Today is a critical day in the history of Britain. It will decide the nature of Britain’s relationship with the states of continental Europe. It will also say a great deal about the British people’s relationship with their own rulers and about the kind of country they want Britain to be.
I would add that if the British vote to leave the EU even by a small majority then I expect this to be a once and forever decision. However if the British vote to say within the EU by a small majority, then I very much doubt this issue will go away. There will probably be a pause lasting some years – perhaps a decade – before it comes back.
In that case both the EU authorities and Britain’s rulers will also have to consider that a very significant proportion of the population has rejected them, putting the British state’s legitimacy for the first time in its modern history in serious doubt.
Only if the vote to remain is a decisive one – over 60% as it was during the previous referendum in 1975 – do I expect this question to be settled for any significant length of time.
However it is important to say that what is a critical issue for Britain and its people is nowhere near so critical for the rest of the world. Contrary to some people’s predictions, if Britain votes to leave I fully expect the EU to continue in much the same way as it is doing today. Flesh creeping talk of the EU’s collapse, of a global economic crisis, of sweeping advances in Europe by the far right, of the collapse of the Western alliance, of Russian “expansion” (a particularly absurd claim) and of the outbreak of World War III (ditto) are utter nonsense.
Even if Britain votes to leave it will take several years before it actually happens – if it even does – and arrangements will certainly be put in place during that period to ensure that the Western alliance remains intact, that US influence in Europe remains undiminished and that the disruption to the rest of the EU is reduced to a minimum. As it happens if Britain votes to leave I expect Britain to draw closer still to the US (I give no credence to hopes it would draw closer to Russia) in which case US influence in Europe might actually grow. As for the EU, since Britain is not a member of the Eurozone, the disruption caused by its departure will be small.
The truth about Brexit which is never spoken but which everyone outside Britain knows is that Britain no longer matters very much.
Though Britain in terms of its international rankings remains a large economy, it is an uncompetitive and declining one, running large deficits with the rest of the world and desperately over-dependent on a bloated housing market and an often corrupt financial services industry to stay afloat.
The British military, which just 70 years ago bestrode the world, is now a shadow, looked upon with contempt by its US ally as it shows itself incapable of even defending small villages against lightly armed insurgents in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Certainly the British military today would be incapable of carrying out the kind of operation the Russian military is currently carrying out in Syria, or which Britain itself carried out 34 years ago during the 1982 war in the Falklands. Though the British parliament pompously debated a military intervention in Syria last autumn as if Britain’s military involvement there actually mattered, barely anything has been heard of it since. Apparently a couple of dozen bombs have been dropped to practically no effect.
In terms of world diplomacy, where as recently as the 1980s Margaret Thatcher cut a commanding figure, Britain’s complete marginalisation has recently become all too obvious.
When the Russians talk about Ukraine – the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II – they don’t talk to the British; they talk to the US and the Germans and the French. When negotiations take place over the future of Syria it is the Russians and the US who talk to each other with the Chinese and the EU (meaning the Germans) quietly involved in the background. When Europe needs to speak to President Erdogan of Turkey it is Chancellor Merkel of Germany who calls him. When Prime Minister Modi of India returns to his country from the US it is President Putin of Russia not Prime Minister Cameron of Britain – India’s former colonial master – that he calls to discuss his visit. As for the burgeoning conflict between the US and China in the South China Sea, the only role the British have in it is in a James Bond film made way back in 1997.
The extent of Britain’s weakness and irrelevance was brought home to the British in the most painful way during the recent visit to Britain of the Chinese President Xi Jinping. What the British imagined would be a triumph for their diplomacy turned into a humiliation, with the Chinese treating the visit as a sort of victory lap over their former imperial tormentor and the British Queen seething over Chinese “rudeness”.
It is impossible to think of a single important issue in world affairs where Britain’s view is any longer sought or where it seriously counts. Britain retains a certain cultural influence and its financial services industry remains sophisticated, though with advances elsewhere it too is a rapidly diminishing asset. For the US, Britain also remains useful as an intelligence and propaganda platform and as a reliable echo chamber for US views – especially in the UN Security Council where the US can always rely on its vote. That however is just about it.
In fact a strong case can be made that Italy is today a far more important country than Britain. Not only does Italy still retain an impressive manufacturing base but – unlike Britain – it engages in active diplomacy as it did for example last year during the Greek crisis and as it has just done – as I saw for myself – in negotiations over the sanctions issue at SPIEF in St. Petersburg. Moreover as a key member of the Eurozone Italy holds the bloc’s future – which is the foundation of German power – in its hands in a way that Britain, which is not a member of the Eurozone, emphatically does not.
The truth about the Brexit vote is that whatever way it goes, Britain today can create a storm in the headlines for a few days but can do little else. Should Britain vote for Brexit – which as of the time of writing seems unlikely – after a brief stir things will quickly settle back to normal and life around the world will go on much as before.
The truth about the modern world is that it revolves around the relationships of four Great Powers: the US and China (the two strongest) and India and Russia (both growing rapidly stronger though in different ways). Beyond them there are a number of other powers which possess or which may one day possess regional influence that makes them important or potentially important: Germany, France and Italy (when they are working together), Iran, Saudi Arabia, Japan and one day perhaps South Korea and Brazil.
Britain is not a member of either group and the days of its influence are gone.
The terrible truth, which the British cannot admit to themselves, is that they are a noisy irrelevance and how they vote today for the rest of the world no longer matters.