Can Britain muddle through Brexit?

The Editor of The Singapore Straits Times has a great sense of humour. Under an article headed “May to seek MPs’ approval for new Brexit strategy” there appears a picture of a tubby rat stuck in a drain cover. The unfortunate rat is being freed by German workers. Hmm.

Britain has a great record of ‘muddling through’. Don’t knock it, it’s a considerable skill. There are endless examples of it, the most famous of (relatively) recent times being Dunkirk in WWII. All through my business life in UK I saw, and adapted, the ‘muddle through’ process. In fact, it helped me make my first hit when I went to London and was presented with an insoluble problem. By getting to the heart of the matter I solved the problem, delighted my advertising clients and was on the road to a modestly successful career in advertising in the 1950s and 1960s.

Brexit is a somewhat bigger problem than the one I faced. It has very little to do with the UK leaving the EU. I was quite involved in politics in my early years in London. We didn’t call it ‘Brenter’ – Britain joining the EU – but I was delighted when the final agreement was signed, albeit somewhat late due to the intransigence of President de Gaulle. Getting people to understand the sense of collaborating with Europe so soon after the end of the war was no mean feat.

Today’s Brexit is about how to make an intrinsically divided population understand the exigencies of international trade, physical protection, cyber security, social development, climate control, fake news and diplomatic compatibility. I understand only two or three of these. How a political elite (as the politicians see themselves) can expect the average voter to grasp the relationship between the Big Six listed above and belonging to the European Union is a mystery nobody has yet solved. Nor are they likely to. So how might Britain muddle through?

Brexit may well happen. If the Prime Minister has her way it will. But so will a subsequent general election. If Brexit doesn’t provide the Valhalla Mrs May is promising there may be a body of MPs wanting to reverse it. There may even be voter-wide support for re-entry although whether the other members of the EU would agree is by no means certain. The consequence of leaving the EU is not something that ends with departure. It will reverberate for many years to come.

Suggestions are being made that the Commonwealth will take over the role of EU in the life of Britain. Those who suggest this really mean that Britain will take over the Commonwealth. Perhaps they forget that we already did that. It was called an Empire and, like all Empires, it came to an end. The common factor in the Commonwealth, apart from its history, is English. But English is a more or less universal language already and there are more versions of it than countries in the world. I do not see a rejuvenated Commonwealth determining the course of the future.

What is certain is that Britain will be worse off outside the European Union than in it. If, as currently seems probable, America turns its back on Britain then it is quite likely that the UK will split up. Scotland will leave first, Northern Ireland, second. The Isle of Wight has no declared plans to quit yet. Britain, what remains of it, will become an attractive backwater losing its place at the Security Council of the United Nations and depending on tourism and possibly (but by no means certainly) finance for its living. Pageantry will be muted when King Charles ascends the throne.

The countryside will still be beautiful but bereft of cows now that they have been identified as the main culprits of climate change. Sheep and pigs will take over. The great seats of learning will continue to be great and creativity will flourish. The cash to develop what is created will be extremely limited. But the country will survive. Not in anything like its present form and not recognisable as the Britain we used to know. Change is inevitable, Brexit or no Brexit.

Perhaps Britain will get a shake-up. Not, one hopes, from Mr Corbyn. Nor, one imagines, from Jonathan Rees-Mogg. Vince Cable seems little weary and in search of a friend. The Independent Group don’t appear to have the creativity to invent a credible name for themselves. Mr Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons (if you can believe that), is off the rails, literally.

And I don’t know anyone called Phoenix.

Do you?

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