Will UK isolate itself after Brexit?

By Xue Li and Cheng Zhangxi Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/9 13:33:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

What does Brexit mean for the UK? According to my fieldwork in the UK in September, the British public is divided along two lines on the issue. The elites are worried. In their opinion, the UK will take many years to recover from the impact of Brexit which will make the country weaker and even autistic. Yet they have no consensus over the second referendum. 

The grassroots support Brexit. They believe that the Channel Tunnel immigrants are a burden on the UK, and the nation contributes more than it takes from the EU. While hating orders from Brussels, they insist on the UK having its fate in its hands, and believe that one more referendum will only see more Brexit supporters.

Historically, unlike Japan, which has been secluded, the UK has always maintained close ties with the European continent. Not only do its religions and races come from the continent, but it is also economically close to Europe and politically part of the European royal family network. Queen Victoria was also broadly called the "European grandmother".

In order to understand the relationship between the UK and the European continent, the Hundred Years' War is a useful beginning. The 116-year war ended in 1453 in the loss of Calais - the last stronghold of England on the continent. Since then, England turned its expansionary intent to the British Isles and the seas on the one hand, and conceived a new strategy toward the continent on the other. 

In 1534, Henry VIII broke up with the Roman Curia and "established" the Church of England (COE, Anglican Church). He did it mainly to remarry. Afterwards, religious differences were born between COE and Catholics much less than that between COE and Lutheranism-Calvinism for quite long. To strengthen the Anglican Church, Henry VIII promoted the development of business and industry by expropriating Catholic land and property, supporting industry, commerce and overseas expansion.

In 1588, defeating the Spanish Armada in the Battle of Gravelines boosted the confidence of England's Royal Navy. Emboldened, it even launched an attack on the Spanish Armada. Meanwhile, England supported France and the Netherlands—main Spanish rivals on the continent. At this stage, England laid out its continental strategy: balance of power with a primary doctrine of "aligning with the weak". 

One hundred years later, the rapidly growing bourgeoisie and new aristocracy successfully practiced the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and thus prevented the restoration of Catholic forces. Economic development combined with "laissez-faire" gave Britain the opportunity to lead the industrial revolution in the 1760s, which in turn led to a significant increase in its power, and enabled the British Navy to defeat a combined Spanish and Dutch fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. 

Through the efforts of the 19th century, especially the Victorian period (1837-1901), the UK entered a glorious age. Based on its colonies, the British Empire earned the name of an empire "on which the sun never sets."

The UK was never a true empire. After 1876, the full title of Queen Victoria was "Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India", not "Empress of Great Britain, Ireland and India". Then prime minister Benjamin Disraeli was definitely sure that the bill would be vetoed by Parliament if he proposed the latter, which was obviously not in line with the UK's constitution. 

During 1815-1914, a so-called European Centennial Peace period, the Splendid Isolation only existed between 1880 and 1903. Between the two World Wars, the UK got actively involved.  

After World War II, the UK insisted on maintaining the "Anglo-American special relationship" on the one hand, and in 1961 applied to join the European Community to avoid being marginalized on the continent on the other. The UK had not joined the European Community until 1973 due to two vetoes from France. The membership has benefited the UK in many ways, especially in the service sector where it has distinct advantages. 

Take the financial industry as an example. If the UK did not join the European Community, the EU would inevitably build its own financial center. London would not have grown to be one of the top three global financial centers. 

EU membership influenced the UK so deeply that Brexit will be like a surgery for "human separation". It will affect the UK much more than the EU. 

It is hard for the British government to hold another referendum without guaranteed success. May's cabinet has to carry on implementing Brexit.

However, Brexit won't make the UK isolated and autistic because of three reasons. First, Brexit is a peaceful split, not a break-off of diplomatic relations. Second, grassroots may influence the outcome of the referendum, but decision-making and implementation of foreign policy depends on elites and major industry interest groups. Most of them oppose Brexit and will try hard to minimise its impact. And third, when the consequences of Brexit are apparent, the grassroots will eventually find out it has more disadvantages than advantages for them and turn to the EU for strengthening the relationship.

In short, the UK will avoid becoming autistic by the force of historical connections, policymaking and enforcement, even if it leaves the EU.

Xue Li is director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Cheng Zhangxi is a post-doc of the institute. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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