This is my first opinion piece for Edinburgh University’s student newspaper, The Student; it’s also the first time my work has been published in print, which is pretty cool. I’ll be trying to write a lot more for them in the future, so watch this space! If you’re reading this the week it comes out, there should still be a few copies available: try Teviot, Black Medicine or the Main Library if you’d like to pick one up.
Let me ask you a simple question: why did the UK public vote for Brexit?
Was it due to fatigue with the tedious bureaucracy of Brussels? Did they believe that some short-term economic strife would be worth the increased flexibility that freedom from the single market would allow? Or was it due to Johnson and Farage’s slick charisma and can-do attitude?
While all of these factors definitively played a role in swinging the vote, I think that each misses the core of the issue. The thing is, people that voted to Leave were majoratively not particularly concerned with the nitty-gritty details of immigration laws and bilateral trade agreements. Rather, in something of a precursor to the era of politics that has proceeded it, the vote was driven by that raw and almost irrational desire for independence and sovereignty. The details didn’t matter, really: those could be left for the politicians to sort out. As my Nan put it to my (visibly exasperated) parents at the time, she voted Leave because she “wanted our empire back”.
However, as Liz Truss is learning the hard way on her recent catapulting into the role of Foreign Secretary, the “sorting out” part of that fool-proof plan is much easier said than done.
In June 2016, while the Leave/Remain Debate was busy heating to melting point, then-US President Barack Obama delivered a pessimistic prophecy on the final UK visit of his term: despite campaigners’ insistence that an agreement would be imminent in the years following the referendum, Brexit Britain would be at the “back of the line” as far as American trade deals were concerned. Vote Leave dismissed this as nonsense at the time, reminding us that Obama would soon be out of office, meaning that a deal could be put through right away with his successor. Two Presidential elections and five years of negotiations later, though, the Biden administration has held no punches in informing our government that their long-promised bilateral partnership would not be materialising any time soon.
Now, the natural reaction to all this would be to guffaw at our short-sighted, xenophobic compatriots. In their defence, Truss’ speech at this week’s Conservative Party conference assured listeners that the US prioritising relations with countries such as India and Japan over us was nothing to worry about, and that we should strengthen our other alliances, too. While I think she is right, this is still hardly the “Global Britain” we were promised, never mind my grandmother’s reveries of an empire revived. But despite the fact that I, along with a host of pessimistic Remainers (and likely most Vote Leave politicians), absolutely saw this coming, the childish “I-told-you-so” victory that the UK’s floundering trade status provides us is profoundly hollow. At the end of the day, Leave voters were not in it for economic stability and trade negotiations—theirs was a vote for ideological independence. If this was what it would take to get that, then so be it; the sneers of the cosmopolitan minority will never make them regret their decision.
This new period of identity politics is so potent, and so potentially dangerous, because utopian ideas run the show—sometimes seemingly taking precedence over reality. These ideals, when harnessed correctly, can be the building blocks for a better world; we must be careful, though, lest they be used to tear the current one apart at its foundations. Though the Brexit vote has not yet led to the latter, it will be up to politicians like Truss to fulfil their promises and forge us a more prosperous future. After all, who needs America anyway?
Image Credit: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-58613389
I do not own or benefit from any images used.