Waking up to a different country


From this morning’s edition of The Guardian

We have woken up in a different country. The Britain that existed until 23 June 2016 will not exist any more.

For those who ran the leave campaign – and for the clear majority who voted to leave the European Union – that is a cause for celebration. This, they insist, will be remembered as our “independence day”. From now, they say, Britain will be a proud, self-governing nation unshackled by the edicts of Brussels.

But for the 48% who voted the other way, and for most of the watching world, Britain is changed in a way that makes the heart sink rather than soar.

For one thing, there is now a genuine question over the shape of this kingdom. Scotland (like London) voted to remain inside the European Union. Every one of its political parties (bar the UK Independence Party) urged a remain vote. Yet now Scotland is set to be dragged out of the EU, against its collective will.

The demand will be loud and instant for Scotland to assure its own destiny by breaking free of the UK. This is precisely the kind of “material change” that the Scottish National party always said would be enough to warrant a second referendum to follow the one held in 2014. And this time, surely, there will be a majority for independence. So a first legacy of 23 June could well be the imminent break-up of the UK.

The implications will be profound for Northern Ireland too. The return of a “hard border” between north and south imperils a peace which was hard-won and too often taken for granted. Note this morning’s warning from Sinn Fein that the British government has “forfeited any mandate to represent the economic and political interests of people in Northern Ireland.”

Of course, the divisions don’t end there. England is exposed as a land divided: London, along with the cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Bristol stood apart from the rest of England and Wales in wanting to stay in. There is a yawning class divide, pitting city against town and, more profoundly, those who feel they have something to lose against those who feel they do not. What determined the outcome as much as anything else was the fact that the latter group, many concentrated in what used to be called Labour heartlands, defied the party’s call and voted out. This is a deep rift that will haunt the politics of the coming era. Labour’s prospects will stand or fall on how they navigate it – and they are not the only ones.

The economy of this new, Brexiting land will be different too. The instant reaction of the markets and the plunging of the pound sterling seemed to confirm the predictions of those who were accused during the campaign of scaremongering. The talk is of an immediate battering. True, that talk comes from “experts” – that group who, like all those in authority, seem to have been rejected so emphatically by 52% of the electorate. But events may soon prove that the expert predictions of a lurch into recession were not exaggerated. Governments and markets around the world reacted to the leave vote with horror.

And this offers a warning of a deep change for Britain, a shift in how we are seen by the rest of the world. For decades, we were regarded as a great place to invest in, to move to or just to visit because we were the English-speaking gateway to the 27 nations of the European Union. We had a kind of best-of-both-worlds status, close to the US, close to the European continent.

That physical geography has not changed, but the psychological geography has. Suddenly it will make much less sense to headquarter a big international firm in London, or for a Japanese car-maker to locate a factory – one that aims to sell into Europe – in the north-east of England. Why do it, if you could be in Germany instead? Why come to post-Brexit Britain, where there could soon be the hassle of visas and tariffs and all the rest? Why bother?

The risk is that Britain becomes a kind of offshore oddity, quirky but irrelevant – shut out of the action of its neighbouring continent. That shift will be felt first by the City of London: perhaps few will shed any tears for them, even if financial services are – or used to be – one of this country’s biggest employers. But eventually that new view of Britain could percolate through, affecting our creative industries, our tourism and eventually our place in the world.

All of this will take some time. Who knows, perhaps the worst effects can be avoided altogether. But we should not be under any illusions. This is not the country it was yesterday. That place has gone forever.

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