party opposed it, eagle-eyed observers suggested that it wouldn’t take long for things to come unstuck.
Relations with the DUP soured by December 2017 when the EU insisted that Northern Ireland should remain within the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union in order to ensure that there would be no return to a hard, even militarised border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK, as stipulated in the Good Friday agreements. The DUP insisted it could not support any deal that threatened the ‘constitutional integrity’ of the UK. The UK argued that Brexit meant all of its territory coming out of both the Customs Union and the Single Market, not just England, Wales and Scotland, so some sort of border in Ireland was going to be necessary. The EU and the UK by late 2018 agreed that ultimately no borders were needed because there would be a fine new trade relationship between everyone (not quite sure how, details to be decided later) and the no Irish border issue was an insurance policy (backstop) to ensure … no Irish border in the event of… no trade deal.
Don’t Mess with the Judge
As Shakespeare put it, “riddling confession gains only riddling shrift”. Meaning, say what you mean or it won’t get through the Commons, not even on its third attempt. May’s premiership ended in stalemate, both sides and all parties in Parliament resolutely determined not to back a deal, or an avenue towards an alternative. Both May and Johnson’s government have also been tarnished by poor governance. Under May, the UK Supreme Court delivered its first landmark ruling against the Government: arguing that the Government did not have the unilateral powers to withdraw from the EU and needed to pass an Act of Parliament. Under Boris Johnson, the court produced a ground-breaking 11-0 ruling against the new Prime Minister over his attempts to prorogue parliament and thereby limit scrutiny of all legislation debated in the house, including Brexit. The rulings highlighted both traditional issues like the assured objectivity of the UK Supreme Court while throwing new light on the possible weaknesses of the UK’s uncodified constitution, which relies heavily on relevant Acts of Parliament and precedent.
The quality, and limits of the constitution and its attendant governance will come under the sharpest scrutiny yet in 2020 and beyond. Possible changes to both local government authority and the risk of further devolutionary upheavals between England, Scotland and Northern Ireland arising from the implementation of Brexit will reveal once again the vastly different range of powers ranged between Westminster and the devolved authorities. Once the UK officially leaves the EU on 31st January 2020, Scotland and Northern Ireland – both of whom voted to by a substantial margin to remain in the EU – the issue of union-wide consent, regional differences and even independence will raise their heads once again.
The Average British Sausage*
There’s a British proverb that ‘Laws are like sausages. It’s better to not see how they are made’. In many ways, Brexit has been the perfect exemplar. UK-EU negotiations were played out both behind the scenes in Brussels, and in full public glare with press conferences in the EU and London. While intense protests between Leavers and Remainers have bruised Parliamentary, public and media-based aspects of the national conversations, actual appreciation of the details of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated at the end of 2018, and brought tortuously through the house in various iterations under May in 2019.
The key change is the way in which the sausage has been transformed from a Brexit product into one the Johnson could. Effectively sell in the Commons as ‘made in Britain’, without anyone looking too closely at the contents, its construction, nor the consequences of its implementation. Brokering a deal between financial obligations, reciprocal obligations of citizenship and a customs border relocated from the island of Ireland to the Irish Sea, the Johnson deal needs to be considered for what it fails to contain on key principles of alignment and future trade options, as well as the initial consideration of labour and maternity rights, among many others. The Brexit deal sits on one side of the negotiating chamber, indicating the limits of the UK’s commitment with the EU; and the general election manifesto of the Conservative party on the other, outlining the limits of the government’s own commitment to the country as a whole.
The two may have very little in common with each other. Indeed, the less aligned with the EU the UK becomes, the greater the impact to businesses, jobs, skills, investment and a host of other sectors in Britain itself. As of late January, less rather than more alignment certainly appears to be the current trend, with the Prime Minister refusing to rule out the chance of UK failing to strike a deal with the EU by the deadline of 31st December. Both the Chancellor, Sajid Javid, and the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, have also refused to take a ‘no-deal’ outcome off the negotiating table with the EU. As 2020 unrolls, observers and citizens alike wait and watch to see how deep the UK’s political and economic alignment with Europe will remain, and how wide the promises of the majority Tory government will be spread.
Certainly, the overarching demographic change in the huge number of northern seats picked up by (currently) disgruntled Labour voters will provoke a sea change in the identity, and policy-making of the Conservatives. I’ve written elsewhere the implications are for north-south relations, regional disparity, local government, Labour’s post-mortem and the Conservatives’ own credibility. What I’d like to suggest now is the quality of statecraft on offer for the UK to actually make effective policy. Despite their numerical victory at the polls, the Conservative party is now bereft of a few key anchors that could have steadied the ship during a volatile year; these include former Father of the House Ken Clarke, long-serving MP and Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, Rory Stewart, Dominic Grieve, David Gauke, and Anne Milton. The question is twofold: whether the slew of new MPs can move from party deference to individual analysis in scrutinising the raft of subsequent Brexit and domestic policies coming their way, and how quickly the Labour party can revive itself to form a credible and effective opposition.
Post-Brexit Issues and the Commonwealth
The first big impact is that the UK will be relatively preoccupied with negotiating a new trade agreement with the EU, and possible the US to undertake any substantial or new foreign policies. The majority of work undertaken in tandem with the EU under the aegis of the Common Foreign and Security Policy may feature fewer working Brits at foreign affairs meetings or on the ground in EU missions, but the overall direction of British foreign policy is not broadly going to change. Indeed, the alterations are more likely to be felt first in Whitehall, and then only subsequently by international partners, including Commonwealth states. The prevailing suggestion – driven by advisors within Number 10 – is that major government departments face considerable alteration in the next few months. The Department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU) will be wound up at the end of January, while changes to the look, size and placement of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development, the Department for International Trade, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and aspects of the Cabinet Office, plus the Department for Transport are likely.
The importance of the Commonwealth is likely to remain in general terms, but its priority as a collective body may likely slip amidst the welter of competing demands. More likely, key Commonwealth partners may be courted on a bilateral basis to form part of the UK’s new take on trade, immigration, research and development, and climate change aspirations. Immigration will be a touchy subject – replacing UK-EU free movement to prioritise a skills-based system has been floated, as has more sector-specific needs-based immigration. Higher education, health and social care, and business in general have all loudly echoed the need for a global, rather than limited approach to immigration, with concerns being raised about genuine labour shortfalls in critical areas.
Commonwealth decision-makers in the UK, and key partner states, need therefore to demonstrate the very real pertinence of the Commonwealth as an international organisation that keeps Britain within a close and unique partnership with an enormously wide and varied set of states, markets, concepts and structures. Its network of 53 countries offers unparalleled access to states both at the forefront of global leadership, and those in desperate need of assistance. UK foreign and security policy post-Brexit ought to capitalise on the regional specialisms developed both with its European partners since 1973 and the strengths wrought with its Commonwealth family since 1933 in asserting clearly its commitment to global norms, values and projects. The Commonwealth in particular has proved invaluable as a forum highlighting and boosting advocacy for key issues including democracy, rule of law, and human rights, but also women’s rights, literacy, language and culture, climate change (including the impact of extreme events and the use of sustainable development) : all vital areas that Britain needs to remain part of. Equally, if UK foreign affairs faces reduction due to the likely economic impact (at least in the short term) of Brexit, then working intelligently to support specific Commonwealth projects rather than attempting to cut overall funding is best way forward. These include – inter alia – the Commonwealth Blue Charter, the Climate Finance Access Hub, the Connectivity Agenda, and work with small states. Let’s hope the FCO take to heart the words of John F. Kennedy, “the purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or indignation; it is to shape real events, in a real world.”
* As explained by the hapless minister, Jim Hacker in a classic ‘Yes Minister’ episode from 1984.
Professor Amelia Hadfield is Chair in European and International Relations, Head of the Department of Politics and Director, Centre for Britain and Europe at the University of Surrey. She is also a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.
Round Table special edition on Brexit and the Commonwealth – New introduction and ‘From our archives’