The Conservative Party has had a landslide electoral victory not seen since Margaret Thatcher won her third term in 1987. And the socialist Jeremy Corbyn has achieved the feat of sinking his Labour Party to depths they had not seen for 80 years. Such has been the disruptive power of Brexit, this monster of disintegration that will not only separate Britain from Europe but has also been tearing British society apart. Will this overwhelming victory of the Brexit campaign help to overcome the conflictive and ambivalent relation of the United Kingdom with Europe and heal the wounds inflicted by the fight around it?
The relationship of the United Kingdom with Europe has always been special and ambivalent. The English never wanted to be part of the hard core of European integration, and they had reasons for it. Winston Churchill, supposedly the most Europeanist of the English leadership of the time, already said it in 1953: “… we are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not combined. ” He wanted Europe to unite, he even actively collaborated for it, but, at the end, the British establishment never accepted to transfer sovereign power to supranational instances. And if they were at some point forced to do so, they always reserved the option of leaving (opt out).
During the first three decades after World War II, the British did not feel they needed Europe. But when Europe began to progress at the same time that the Empire was collapsing and Britain lagged economically behind, the attitude towards the European integration process changed and Harold Macmillan, conservative Prime Minister, was compelled to formally request in 1961 the incorporation into the European Economic Community. It was only after the third attempt in 1969, when General de Gaulle left power, that the application for admission was finally accepted.
The British interest, however, never went beyond a commercial integration within a common market of goods. This explains why each time Europe took steps towards a deeper integration that implied some transfer of sovereignty, the British leadership felt uncomfortable, as much as the people were deeply divided between Europeans and autonomists. The Single European Act of 1985 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 were that step too much than revived the old divorce between the Island and the Continent. Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, was feeling more and more irritated with the European Union.
Meanwhile, the social problem compounded the political unease with Europe over the years. The industrial and mining decline plunged vast English regions into poverty. It was easy to blame Europe for the evils of globalization and at the same time manipulate the longing for the old imperial times. When the countries of Eastern Europe joined the European Union and more than two million citizens of those countries emigrated to England in the first decade of the 2000s, the game of blaming Europeans became even easier.
Beyond these populist manipulations, the truth is that Britain has always been and continues to be deeply divided over Europe, a division over which a serious social problem has been juxtaposed. This will not change when Brexit finally happens, particularly when the citizens begin to feel the consequences of this decision in a few years time. Conservative populist rhetoric has repeated to satiety that all evils, starting with unemployment, were due to Europe. The stubborn reality, however, is that the comparative decline of the British industrial economy has been occurring since the 1960s and that the conversion into a service economy was greatly facilitated by the integration with Europe. Consequently, the British economy will suffer greatly when the exit occurs, although it will take several years to feel the blow.
Brexit has also rekindled the independence movements inside the United Kingdom. The Scots have voted massively in favour of the Scottish Nationalist Party, which mounted its campaign on the platform of permanence in Europe and on the offer of a referendum on independence. The Northern Ireland Unionists are irritated because the Brexit agreement negotiated by Johnson ties them even more to Ireland, what will likely reinforce the Nationalists’ claim to unify Ireland. It the sight of all these compounding rifts, it will be exciting to see how far Boris Johnson’s populist magic is capable of handling this accumulation of problems.