Ten miles west of London, a little-known memorial demolishes one of the great myths of modern Britain. The myth is that in the dark days of 1940, Britain stood alone – and that what we did then, we can do today.
That myth is more potent than ever. Three years ago, the slogan “take back control” secured a narrow majority in the referendum to leave the European Union. It exploited the belief that the more independently we act, the more we shall flourish; joining with others and relying on their goodwill is for suckers.
The Polish war memorial suggests a different view. It lists the names of almost two thousand Polish airmen who died in the service of the Royal Air Force in the Second World War. Polish pilots played a crucial role in the Battle of Britain that defeated Germany’s Luftwaffe in the skies over southern England – along with airmen from 14 other countries (including a handful of men who defied President Roosevelt’s ban on American citizens joining the war against the Nazis).
Next month, a general election will determine which of two very different paths Britain will travel in the years ahead. If Boris Johnson’s Conservatives win outright, then Brexit will take place by the end of January. In the short run, people and businesses will notice little difference. For a transitional period of at least one year, and possibly up to three years, travellers and trade will flow freely between Britain and the rest of Europe, for current rules and regulations will continue to apply.
The big questions concern what will happen after that. Most businesses want to keep frictionless trade with the EU. This would mean Britain agreeing to observe EU regulations on product standards, employment rights, and so on – without having any say in those regulations. It would also limit Britain’s right to agree to new free trade agreements with other countries such as the United States.
One niche issue that has captured the public imagination is whether Britain would admit “chlorinated chickens” from the US – chickens that have been through a cheaper cleaning process than that allowed in the EU. Admit such chickens (and all other imports made in the US that fail to meet standards required by the EU) and the barriers to Britain-EU trade will go up; refuse to admit them, and Britain-US trade talks will head for breakdown.
The ripples from such controversies reach beyond trade. Britain prides itself on its special relationship with the US. Ties of history, language, and culture matter; so, in recent decades, has London’s informal role as a go-between for Washington’s relations with Brussels, Berlin, and Paris. The true extent of that role is open to debate; but at the very least, British ministers and diplomats have thought it worthwhile having feet in both the European and transatlantic camps.
So, where will post-Brexit Britain stand in the mid-2020s, when the dust has settled? My guess is that it will bow to the commercial need to stick to EU trading rules. As a result, it will make little progress in securing free trade deals with other countries. In both economic and diplomatic terms, London will have less sway in Washington. In as far as some kind of British-US special relationship persists, it will depend on continuing military and security co-operation, flowing from Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons and the “five eyes” intelligence-sharing agreement. This will matter, at times a great deal, but such a relationship will not be as rich and deep as it is today. (These problems will in practice persist whether Donald Trump is or is not re-elected next year.)
There is an alternative path to the future. Suppose the Conservatives fail to win the coming election. Even if they are the largest party in the new Parliament, they may not have enough Members of Parliament to stay in office, if the combined anti-Brexit forces of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party, and other smaller parties can together muster a majority.
In that event, Britain is likely to hold a second referendum on Brexit. Opinion polls currently point to a steady, albeit narrow, lead for remaining in the EU rather than leaving it. If that is the outcome, then by next summer the status quo will have been confirmed. Things will carry on as now. There will be no Britain-US free trade agreement; London will seek to retain its unique links across both the Atlantic and the English Channel.
Except that the chaotic, dysfunctional operation of British democracy over the past few years will continue to hover like a black cloud over both sets of relations. Britain’s role in the world – its ability to “punch above its weight” – has gained from its reputation for stability, pragmatism, and ability to handle crises with calm professionalism. That reputation is visibly disintegrating. It could take decades to recover.
Whichever path Britain ends up taking, it will still have to address the challenge posed by Dean Acheson, the great US diplomat, back in 1962 and never definitively answered. He said: “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”. Whether Britain chooses in the end to throw in its lot with the EU, US, neither, or both, it is likely to struggle unless it recognises the connections, obligations, and compromises that are needed to solve today’s big problems. This means learning the lesson of the Polish war memorial, and accepting that “alone” has never been a serious option and certainly isn’t today.