Asia Global Institute

Britain's Sad Slide into Bitter, Dishonest Self-destruction

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Britain's Sad Slide into Bitter, Dishonest Self-destruction

Patrick Low, Fellow of Asia Global Institute, says maintaining a civil and constructive tone to the exit negotiations is essential, if difficult, amid an atmosphere of political recrimination.

As market gyrations in the aftermath of the Brexit vote quieten somewhat, political and social turmoil in the UK shows no sign of abating. The bitter and often dishonest UK referendum campaign has further debased already low standards of public discourse.

Politicians are not held accountable for what they say. They can lie and distort reality with seeming impunity. They can switch positions once in power as if this were to be expected.

They can cynically exploit legitimate popular discontent, driven by a growing sense of economic and social exclusion, offering imaginary solutions that only aggravate the underlying problem.

Britain is a sadder place for the dismal process and outcome of the victory of Brexit. Some commentators argue that representative democracy is ill-served by issue-specific referenda.

Such exercises demand that electorates make decisions whose consequences they do not understand. The temptation to register a protest vote against an incumbent government, or the establishment in general, can prove irresistible.

The most immediate action the incoming UK Government will need to take is an invocation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, formally signalling Britain's intended departure from the EU. After that, negotiations for separation must be completed within two years.

The political establishment in Britain had hoped to launch an informal discussion with Brussels beforehand. That option was denied by the UK's erstwhile EU partners, who with various degrees of fervour insisted on a formal process in short order as soon as possible so as to avoid the debilitating consequences of uncertainty.

This standoff is a foretaste of what will come. Keeping the UK exit negotiations civil and constructive will be challenging. The nastier the tone, the less promising the outcome for all concerned.

In the referendum campaign, the Brexit camp asserted many things that will prove untrue. A case in point is the facile claim that because of its economic heft, the UK's EU partners would agree to the status quo on free market access, despite the UK's determination to curb immigration from EU countries. Why would the EU capitulate in this manner?

Individuals and several institutions such as the Organizations of Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Monetary Fund, not to mention the UK Treasury, have estimated significant economic losses for the UK following Brexit.

The Leave camp could not win that argument. Instead, they focused on immigration, an emotive issue that resonated with many. The rhetoric deployed spoke to base parochial instincts that encouraged some to think foreigners were fair game for abuse and worse. The British police reported a 57 per cent increase in racially tainted hate crimes immediately following the referendum.

On the economic front there was blunt denial of the possibility that post-Brexit, the City of London would lose the right to transact Euro-denominated financial business, and lose its status as Europe's financial capital.

More generally, nobody knows how much planned and future investment in the UK will shrink, or how many enterprises will relocate their European operations away from the UK in order to remain inside the EU. But the risks are undeniable.

On the trade front, even if the UK and the EU were to reach an amicable post-Brexit deal in the World Trade Organization, there remain no fewer than 35 preferential trade deals under EU auspices that will have to be revisited by Britain. This is potentially an enormous task for which the British bureaucracy is ill-equipped to handle.

The Remain camp is hardly blameless for the outcome. They fixated only on the downside risks of Brexit. They never invited consideration of the value of an integrated Europe. They were an easy target for the "Project Fear" tag.

For many who wanted to stay, the unimaginable has occurred. For those who wanted to leave, it is difficult to see how buyer's remorse is avoidable. History will judge this sad episode as a turning point in global affairs. Will the lessons of such wanton self-destruction be learned before other polities in the EU and beyond are similarly afflicted?

This article appeared in the print edition of the South China Morning Post on July 7, 2016.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Asia Global Institute's editorial policy. 


Patrick Low

Senior Fellow, Asia Global Institute

Patrick Low


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