By Jonathan Power*
Before there was Brexit there was Amexit when the Americans in 1776 decided to revolt against Britain’s King George and unilaterally secede to establish their own independent republic.
In retrospect it was a strangely negative thing to do and one that took a long time to put right. As Voltaire who was living in London around that time observed, Britain was the most liberal of all the big nations – there was more freedom of speech and press and a bigger role for parliament than elsewhere in the world.
Britain was also fighting hard against the slave trade and was highly critical of how the then independent southern states treated their black inhabitants. In short, the American Revolution was very much a conservative phenomenon.
The newborn America intent on integrating the southern and western parts of North America ended up tolerating slavery in its south, but, thankfully, not for long. A fierce anti-slavery movement developed in the North. Later, the Civil War in 1861-65, fought over the issue of slavery, the most deadly war in Western history at that time, set America against itself. The wounds have still not healed among the defeated southerners.
Was this worth Amexit? If America had stayed as part of the British Empire slavery would have been abolished much sooner, there would have been no ultra-bloody Civil War and full democracy would have arrived much earlier. It took until the time of Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson to finally cement democracy.
Perhaps the most tragic thing emanating from the Brexit debate is that the Brexiteers are riding rough shod over long held democratic ideas and principles that are rooted in the seventeenth century (long before the American War of Independence). Led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the extreme right wing of the governing Conservative Party they have played fast and loose with public opinion.
When the referendum on Brexit took place three years ago and the Brexiteers won by a small margin they took that as an irrevocable mandate. Now all polls show that a large number of voters, especially the young, have changed their minds after listening to three years of argument. But the Brexiteers are not prepared to test it by calling for a new referendum. A government that doesn’t even have a majority in parliament has continued to lead the country towards the exit door.
This is a decision that will affect Britain and Europe for at least the next 100 years, if not longer. This is a decision that will affect most the young people of today who, when asked, make clear they want their future to be within the European Union.
Britain, perhaps, is about to take the same faulty, short view, decision that the Amexiteers made almost 250 years ago.
A general election has now been called. The Brexiteers are fighting among themselves. The relatively new Brexit Party that wants to leave the EU without a deal setting out the process is poised to take votes away from the Conservative Party which wants to leave in an orderly way with a deal. Conservative voters who want to remain in the EU (40% of them) are gravitating towards the small Liberal Democratic Party that has always been pro EU. It is likely to be small no longer.
In Scotland the Scottish Nationalists, already the strongest party, will drive the Conservatives out of their Scottish seats. In Northern Ireland the right wing Protestant Democratic Unionist Party feels betrayed by the Conservative government which has put the North on the wrong side of a new border drawn down the middle of the Irish sea. They will no longer support a Conservative government.
Added to this is the issue of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom and keeping Scotland inside the EU if Brexit happens. A majority of Scots want their own referendum to decide the issue. The Labour Party has promised it if it wins the election. The Conservatives say they will not give the Scots permission to do this. I am sure the Scots will ignore such a ruling. What is England going to do – arrest the Scottish leaders? Scotland is not Catalonia. It has much more devolved power than Catalonia including, most importantly, its own independent judiciary and police force.
The fact is the government of Boris Johnson is staring defeat on Brexit in the eye and also the breakup of the UK. The majority of the British people do not want Brexit. The young enjoy the freedom to travel, work and study wherever they want in 27 countries. Their friendships, partnerships and marriages are increasingly mixed.
The more educated part of the older generation think about what originated the formation of the EU – it was that after two World Wars war in Europe must never happen again. The only way to avoid that was to bind Europe together in an economic and social union.
It has worked. Amexit didn’t for 200 years. Brexit will not work either.
*Note: Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune. Copyright: Jonathan Power. Website www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com.