The Consequences of Brexit, Thus Far
GB breaks bread with one of the world’s foremost historians to discuss the foreseeable fate of the UK, the EU and European democracy
GB: Where will the UK and the Brexit process be in two years’ time?
MM: The answer is not clear because the British do not seem to know where they are going with Brexit. Theresa May’s recent speech in Florence, as well as other public interventions before and since, did not really clear things up at all. And when you have a government that is divided like the Tory government is, and an opposition that, while moving to a more pro-Remain position, is also divided, it is very, very unclear what the political situation in Britain is going to be. It is not even clear that Theresa May is going to be in power in a year. All of this is unknown. The fate of the Brexit negotiations depends also on the UK’s European partners, and most of them are inclined to take a very hard line. Of course, the EU is itself not necessarily united on all fronts, and the negotiations evidently depend on both parties. So it is exceedingly difficult to make predictions. There are some in the UK who think that the whole thing will fall to pieces, and that the country will end up remaining in Europe because sheer inertia will prevent it from leaving.
GB: Why has no major British political party taken a ‘reverse’ position on Brexit?
MM: I do not know. The Liberal Democrats are not a major party, but they once wanted to reverse Brexit. Today they are arguing in favour of staying within the single market, post-Brexit. The Scottish Nationalists would, in principle, like to reverse Brexit, but they are not a strong Westminster party. The Labour Party – clearly a major party – has moved a bit, and is now wanting some sort of deal with the EU. I doubt very much that the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is going to take a strong pro-Remain position. Of course, this is peculiar, as a lot of the people who voted Labour would like to remain. But the Labour Party itself is increasingly populated by people who have an ideological agenda that is not particularly concerned with the UK’s relations with Europe, but much more interested in what is happening at home. In short, I do not see Labour moving very far toward the pro-Remain position – even though many Labour members supported it, and the majority of Labour MPs are pro-Remain.
GB: Can Brexit be reversed over the next two years?
MM: I do not know. It would be very difficult to reverse, even if the original referendum vote was extremely narrow. Those who are in favour of Brexit claim that the British people have spoken. But I think that this is not a very strong claim because only part of the people spoke, while many of the people who voted for Brexit were voting for all sorts of other things besides Brexit. Now, what often happens in referenda is that people vote just to show that they are fed up with the people in power. A lot of people therefore voted for Brexit without really knowing what was involved. Today, many of these same people are quite surprised to find that, say, their subsidies might disappear. Special deals from the EU might disappear, just as important markets might disappear. Quite a few of those who voted for Brexit are now getting cold feet. So far, however, the Tories are saying that they will not put the issue to the nation again for a vote. They believe that they have a mandate. It may be that the parties will simply move in the direction of Brexit. And yet there are so many moving parts that it remains difficult to predict what will happen.
GB: What is the fate of Scotland over the next couple of years?
MM: The Scottish Nationalists are not doing as well as they thought they might coming out of the referendum. They have lost seats to both Labour and the Conservatives, which is really interesting because Scotland has really been terra incognita for the Conservatives ever since Margaret Thatcher. Today, we have a very effective Scottish Tory leader in Ruth Davidson. Still, even if Scottish cities voted largely to remain, many people in Scotland have cold feet about independence, just as a lot of them are properly worried about Brexit.
There will be pressure to close the border. In my judgement, this will be disastrous for the Good Friday Agreement and would lead to renewed sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. That is a real worry.
GB: What is to be the fate of Northern Ireland, and Ireland more broadly?
MM: The real problem with the possibility of the UK leaving the EU is what happens to Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, which was hammered out during Tony Blair’s government, opened up the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. If you go to Ireland now, you do not even know that there once was a border there. But if the UK pulls out of the EU, this means that Northern Ireland will be out. What happens now to the border? From the British point of view, if the border remains open, those who wanted Brexit will say: “Look at all those immigrants and goods coming in.” So there will be pressure to close the border. In my judgement, this will be disastrous for the Good Friday Agreement and would lead to renewed sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. That is a real worry. Many Irish in the Republic of Ireland are furious with the British because, in their view, the Britons who voted for Brexit did not think about what such a move would mean for Ireland and the EU. Now one of the half-dozen major issues for Brexit negotiators concerns what is to be done about the border between the Republic of Ireland (and the EU) and Northern Ireland (and the UK).
GB: Is Wales a player in any of these dynamics?
MM: No, I do not think so. The majority of North Wales voted to remain, while the majority of South Wales voted to leave. Again, people had complicated reasons for voting the way they did. Much of South Wales has done very well with the EU subsidies. It tends to be a poorer part of the British Isles, but it has done extremely well. And yet, again, the majority of people in South Wales voted to leave. Now, there certainly are Welsh nationalists, but I do not think that the push for independence there is anything like what it is in Scotland.
GB: How do you rate the British political class today?
MM: The leadership is pretty grim, actually. Theresa May is weak. She weakened herself by calling an election that very few wanted, and she ran on a platform focussed on herself. When people looked, they did not much like what they saw. She promised to provide strong and stable leadership – something that she kept repeating ad nauseam – and yet it appeared to many that she was actually going to do quite the opposite. In matters of foreign policy, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, is almost totally and openly defying her. He is gunning for her job. So too is Philip Hammond. May is trying very hard to hold the party together. But she is not in a strong negotiating position.
As for the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn is someone who, in my view, is stuck somewhere in the 1970s, which is when he formed many of his opinions. He is a natural oppositionist. He has voted against his own party whips over 500 times. As a political leader, he has certainly become more effective in speaking, but he does not speak for a lot of the country. What’s more, I think that the party is moving. Its membership has been opened up quite a bit. Many of the local party organizations are moving to the left, having been taken over by people who used to belong to Momentum, which is a fairly hard-left group.
Let me add that there really is a rather unpleasant cult of the leader building up within the party. At certain party meetings, proceedings are preceded by the reading out of a poem in praise of the leader. This is rather peculiar behaviour, to put it mildly. In short, I do not think that Labour is in any great shape, even if it continues to speak about the last election as if it were a victory.
GB: What, if anything, has the British political class got to teach Commonwealth countries today?
MM: This is a confusing matter. Many in today’s British political class are well-intentioned, but I do not see any particularly strong figures on the rise. There may be younger generations coming along, but it is very hard to see them for now. At the moment, political leadership in places like Canada looks a lot stronger. Indeed, if I look at the Canadian cabinet in Ottawa, it is much stronger than the British cabinet in London.
GB: How does the American situation look from Westminster today?
MM: I think that people are horrified by Trump. There is a distinct feeling that Theresa May made a real mistake. She rushed off to Washington immediately after President Trump’s inauguration and extended an invitation – including to the effect that he could come and stay in Buckingham Palace. I believe that many Britons wish she had not done that. The general feeling in the UK is that Trump is very dangerous indeed.
GB: How do you interpret the recent German federal election results?
MM: Angela Merkel did okay. The Social Democrats did not do as well. And the Alternative für Deutschland, the far-right party, with almost 13 percent of the vote, passed the five-percent threshold it needed to sit in the Bundestag. That is a reason to worry. The party now represents a chunk of the voters. It has a real voice, and it will use that voice.
GB: How are French political developments seen in London today – favourably, indifferently or with envy?
MM: The jury is out. Macron is about to take on the French employment code, which is something that has defeated previous presidents. To be sure, that code is widely seen by employers and many others in France as something that holds back French employment and French enterprise. There is great resistance to change on this front in the country. The unions have said that they are going to fight it tooth and nail. And last time France’s young people and students even came out to fight such changes – although I think that some of the resulting employment opportunities would have helped them. The employment code and its reform are unbelievably complicated. The code itself is thousands of pages long. I do not know whether Macron can deliver this major reform. He does not really have a party, but rather a movement that he is trying to turn into something more or less resembling a party. And this reform push will, in many ways, be make or break for him.
Of course, there was huge relief when Macron defeated Marine Le Pen. But Le Pen is still there, as is the Front National. This is not a good picture. I had hoped that this kind of populism had come and gone, but if you look at what is happening in Hungary, Poland, Germany and now Austria, the picture is not particularly calming.
GB: Do you see any movement toward bona fide federalism in the UK in the foreseeable future?
MM: The country is moving toward federalism in any event. Parliament at Westminster devolved powers to the Scottish parliament, to the Welsh assembly, and to the assembly in Northern Ireland. But how far will this go? How will this work over time? David Cameron panicked before the last Scottish referendum, promising more devolved powers. The country is still attempting to determine how this is actually going to work in practice. The trouble is that British federalism would comprise a very large England, a tiny Wales, a slightly bigger Scotland, and an extremely small Northern Ireland. In Canada and Australia, by contrast, federalism is more equally balanced. But the worry that many in the UK have is that it is England that will dominate because it is that much bigger.
A key difference is that the Scottish referendum was a perfectly legal one, while the Catalan one was not. This is a very unfortunate situation – for Spain and Europe alike. It is going to leave scars.
GB: What is your view on the emerging situation in Catalonia and Spain, from the British perspective?
MM: There is interest in it, and also concern. I suppose that for the British, the Catalan situation reminds them a bit of what they went through with the Scottish referendum and the continuing push for an independent Scotland. Of course, in the case of Scotland, it looks as though the enthusiasm for independence may be waning, even if slightly. This is in part because the Scots are beginning to realize that they might find themselves rather lonely should they leave the UK – particularly if the EU is itself weakened. A key difference is that the Scottish referendum was a perfectly legal one, while the Catalan one was not. This is a very unfortunate situation – for Spain and Europe alike. It is going to leave scars. It may well reactivate some of the more radical and violent elements of Catalan nationalism. If, at the end of the day, Catalan nationalism is frustrated, there is a danger that this will give new life to those who believe in more violent methods to obtain independence.
For now, the British reaction has been to condemn the violence and also to criticize Prime Minister Rajoy for how he has handled the matter. Still, I do not get the impression that there is much sympathy for Catalan independence. The EU has been very clear so far that it will not recognize Catalan independence after a referendum that was not legal.
There is a fantasy that is peddled by the Brexit people to the effect that the UK will be a power once it frees itself from the ties of the EU – that is, that the country will fly into the stratosphere.
GB: In 10 to 15 years from now, will the UK be a major country or power?
MM: No. There is a fantasy that is peddled by the Brexit people to the effect that the UK will be a power once it frees itself from the ties of the EU – that is, that the country will fly into the stratosphere. I even had one argument with a prominent Brexit spokesperson who said that the UK will resume its rightful place as the leader of the Anglosphere. I replied that a country like Canada is not standing by waiting for the UK to lead it. So we may well see a diminished or smaller Britain.
It is also not a total impossibility that enough people in the North will decide to throw their lot in with the Republic of Ireland. I was in Ireland recently, and people there are saying that such a scenario, even if improbable, is not totally impossible. And if Scotland were to become independent, then we would end up with little England and Wales. The country would be back to the size it enjoyed at the time of Henry VII. This evidently is not a good position to be in. Perhaps I am totally mistaken, and perhaps Britain will bloom economically after it leaves the EU. But British growth rates are not doing very well at the moment. The latest national growth rate was among the lowest of all the developed countries of Europe.
Of course, it is difficult to tell how Brexit will turn out. The British keep saying that the Germans are going to trade with them because Germany needs the UK. But I fear there will be a lot of bad feelings if and when the UK leaves the EU. This may well affect trade. And London may well lose its place as a preeminent financial centre.
GB: In retrospect, how did the UK get to this point?
MM: What the Brexit people did was run a very, very clever campaign. They appealed to emotion – to the sentiment of taking back control – and that meant a great deal to people. The people who were against Brexit ran a rather dull-as-a-fence campaign. They emphasized that Britons would be far worse off if they left the EU. But many people simply said: who cares? In short, the Remain campaign was a bad campaign. It did not come out and explain the reasons for which the UK should be in the EU, why the EU was necessary in the first place, and why the UK needed the EU.
I recently was in Stoke-on-Trent, in the Midlands. It has suffered from declining industries. A lot of people there voted to leave. I was giving a lecture on something to do with history. Someone asked me what I thought of the vote. I said, “I suspect that many of you here voted against London, and not against Brussels.” People in the audience nodded in agreement. Of course, this happens often in referenda. When people are fed up with their own government, they have a chance to show it. However, I believe that many people did not know exactly what they were voting for.
The Conservative Party has always been divided on the EU. Even when the UK applied to join the European Community, it did so in the spirit of, “We will go in because this is a good economic arrangement for us – although we do not much like the rest of it.” That reticence has arguably always been there since. In addition, there is a strand of British thinking that holds that the British are different – they are not European, with the Channel serving as the physical and mental dividing line.
To be sure, there is also a very powerful strand of British thinking that says that Britons are indeed part of Europe. If I look at Britain as an outsider, then I dare say that it has very much been part of Europe. As for the Channel, it can be seen either as a barrier or a highway. But if you look at how closely enmeshed Britain has been in the history of the rest of Europe, I would not really distinguish the two. In short, I would say that the UK is clearly a part of Europe. It may not want to be part of Europe economically, but culturally, geographically and historically, it is deeply involved in Europe.
GB: How do you see Canada’s position over the next 10 to 15 years – especially given Brexit and the situation in the US?
MM: Canada has always believed in multilateral organizations. It has always been part of multilateral organizations. Canadians feel safer that way. They are going to continue to feel that way because the world is looking very, very uncertain. If the US continues to go down its peculiar path, Canadians will have great reason to worry. Canada has been trying to build better relations with Asia – in my view, fairly successfully. But if things go badly in Asia, this is going to affect Canada. Canada also now has the real worry of the Arctic, given climate change. The Arctic is becoming more enticing for outside powers. For now, Canada cannot defend the Northwest Passage. Other powers are increasingly sending their ships through. Canada is going to feel vulnerable in ways that geography has in the past prevented or mitigated. Today, that geography is changing the country’s fortunes and pressures.
Margaret MacMillan was Warden of St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, between 2007 and 2017. She is a Professor of History at the University of Toronto.