Three Circles into One: Brexit Britain: how did we get here and what happens next?
By William Waldegrave
I will argue that the referendum result which led us to wake up in a different country on that June morning in 2016 had roots which lay in the slow dissolution of the national narrative of our identity, which was crafted after the Second World War.
What is toxic, however, is the political process which started with the referendum campaign and has continued ever since.
What is most remarkable about Britain’s history since 1945 is the scale of the change in our overseas global position, and how easily this titanic process passed in one swift generation.
It is hard to think of any other tremendous imperial power, in recent times or earlier, which passed through such a transition so smoothly.
When the term ‘superpower’ became fashionable after 1945, coined by American foreign policy professor William T. R. Fox, it was applied to three powers: the United States, the USSR and the British Empire. Within twenty years all this had almost entirely gone from our national narrative.
We passed from superpower to a new role as a crucial lynch pin, or so our national narrative told us, of the structure of the civilised world.
In search of labour to rebuild a war-damaged Britain and its industries after 1945, we invited immigration from our empire, from the West Indies, from India and Pakistan and Africa.
Anyone who thinks that there is, or has ever has been, an ideological commitment in the heart of the US to free trade or to the collegiate leadership of the liberal democracies, let alone to a place of special privilege for the United Kingdom, will soon learn better when it comes to negotiating bilateral deals with an American government of any party.
We have for Brexit, having been told that it was a pretty straightforward matter. A deal to facilitate leaving, said Leavers, would be easily forthcoming because it was in everyone’s best interest. This did not turn out to be so. Perhaps the Leavers had forgotten that the institutions of the EU had a very considerable interest in not making it easy for member states to leave.
It is therefore unsurprising that this unique failure of parliament has bred deep frustration and damaged the reputation of the institution and its members.
We have seen worse constitutional and institutional chaos in our history.
Wondering foreigners see chaos in the home of what was arguably the western world’s most stable and predictable democracy, and they, like the rest of us, cannot see how it ends.
The crisis now feels much deeper than it has felt before because for the first time, perhaps for centuries, we fear our institutions are failing us and that our national narrative no longer convinces us.
It feels like crass incompetence. A great number of our fellow citizens are threatened with the discovery that actual, immediate things they value and on which they depend are likely to be taken away from them:
How can we begin to propose a better future for all those suddenly awake to the danger of the disruption of their way of life by a process they assumed our institutions would mediate?
There is nothing inevitable about the United Kingdom finding a way through the present period to a satisfactory future. Such a future has to be articulated and it has to find leaders of vision who are trusted by enough people to take us there.
Our national narrative has collapsed, severely damaging trust in our institutions, and it cannot be revived. There is no normal service to which we can return.
A constitutional settlement will be needed to see that the ill-considered head-on collision between referendum politics and parliamentary politics does not happen again, with a written set of rules defining what our constitution is, and how we change it; when a referendum should be used, and how parliament should handle the consequences.
And there is plenty more to do. We have enormous disparities not just in wealth, which may within reason be tolerated as inevitable in a free society, but in health and education, which are not.
I have offered four narratives of the kind which we will need to consider once the Brexit ditch is crossed. My belief is that there can be no return to a status quo. We will be living in a different kind of country, one way or another. We will need to choose what kind of country we want.