Britain’s Disorder and Decline

Photograph Source: David Howard – CC BY 2.0

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is no longer united, as most recently illustrated by the vastly dissimilar tactics to control the Covid-19 pandemic taken by England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This follows the differences of opinion in each region concerning the disastrous Brexit decision to quit the European Union, as Scotland, for example, strongly supported remaining in the EU, and now 51 percent of Scots have indicated they would vote for independence from Britain — if they were permitted to have a vote on the matter. The citizens of Northern Ireland indicated their preference to remain in the EU by a majority of 56% to 44% and although 52.5 per cent in Wales voted to leave, there has been growing realisation that Brexit is a potential economic disaster, and in June the Welsh government announced that it will campaign for the UK to remain in the EU.

There is no unifying influence being exerted by the central government in London, which is obsessed with severing all ties with the EU.  Indeed it was reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared yet again that the finalisation of Brexit would mark a moment of “national renewal,” after which the UK would be “a great European power, and truly global in our range and ambitions.”

Yet on June 24, when the Guardian newspaper interviewed David Sassoli, the president of the European parliament, who had been video conferencing with Johnson and the presidents of the European commission and European council, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, he said “we are very worried because we don’t see great enthusiasm from the British authorities and we don’t see a strong will to get to an agreement that satisfies all parties.”

The Europeans’ reaction to London’s posture is entirely understandable, because the government of the UK (as we may still refer to it, for convenience) is inflexible concerning the UK’s negotiating stance, which is uncompromisingly superior and appears to stem from the belief that Britain is the more important party and the EU must therefore bend to its will. The government in London ignores the fact that it was the UK that demanded to leave the European Union and that the EU therefore owes it nothing.

Originally, it was possible there could be an extension of the Brexit transition period beyond December 31, 2020, meaning that negotiations could continue until mutually-beneficial compromises were reached, but on June 15 the British side pulled the plug and declined to extend the transition.  The result of that decision is that if there is no agreed solution by the end of this year, there will be a “no-deal” Brexit and all agreements will be annulled.  Unfortunately, it is apparent that the government could not care less about this outcome and that many British citizens are unaware of the consequences, which promise to be calamitous.

The conviction that Britain can be “a great European power” is the base, the essence, of the strange manifestation of national superiority that has led the UK to its present parlous condition.  But it has to be realised by Britain that it is a middle-ranking economic and military “power” whose recent performance concerning control of the Covid-19 crisis has given no cause for optimism.  As The Economist headlined on June 20, “The British state shows how not to respond to a pandemic. It faced difficult circumstances. And has so far failed to rise to them.”  The response to a no-deal Brexit will be equally lamentable.

The Financial Times notes that the UK has “the Brexit delusion of taking back control” but that the European Union had “no significant influence over the UK’s spending on (or policies towards) health, education, housing, pensions, welfare, infrastructure, culture or, for that matter, defence and aid.”  In short, the absurd nationalistic slogans that encouraged the British people to distrust and even hate the European Union had no basis in fact, but were designed specifically as part of the Vote Leave campaign in order to whip up antagonism towards a valuable trading partner.

Independent international analyses have shown that post-Brexit consequences for Britain will be economically damaging.  For example, the RAND Corporation’s assessment is that “The failure of the UK to achieve an open trading and investment with the EU post-Brexit would have negative implications for the UK and EU” and if there is a ‘no-deal’ then “trading under World Trade Organisation rules would reduce [the UK’s] future GDP by around five per cent ten years after Brexit, or $140 billion, compared with EU membership.”  This is fair warning of disaster, one would think, especially when the chief executive of the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders told the BBC on June 23 that “It is vitally important that the government achieves its ambition, which is a trade agreement before the end of the year” — but if there is no deal, then UK car manufacturers could not afford to pay import tariffs on foreign components, as the cost would be more than their profit margin.

The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association Fact Sheet is concise in stating that “The impact of a no-deal Brexit on the automobile industry would be potentially catastrophic. There is no other industry that is more tightly integrated than the European automotive industry, with highly complex supply chains stretching across Europe and production relying on ‘just-in-time’ delivery.”  Chaos looms.  And not only in the massive car manufacturing and distribution industry, but right across the board.

The UK publication The Week points out that, for the moment, trade between the UK and EU is tariff-free, “But the Confederation of British Industry predicts that no-deal would mean that 90% of the UK’s goods exports to the EU would be subjected to tariffs.” On June 17 the British Parliament’s research and information service published ‘Statistics on UK-EU trade’ which among other things stated that “the EU is the UK’s largest trading partner. In 2019, UK exports to the EU were £300 billion (43% of all UK exports).”

In spite of the black clouds of impending doom, the government in London continues to ignore the imminent economic catastrophe, and is spending 40 billion pounds (50 billion dollars) on building four Dreadnought nuclear weapons submarines.  It is notable that studies by the independent Nuclear Information Service indicate that the UK defence ministry’s (MOD) estimates are incorrect and that the true cost is in the region of £172 billion, but no matter the number of billions the stark fact is that Britain cannot afford to indulge itself in operating a nuclear weapons force and should concentrate on solving its enormous economic problems.  The country’s government is existing in a world of fantasy in which, for example, the defence minister announced that “wherever I go in the world I find that Britain stands tall.”  He believes that “Brexit has brought us to a moment. A great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality, and increase our mass”, which is not only a delusion but a most dangerous military mindset. (And imagine the hysteria if such a policy had been declared in Moscow or Being.)

The British government should concentrate on uniting its own country, engaging with the European Union in order to maintain existing favourable trade agreements, and cancelling the grandiose and preposterously expensive nuclear submarine project.  It owes this to the British people who are watching their country reeling in disorder and facing a dreadful decline.

A version of this piece appeared in Strategic Culture on June 30.

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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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