Britain and BREXIT – Air Cdre Andrew Lambert, Director, ERPIC Regional Security Program, 19th December, 2018
Britain and Brexit
Air Cdre Andrew Lambert
Director, ERPIC Regional Security Program
19th December 2018
I am not quite sure if the events on which I have been asked to comment are closer to the beginnings of the English Civil War or are more symptomatic of the instability that accompanies an international change of era, similar to that which attended the fall of Rome from around 400AD. Or perhaps, in truth, it is the combination of both …
Many commentators, especially in America, are already bewailing the fact that America will soon cease to be the world’s sole superpower and that the US will have to make way for the growing power of China, supported by its erstwhile ally, Putin’s Russia. But this situation is far more than just the decline of a superpower; it is about the erosion of European, and particularly Anglo-Saxon power, a culture that has dominated this world certainly since 1492, and arguably much before that.
So many of the things that we, and western civilisation, now take for granted are in transition. It’s not just the relative balance of power will see the military equilibrium shift Eastwards, and the economic centre of gravity slew away from protected high labour costs of the US and EU to lower-cost Asia, but it is also about the successes of those that roboticise early in preference to supporting costly human labour, and in this context, China is both technologically and autocratically determined to lead the way towards an AI future.
But a more fundamental shift is in acceptance of the rules-based international order, combined with a new large-scale economic colonialism, and even pressures on the global primacy of the English language. Across Europe and much of Africa, Chinese investment is spreading a new alien culture. Scotland’s sole oil refinery is now 51% owned by China, while in Zimbabwe, for example, Mandarin is becoming the second language of choice for many young upwardly-mobile professionals.
But even the nature of conflict is changing. Under Russia’s Gerasimov doctrine, “conflict”, not peace, is deemed to be the natural order, ranging at one extreme from simple confrontation, through to politico-military coercion, on to direct warfare at the other end of the spectrum. And, contrary to some Western speculation, this interaction is not confined to cyber, as Russia’s expenditure of its oil revenues on a vast new array of highly sophisticated weapons demonstrates so well. Alongside the threats, or use, of conventional weapons, such as the deployment of little green men with no distinguishing national uniforms, coercive techniques increasingly come into play, such as the employment of cyber weapons designed to cripple, of bots and social media designed to spread false propaganda, alongside a range of other deniable options such as the funding of groups likely to undermine national or supra-national bodies; and, as this conflict becomes more manifest, even the use of nuclear threats.
The world in 2119 will look very different from that in 2019: population will likely crest 10 Billion by 2050 and, unless one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse lends a hand, likely rise much further, with the greatest rises in Africa, and indeed other 3rd world countries that can least accept such increases; migration will inevitably cascade towards those countries with high living standards, no doubt with increasing use of material and non-material barriers to stop the flow.
But the rule of international law is also increasingly being flouted. For example, Turkey clearly acts illegally in her frequent invasions of neighbouring states, and most recently by granting drilling licences in another nation’s waters. Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, as the map shows, China claims historical sovereignty over islands and reefs far from her coasts and is now occupying these reefs for military purposes, all contrary to the International Tribunal’s Arbitration Ruling. No doubt, India will soon follow suit, already claiming suzerainty over much of the Indian Ocean. As the rules-based order slowly collapses, we should expect to see ever greater disregard of the rule of law in favour of national expedience, a situation not so far removed from the 1930s.
Meanwhile, international relationships will change in surprising ways. While oil prices remain high, America, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran will readjust their interests, with unlikely friends even becoming bedfellows. Under Trump, America has become very introspective with little need for oil imports, and Iran, under US sanctions, is establishing a metaphorical oil canal to run alongside China’s silk road in the other direction. According to the FT, on the side-lines of the ‘Davos in the desert’ conference, the Saudi energy minister said the kingdom aimed to acquire 30 per cent of Russian gas producer Novatek’s $21bn liquefied natural gas project in the Arctic. As a quid pro quo Saudi Arabia has agreed to buy Russian arms, and to continue to work with Russia to maintain a high oil price. Indeed, one of the few leaders at last week’s G-20 meeting to embrace the infamous Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was Vladimir Putin. So new balances of power, new alignments and new economics all interplay.
Normally, when the world order is in disarray, it is a time for nations to aggregate together, seeking mutual security. However, against the potentially dangerous backdrop I have outlined, Britain, it seems, is determined to make some senseless unilateral declaration of independence.
But not only that, this futile gesture is not something accomplished with great design, panache or aplomb, it is being developed with the utmost confusion, treachery and chaos.
What PM Cameron had originally planned to be the funeral service for the Brexiteers, became rather the funeral for Mr Cameron’s political career. In all ill-judged referendum in June 2016, Brexit won by 17.4 million to 16.1 million. And this, on a simple matter of “In/Out” is taken to mean that the 17.4 million gave their consent to any deal on offer.
Sadly, of the 2016 voting population, some 7 million never registered to vote in the first place and a further 13 million, mostly the young, couldn’t manage to get out of bed that morning. In what was solely an advisory referendum the campaigning was bitter. It was characterised by billboards and campaign buses offering the most preposterous of benefits, by overwhelming media support for Brexit with some 70% of the newspapers producing pro-Brexit headlines on the day, by the widespread disruption of rallies by rent-a-mob protesters, by the widescale use of social media bots, many originating in Russia, purveying the most outrageous and misleading factoids, by the widespread use of illegal funds, and finally by the fact that the Referendum was portrayed as a vote against Cameron, it is actually surprising that BREXIT did not do better. Hardly a fair plebiscite; both Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin must have been terribly pleased!
For many Brexit was a xenophobic vote against EU immigration, but, as the diagram shows this was forlorn with EU immigrants progressively being replaced by non-EU. For many others, especially in the heartlands of old Labour, it was essentially a vote against Cameron’s austerity programme, but for a few there was a child-like belief that life outside the EU would actually be better with an additional £350million a week for the NHS.
But the people had spoken, and Theresa May rode to power on the mantra, “Brexit means Brexit” – which, as the New Statesman has opined, is about as meaningful as “Breakfast means Breakfast”.
Of course, the Brexiteers, realising the fluke with which they gained their slim majority, mostly it has to be said, amongst the old or ill-educated, are afraid to go to the public for a reasoned second mandate now that the various withdrawal options are on the table. A second democratic vote is cited as being a betrayal of the will of the people.
And well might the Brexiteers be worried. By the time any 2019 Referendum could take place, the demographics have changed, not in their favour. Some 1.6 million of the old have died, and some 1.2 million young have entered the register. On this one fact alone, the Brexit majority would likely evaporate, with a win for Remainers.
But any subsequent Referendum is far more convoluted than a simple public realisation that they had made an error. For many Brexiteers the issue has replaced religion and, despite all evidence to the contrary, they cling to their devout beliefs. For many Brexit voters such utopian beliefs are still based on xenophobic envy of foreign immigrants with many Brexiteers believing that EU nationals are still living at their expense on British benefits; for others, there remains the institutional dislike of ‘being run by Brussels’, of massive bureaucracy, or of being part of a European super-state, and for many the votes will now be to register disapproval of Cameron. Some of the more educated ones still predict the collapse of the EU under its bureaucratic dead weight, and might characterise Britain’s departure as just the first rat leaving a sinking ship.
Despite many Brexiteers being extremists themselves, anyone with opposing or heretical views is deemed an ultra-remainer, harbouring the most undemocratic and treasonable plans. Indeed, as the New Statesman has intimated, to suggest the 2016 Referendum outcome is not sacrosanct, and might be reversed, is treated by some of the tabloids as an act of treason against the will of the people. But why should a referendum, especially an advisory one, be any more sacrosanct than the result of a general election? The essence of democracy is that people can and do change their mind, otherwise why have any more elections at all?
I am very conscious that anything I can say now will rapidly be overtaken by events. Few would have predicted that PM Theresa May would have been subjected to a vote of no confidence on 10 December, and with pundits gleefully predicting anything from a Vote of No-Confidence to an outright massive vote of confidence in her and her plan, the result with 200 in favour but 117 against means that out of a House of Commons of 650, she has just less than a third in loyal support of her or her policies.
So, if any of you viewers are hoping that I will stare into my crystal ball and accurately predict not just the course of BREXIT but of its implications as well, I am afraid you will be sadly disappointed.
However, what I can do is review some of the more likely options and consider their implications before making some closing remarks about what this means for the state of Britain in the modern world.
At the time of writing, 19 Dec 2018, the PM has tabled her Brexit Withdrawal Bill, based on the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration. But in the clear face of MPs’ opposition has been forced to withdraw it pro tem until mid-January, with any likely vote, as the diagram suggests, being 50 Conservative Brexiteers abstaining, and with 325 against and only 267 for.
Unless, over Christmas, she can persuade most of the (assumed) 50 Brexiteers and 10 DUP to vote for her, – in which case her best result would be 315 against 327, – then she will still lose.
In the event of such a failure then Jeremy Corbyn would immediately call for a Vote of No Confidence in HM Government which would mean a General Election, were he to win. However, since both the Irish DUP and the Brexiteers would be unlikely to welcome a General Election then she would most likely survive such a vote of no confidence.
The result of these two votes would thus be impasse. Withdrawal Agreement rejected, but Theresa May still in office. No doubt were this to happen she would immediately go to Brussels to seek some “clarifications” to the Political Declaration, especially over the Northern Ireland “Backstop” arrangement, in the hope of getting a text which her own Brexiteers and the DUP could sign up to. Frankly, even given the use of widespread patronage and inducements this is still unlikely to succeed.
At which point there are 3 feasible options. The first is that Theresa May would be forced to resign, and another Conservative candidate would be found who might command a vote of confidence in the Commons, possibly even, on a platform of leading a coalition. Perhaps even renegotiating a new deal with Brussels, most likely closely aligned to the Norway model, which the Labour party largely accept. In such a case, the UK would, before negotiations re-started, have to get agreement from the 27 that Article 50 could be delayed by a year or so, to allow time for the details to be worked out. In turn, once any new terms had been drafted, they would have to be ratified both in Parliament and also by the 27. Then, and only then, could discussions take place on the future trade and relationship deal, which would then run on for about another 2 years, to 2022.
However, assuming that PM May chooses to remain, there are realistically only 2 choices if her renegotiations fail to convince Parliament. The first is that no deal is considered acceptable or likely in the timescale, and so the decision is taken for the UK to withdraw without any treaty – the ‘No Deal’ option. Simply, this would require little further detailed discussion, no payment of the £39 million exit fee, and no agreement on tariffs or indeed standards from 30 March 2019.
The resulting chaos on both sides of the English Channel would be calamitous. Until emergency measures could be implemented on this side, probably by Queen’s Order, and similar measures instigated by President Macron, the flow of goods into and out of the UK would be severely disrupted, as Customs officials inspected cargoes, revenues were collected, and goods still in the queue were just allowed to rot. Supermarket shelves, most probably already denuded by panic buying in advance of the deadline, would fill only to be rapidly re-emptied. Black markets and smuggling would no doubt proliferate. Most likely there would be rioting, and the army would have to be deployed. All that said, apart from amongst the most rabid Brexiteers, there is absolutely no desire on either side of the Channel for such a crisis to occur and a disaster like this would only occur by huge gamble or straightforward miscalculation. Even so, the PM is currently saying to her MPs that a vote against her deal would inevitably result in a “No Deal” – a very dangerous political path.
Which brings me to the third option – a “Peoples’ Vote”. Despite Mrs May’s implacable stance against a second referendum, which does create the awkward and dangerous precedent for another Scottish Referendum, this in the end may be the only choice if we are to find a way out of the maze.
Increasingly, political elites and reputable media are drawn to a second referendum as it gives the people a chance to decide if they still want the forms of Brexit on offer, and having due regard to the likely costs of the options. The FT calculates, for example, that Mrs May’s agreement will lose the average person £2,000 per year tfn; but without any deal, the cost per person would rise to £3,000 per year with public finances hit by between £8 – £36 Billion per year.
In a bizarre twist, some Brexiteers have recently suggested that the will of the people must still be accepted no matter what, and that the issue on the next ballot will not be “in or out”, but do you wish for Mrs May’s plan, or a no deal. This Machiavellian option would be tantamount to saying, “you have accepted the principle of committing suicide, all we need to know now is do you want the painful or less painful option”!
Of course, if, having had all the options laid before them, the British people still believed that the benefit of leaving was worth that loss of earnings etc, then so be it; that would be their democratic choice.
However, any second referendum would still be beset with electoral difficulties. At the very least one would expect to see considerable, though deniable, Russian interference, with pro-Brexit bots scattered across the social media, targeted against the least-well informed and most susceptible. If Mr Aaron Banks vastly overspent on the pro-Brexit campaign in 2016, then he and his cronies would be extremely likely to pay for advertising campaigns that would saturate the billboards of Britain with pictures of rows of immigrants, and the airwaves, would be full of disingenuous factoids with messages as Dr Goebbels put it so aptly, “a lie told once is just a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth…”, and the message would be simply, if you vote for Brussels you will be enslaved for evermore. In short, this would likely be one of the most pernicious and divisive campaign in history, with riots and even battles on the streets. Whether this would evolve into a new Civil War is anyone’s guess. But at least Nicola Sturgeon would be pleased!
So, with all this confusion, what might be the implications for Britain’s status in the world?
The answer is actually relatively straightforward. Britain’s place is considerably diminished certainly pro tem.
Whether the revolutionary parochial policies of a latter-day Oliver Cromwell will eventually be replaced by the continental aspirations of Queen Anne, with Britain leading a coalition with Prince Eugen of Savoy to victories at Malplaquet and Blenheim, is open to speculation.
However, for the time being, Britain is obsessed by Brexit. Little else is debated, and even Britain’s armed forces are being used as bargaining chips in the negotiations, with Britain already agreeing to offer armies to the EU, but with no decision-making authority about their tasks or roles.
Britain is also increasingly divided, with a hostile North pitted against a more wealthy South East, and with a Northern Ireland and Scotland voting very differently from England, and this will increasingly result in aggressive introspective parliaments with few genuine interests in events outside Britain. Will Scotland secede? Very likely as the previous demographics favoured the Union, and many young people now wish to be free of English control.
And more widely, if Britain left the EU what of her status elsewhere. Could she retain her seat on the UNSC? Would the US see Britain as being an advocate in the European corridors of power or just a lapdog to do the US’ bidding?
So many questions and so few answers.
I wish I could be optimistic!