By Jonathan Power
Brexit grabs the attention of much of the world, not least because Britain once had an Empire and ruled a great part of the world’s peoples. And it’s the caretaker of the English language, the Empire’s most important legacy. Add to that the BBC, the world’s favourite and most trusted radio and TV station, its top universities, its production of pop music, and its numerous top-flight classical orchestras.
Besides, it’s one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which include the United States, Russia, China, and France. It’s the world’s fifth largest economy and, alas, known for its possession of nuclear weapons. In terms of its soft non-military power, depending on which measurement is used, Britain is first or second in the world.
It remains partly a mystery why something around half the electorate want Britain to leave the European Union. It’s mainly older people who voted that way in the referendum of three years ago. The very old who lived through World War 2 and younger people voted to remain.
The very old did not need persuading that after a millennium of almost continuous war in Europe culminating in World War 2, the genocide against the Jews and being citizens of, historically, the most war-inclined country in the world that an organization that tied European nations together non-violently was both a clever and wonderfully visionary idea.
The young, for their part, enjoy a Europe where there is a grand mix of peoples, much more intermarriage, where low-cost airlines make travel to each others’ cities easy and that they can get jobs or go to universities, schools and hospitals wherever they choose. This is liberating compared with what older generations had. They have also been taught in school the reasons for the creation of the EU.
It’s becoming clear where the battle lines for a second referendum are drawn. The results from Sunday’s (May 26) elections for the European Parliament make clear that the tide of opinion is going the “Remain” way.
The scale of the Conservative meltdown is almost unbelievable. It’s the party’s worst ever result in a national election, with a vote share of a measly 9%. They were beaten into fifth place by the Greens. Labour’s result is also bad. It was thrashed in London which is the heartland of Remainers and usually Labour and beaten into third place nationally.
Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, ignoring the groundswell within the Labour Party for remaining in the EU, paid the price for trying to face both ways on Brexit. In Remain areas its vote all but disappeared. Corbyn failed to vindicate his strategy of riding two horses. It came as no surprise that after the results came in he made clear that Labour could only now support two options – a general election in which the government’s savage austerity policies and Brexit would be the main issues or a second referendum.
Prime Minister Theresa May announced on May 24 she was going to step down. The contenders to replace her mainly come from hard right Brexiteers. Fortunately, it’s a poisoned chalice. The overwhelming majority of MPs that voted – by an unheard 230 votes – against a unilateral decision to leave without an agreement with the EU and also voted by a large margin against Mrs. May’s compromise agreement- will not change their opinion.
If, which is most unlikely, the new prime minister could force some version of Brexit through parliament the United Kingdom would probably lose pro-Remain Scotland and even Pro-Remain Northern Ireland. Both have, in terms of their economic and political future, a vested interest in staying in the EU.
The new prime minister will find that he or she is boxed in by the history of the last few months of parliamentary debate. The big question is the exact timing of a general election or a new referendum. Will it be before or after October 31st, the official supposed leaving date or after, having secured another delay from the EU? I would guess before. The new prime minister will sit on the throne for only a few months.
On the other hand, if the new prime minister uses his/her time well to prepare the country for a new referendum he/she might well have a chance of winning the next election.
Professor Andrew Hindmoor in his new book, “12 Days That Made Modern Britain”, records how Winston Churchill in a speech in 1948 spoke of “three great circles among the free nations and democracies”. The first of these was Britain, the Commonwealth and the now deceased Empire. The second was the English-speaking world dominated by the U.S. and the third was Europe.
Churchill suggested that it was Britain’s global destiny to play a leading role in all three of these worlds. “Now if you think of these three inter-linked circles you will see that we are the only country which has a great part in everyone of them”. He would vote Remain today.
* Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune. Copyright: Jonathan Power. Website www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com.