Brexit’s stun­ning coup

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Tony Blair The writer was the prime min­is­ter of Great Bri­tain and North­ern Ire­land from 1997 to 2007.

THE de­ci­sion of Bri­tish vot­ers in Thurs­day’s ref­er­en­dum to leave the Euro­pean Union will have vast con­se­quences for Bri­tain, for Europe and for the world. For a day, the Bri­tish peo­ple were the gov­ern­ment, and by 52 per­cent to 48 per­cent, they took the de­ci­sion to go. I was a Bri­tish prime min­is­ter who be­lieved com­pletely that Bri­tain’s fu­ture lay in Europe. I was the prime min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble for leg­is­lat­ing sub­stan­tial sel­f­rule in Scot­land so that it would re­main part of the United King­dom. I ne­go­ti­ated the Good Fri­day Agree­ment so that North­ern Ire­land could be at peace within Bri­tain. Be­cause the re­sult of the ref­er­en­dum has put so much of this at risk, Fri­day be­came a day of great per­sonal, as well as po­lit­i­cal, sad­ness.

The im­me­di­ate im­pact of the Brexit vote is eco­nomic. The fall­out has been as swift as it was pre­dictable. At one point on Fri­day, the pound hit a 30-year low against the dol­lar, and a lead­ing Bri­tish stock in­dex had dropped more than 8 per­cent. The na­tion’s credit rat­ing is under threat. The last­ing ef­fect, how­ever, may be po­lit­i­cal, and with global im­pli­ca­tions. If the eco­nomic shocks con­tinue, then the Bri­tish ex­per­i­ment will serve as a warn­ing. But if they abate, then pop­ulist move­ments in other coun­tries will gain mo­men­tum. How did this hap­pen? The right in Bri­tish pol­i­tics found an is­sue that’s caus­ing pal­pi­ta­tions in the body politic the world over: im­mi­gra­tion. Part of Con­ser­va­tive Party, al­lied with far-right UK In­de­pen­dence Party, took this is­sue and fo­cused its cam­paign to leave Europe on it. This strat­egy could not have suc­ceeded, though, with­out find­ing com­mon cause with a sig­nif­i­cant seg­ment of Labour vot­ers.

Th­ese Labour sup­port­ers did not get a clear mes­sage from their own party, whose leader, Jeremy Cor­byn, was luke­warm about re­main­ing in the union. They were drawn by the Leavers’ prom­ise that Brexit would bring an end to the country’s per­ceived im­mi­gra­tion prob­lems. And, wor­ried about their flatlin­ing in­comes and cuts in pub­lic spend­ing, th­ese Labour vot­ers saw this vote as an op­por­tu­nity to regis­ter an anti-gov­ern­ment protest.

The po­lit­i­cal cen­tre has lost its power to per­suade and its essen­tial means of con­nec­tion to the peo­ple it seeks to rep­re­sent. In­stead, we are see­ing a con­ver­gence of the far left and far right. The right at­tacks im­mi­grants while the left rails at bankers, but the spirit of in­sur­gency, the vent­ing of anger at those in power and the ad­dic­tion to sim­ple, dem­a­gogic an­swers to com­plex prob­lems are the same for both ex­tremes. Un­der­ly­ing it all is a shared hos­til­ity to glob­al­i­sa­tion.

Bri­tain and Europe now face a pro­tracted pe­riod of eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty, as the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment tries to ne­go­ti­ate a fu­ture out­side the sin­gle mar­ket where half of Bri­tain’s goods and ser­vices are traded. Th­ese new ar­range­ments — to be clear about the scale of the chal­lenge — must be ne­go­ti­ated with all the other 27 coun­tries, their in­di­vid­ual par­lia­ments and the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. Some gov­ern­ments may be co­op­er­a­tive; oth­ers won’t want to make leav­ing easy for Bri­tain, in or­der to dis­cour­age sim­i­lar move­ments.

Bri­tain is a strong country, with a re­silient peo­ple and en­ergy and cre­ativ­ity in abun­dance. I don’t doubt Bri­tons’ ca­pac­ity to come through, what­ever the cost. But the stress on the United King­dom is al­ready ap­par­ent. Vot­ers in Scot­land chose by a large mar­gin to re­main in Europe, with the re­sult that there are re­newed calls for an­other ref­er­en­dum on Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence. North­ern Ire­land has ben­e­fited from vir­tu­ally open bor­ders with the Repub­lic of Ire­land. That free­dom is at risk be­cause the North’s border with the South now be­comes the Euro­pean Union’s border, a po­ten­tial threat to the North­ern Ire­land peace process.

The cen­tre must re­gain its po­lit­i­cal trac­tion, re­dis­cover its ca­pac­ity to an­a­lyse the prob­lems we all face and find so­lu­tions that rise above the pop­ulist anger. If we do not suc­ceed in beat­ing back the far left and far right be­fore they take the na­tions of Europe on this reck­less ex­per­i­ment, it will end the way such rash ac­tion al­ways does in his­tory: at best, in dis­il­lu­sion; at worst, in ran­corous divi­sion. The cen­tre must hold.

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