I'll tell you right now, I am neither for or against the principle of Brexit. Membership of the EEC and then the EU has been a controversial political issue in Britain for as long as I can remember. The French president, Charles De Gaulle, was always against British membership. Not because he disliked the British, but because he believed that throughout the 1960s the British were not serious about the greater European project. He was right. We have never been serious about the greater European project – of finding a way to stop economically-powerful European countries going to war with each other on a more or less permanent basis.
The British have not cared about any such project since the defeat of Napoleon, after which the management of the continent was left safely in the hands of the Austrian empire through the Congress of Vienna in 1816, allowing us to get on with building our own global empire. Napoleon regarded the British as a 'nation of shopkeepers,' borrowing the phrase from Adam Smith. President De Gaulle agreed with him, the point being that the British were unlikely to do or take part in anything that did not turn a profit or protect those profits already being turned. Our commitment to an idea of 'Europe' has always been half-hearted, and our membership of the Community, come Union, since 1973 has always been less than 100%.
My only concern about the 2016 referendum result is that Britain was
and is not
ready to leave the EU economic comfort zone. The British economy is in the wrong shape to be leaving a single market. Much of it has become used to EU free trade, and has become rather fat and lazy within it. To enter the global market without the protective custody of the EU, Britain needs a far stronger manufacturing sector and a far more vigorous business culture than it currently has. Britain needs to make money and the country's balance of trade position has remained poor since 1998, even taking financial services into account. This may be my only concern – but it's a very significant one.
The fear that many people share over Brexit comes from Britain's unpreparedness for what comes next. We know that there has never been a plan for Brexit. Even the most die-hard Brexiteers had, and still have, no idea what a post-Brexit Britain can or should look like. Their model appears to be a Britain of 50 years ago. Their motivation seems to be the creation of a renovated business environment in which they and their colleagues and friends can profit. They will deregulate, sell assets and manage investment funds that will take advantage of the new situation. Everyone else will endure some level of discomfort until things settle down.
However, in the age of the information superhighway, this approach seems inadequate to those with even a modicum of education and business experience, no matter how much you dress it up in patriotic drivel. In the past 100 years or so, Britain has had a habit of being completely unprepared for major historical changes that didn't
comprise commercial advantage.
Britain was not ready for the first world war. The professional army was not big enough to fight a major land war on the continent, and manufacturing took far too long to start producing the munitions and equipment that were needed to take on the German war machine. The crisis surrounding the provision of large calibre shells had to be resolved by David Lloyd George.
Having borrowed heavily to win and then recover from the first world war, Britain was not prepared for the financial crisis of the 1930. This created an overstretch in resources which rendered the country ill-prepared for the second world war, with the same problems as before. The war started with Dunkirk, and didn't really improve until the USA and Soviet Union got involved, despite our being at the head of the 'greatest empire ever known.'
We weren't prepared for peace either. The loss of the empire continues to flummox us even now. The Channel tunnel took most of my lifetime to make sense of. The third runway at Heathrow has taken my entire lifetime, and is only now on the verge of resolution. The situation in Ireland has lasted for hundreds of years and is now one of the main stumbling blocks to a settlement of the current Brexit negotiations. Parliament is a mess of unresolvable intra- and cross-party chaos, and the constitutional structure of the UK itself is in permanent turmoil after what was supposed to be the devolution settlement in the late 1990s. Indeed, the Assembly in Northern Ireland has not sat since early 2017, and few people care.
Britain is never prepared and it is therefore not surprising that it isn't ready to leave the European Union. Britain has shown itself, time and time again, to be incapable of a well-organised, unified response to major events, including those initiated by us. Instead, we have seen and continue to see, different regions of the country and sections of its economic community reacting in a fragmented way and in their narrow best interests. This is both the cause and effect of the continuing British malaise.
I was recently in London for the weekend. It has been some time since I have actually had time to walk around the place in the broad sunshine of a Sunday afternoon and, I must say, I noticed many changes. When I used to work there, during the Thatcher 'revolution', the NatWest tower, the Lloyds building, Canary Warf and the Gherkin, were the headline symbols of corporate power in the city.
Now, looking across the Thames from Shakespeare's Globe theatre, it's a struggle to find the Natwest tower among the cluster of new corporate behemoths recenty built or under construction. Then there is the Shard and other new buildings on the south-side of the river – all giving the impression of a global city in a state of permanent growth. Which London is, and has been, since the end of the civil war in the 1640s. There is little fear in this place, rather a sense of absolute belief that cannot be found in any other part of the country.
Except in times of war, Britain has always been the most divided of political and economic constructs, with London at the top in all categories and the far north of the country at the bottom with literally nothing. There has never been a structure created to permit an equitable distribution of economic, political and social resources throughout the country, and I don't expect that to change. Britain is a rather subtle dog-eat-dog kind of society, with the biggest dogs building their kennels in the south-east. As a result, the south-east, including London, is where the benefits of Brexit will be most enjoyed, and we may look no further than Jacob Rees-Mogg for the confirmation and personification of that truth.
In Britain, certain individuals and organisations are always prepared and can smell the profit from change. I expect that Brexit, no matter what it finally looks like, will prove this timeless dynamic once more. The rest of us will be left to muddle through – as usual.