Britain should rethink its messy divorce with the EU
Kevin Rafferty says now that the prime minister has laid out the terms for the exit, the picture looks bleak enough to allow Britons to change their minds
Almost 48 years ago, I returned to cold, rainy London after three months travelling overland to and through India, an exhilarating, exhausting kaleidoscope of gracious ancient history jostling with greedy modern development. Above all, I cherished the boundless hospitality and endless energy of so many Indians. With their talents properly encouraged, they could be world-beaters.
I came back to London, changed, energised, enthused. What if Britain could make its Commonwealth a global force dedicated to the economic development of more than a billion people around the world? My dreams were smashed by an astute Indian diplomat to whom I confided. “Britain’s colonial days are over; we don’t want a new imperialism,” he declared, though that was far from my naive imaginations of a great global cooperation.
So I was surprised to hear strangled echoes of my old dreams when British Prime Minister Theresa May revealed her “Plan for Britain” after Brexit: she claimed that the British people “voted to leave the European Union and embrace the world”.
As a vision, it was 50 years too late in its official articulation, and 150-200 years too late in having the means of accomplishment. Britain no longer has the gunboats to enforce its will, nor the great explorers, traders or manufacturers or, especially, politicians who comprehend the world.
I want this United Kingdom to emerge from this period of change stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking than ever before. pic.twitter.com/WDR48wLzBF
— Theresa May (@theresa_may) January 17, 2017
May declared: “I want this United Kingdom to [be] stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking ... a secure, prosperous, tolerant country – a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world. I want us to be a truly Global Britain ... a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe.” The longer May spoke, the more I feared the terrible mayhem she threatens. Her speech was full of loose talk, false claims, promises she will not be able to keep, and deals beyond her reach.
She claimed: “We will put the preservation of our precious union at the heart of everything we do” – did she get leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to sign off on that? Did she consult the heads of the still great British universities about how to attract talented students and innovators – whom May’s immigration rules are driving away?
She asserted: “Many in Britain have always felt that the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union came at the expense of our global ties, and of a bolder embrace of free trade with the wider world.” Where has she been hiding? Germany’s rise as an industrial and exporting power has not been halted by the EU. Did she even talk to herself? A few weeks before the referendum, May told Goldman Sachs bankers that leaving the EU would a big mistake for the UK.
What did the British people vote for in the fateful referendum when 51.89 per cent voted to leave the European Union and 48.11 per cent to remain?
The referendum was based on false promises, particularly that people would be able to get what they voted for – whatever they thought that was – and it would be clear and clean-cut.
Nine months on, scans of the Brexit foetus suggest an ugly, stunted baby is emerging, with possible costs to the British people of €60 billion (HK$491 billion) and poisonous relations between the European and British parents in the divorce process.
May suggests that a soft Brexit may be better; but a hard one will bring out the old diehard Battle of Britain spirit.
Besides the heavy economic bill, there is also a political price. Britain should beware of jumping into bed with Donald Trump while divorcing the EU, especially since Steve Bannon, Trump’s left-hand man, is seeking an unholy alliance with Russia.
There is no easy way out of the rabbit hole. Britons voted on Brexit without knowing the terms of exit. They have the right to change their minds when they see the divorce terms. Another referendum or a free vote in Parliament is the least May should allow on such a momentous divorce.
Kevin Rafferty travelled to India as young journalist of the year in the British press awards