The Dawn of Britain’s Post-Brexit Journey

cc Christophe Licoppe, © European Union, 2024, modified, On February 16 and 17, 2024, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, traveled to Munich, Germany, to a.o. participate to the 2024 Munich Security Conference.

After a trying period of soul-searching, talks of second referendums and endless debates over how Brexit came to be, there is perhaps no greater signifier of the end of Britain’s long Brexit journey than the return to power of the Labour party under Sir Keir Starmer. After 14 years in power, the Conservatives under David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak clung to a narrow vision of Brexit for raw political gain and at the expense of national unity. When David Cameron announced that a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU would take place, it was widely viewed that the UK would hold firm, remain Eurosceptic and somewhat detached from the continent, but not dare to pull the escape cord. In the process, the UK has revealed much of itself and of its constituent nations, with a fragile peace threatened in Northern Ireland, and Scottish independence looking more likely for a time but now more distant than ever. An entire class of politicians have ridden on the coattails of Brexit and will continue to do so for the remainder of their careers. The UK may never fully distance itself from the events of Brexit in the eyes of Europe and the world, but under Keir Starmer, it must try, and will be well positioned to do so.

Under Labour, the UK is likely to reestablish a sense of confidence and humility about its role in the world. While this role is undoubtedly diminished, it can still be formidable and reputable if wielded wisely. Britain’s next foreign secretary, David Lammy, who identifies as a ‘progressive realist,’ is someone who is humbled by Britain’s past, both the positives and the negatives, and who is determined to make a mark on Britain’s future. For Starmer and Lammy, the task is to lead a Britain that is under no illusions as to its capacity to shape the world to its own image. For not just Labour but the entire political class and the general public in Britain, Brexit has been a humbling experience. It fundamentally rests on a vision of the past to help mould a future that is no longer capable of existing. The UK is not unique to the phenomenon of grievance-based politics warping the perception of what is attainable, but since that fateful referendum in June 2016, it has become one of the world’s most prominent case studies.

While Labour has gained a majority almost on par with Tony Blair’s record in 1997, their greatest risk is to overestimate their longevity and popularity. Despite their strong performance, Labour actually received a smaller share of the vote than they did in 2017 and 2019, owing to the UK’s ‘first-past-the-post’ system and the rise of smaller parties like Reform UK and the Liberal Democrats. Just as Labour had to rebalance and examine its agenda and leadership after the tumultuous Jeremy Corbyn years, the Conservative party will have to do the same. Labour is inheriting a Britain moulded in the Conservative party’s image and shaped by its actions, for better or for worse. Labour should root for the Conservative’s success as a formidable opposition, as the center-left and the center-right globally are suffering from a crisis of confidence and need to regain their rightful place in the political arena. The Conservative’s worst result in their near 200-year history as a party from a high of 365 seats in 2019 to now 130 seats should be concerning to any voter and participant in a parliamentary democracy who cares about an effective balance of power.

Since Labour was last in power the world has become more fragmented, centers of power are shifting, and both Europe and the UK have struggled to find their new roles. Nativism, populism, and illiberalism have swelled on both sides of the channel and the Atlantic, while the effects of globalization and inequality have rendered communities more divided and distrustful of each other. Reform UK, Nigel Farage’s new party after the United Kingdom Independence Party helped ride the wave of the Brexit referendum, relies on a nativist outlook and return to a glorious past that has no capacity to alter Britain’s present and future. Despite the prevailing forces of Euroscepticism, since the Brexit referendum the EU has held firm and is set to gain more member states in the decades ahead. The soft Euroscepticism of leaders like Italy’s Giorgia Meloni is prevailing within the bloc while the hard Euroscepticism of leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban is increasingly becoming more ostracized by all other member states in order to pursue a common agenda.

Perhaps most paradoxically, Labour has the chance to govern Britain as a model European nation. In France, there is tremendous political uncertainty regarding President Emmanuel Macron’s legacy, including the continued rise of the far-right National Rally and the hollowing out of centrist and established political forces. In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition will act as a lame duck until federal elections in 2025, with the far-right AfD party likely to do extremely well in regional elections in Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia later this year.

In short, the Franco-German engine of European growth and reconciliation is sputtering, with the UK providing a dash of hope and stability in an otherwise turbulent continent.

In response, the UK can maintain its historically strong relations with Poland, Czechia, the Baltic states, and others to act as a counterbalance and source of influence within NATO and on the principle of EU enlargement. As a result of Brexit, the UK and its intentions are less mystifying to Europe now, just as the EU and its values of ever-closer integration and enlargement are less threatening to the UK. Under Labour, both London and Brussels can use this new reality to their advantage. They can fight for universal values such as those found in Ukraine while not having to worry about the ‘European superstate’ so feared by Margaret Thatcher and her Eurosceptic Conservative descendants.

If Brexit was an act of national self-harm imbued with masochism as the writer Fintan O’Toole brilliantly detailed in his book Heroic Failure, the election of a new Labour government is an act of national self-rejuvenation. This is not to say everything will go smoothly for Britain, as there are many economic indicators such as productivity and inequality that remain worrying. The politics of pain, however, seems to be ceasing. Brexit will remain an open wound that festers, capable of being used and abused by history and an object of ridicule and reverence in equal measure. What it is not, however, is an aberration. Brexit is deeply interwoven into the fabric of the UK, its seedlings planted shortly after the end of the Second World War before being further harvested by Enoch Powell in the late 1960s, leading to the UK’s first referendum on EU membership in 1975. Labour’s rejuvenating potential is also deeply interwoven into the fabric of the UK. After the end of the war, voters gave Clement Attlee a sweeping majority, with Labour ushering in landmark social welfare reforms such as the NHS which remains a crown jewel of Britain to this day. Recognizing Labour’s historic role, Starmer called for a ‘mission of national renewal’ and the capacity of ‘politics as a force for good’ in his acceptance speech.

Given roughly 65% of Britons still regret their Brexit vote, Labour will inherit a populace that remains divided and fearful. It must resist the urge to prosecute old battles and insist on forging ahead so that Britain can be defined not by the act of Brexit and its associated negative liberty but by the renewal of positive liberty grounded in realism and restraint. In 1962, Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously remarked that Britain ‘has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.’ Not since the end of World War II and the aftermath of the Suez crisis of 1956 has there been as opportune a time as the election of a new Labour government for Britain to make that new role possible.


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