June 2016

The Nation Reviewed

Brexit wounds

By Stuart Ward

Australia’s changing place in Britain’s EU deliberations

This month, the British people will finally cast their vote in the long-anticipated “Brexit” referendum, to decide whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron’s audacious gamble to appease a fractious Conservative Party in the lead-up to last year’s UK general election has brought the nation to the brink of a historic decision.

In party-political terms, it is a complete reversal of the last time British voters were asked to decide whether to remain in the European Union (or “Common Market” as it was then known). On that occasion, back in 1975, it was the governing Labour Party, riven with internal dissent, that deferred to the people to resolve the dispute. In one of her first parliamentary flourishes as Opposition leader, Margaret Thatcher flayed the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, who, by calling for the referendum, had placed “political expediency and party need” before Britain’s international standing. “The new doctrine,” she jeered, “is to pass the buck to the people.” These words carry a decidedly dissonant echo for today’s divided Tories.

Throughout that bitter and turbulent debate, it was frequently acknowledged that Australia was firmly in favour of a “yes” vote. Much was made of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s widely publicised edict: “The days when Australia attached value to a special relationship with Britain are over … The British should stop shilly-shallying and make up their minds to grasp the future in Europe.” Whitlam intimated that Britain out of Europe would lapse into the position of Spain (then a non-member state), mesmerised by its obsolete imperial past with no coherent vision for the future.

Speaker after speaker in the House of Commons (Wilson and Thatcher included) emphasised the extraordinary change of heart that had come over the Australian people, whose former enmity towards the Common Market had given way to a sober recognition that Britain in Europe was in the best interests of all. For years, the diehard Conservative right had based its opposition to Europe on a sense of filial loyalty to the Commonwealth, while the dissenting left wing of the Labour Party preached its own version, deriding the “phoney, narrow, regional” internationalism of Europe that invited Britain to turn its back on the more meaningful, multiracial Commonwealth partnership. The naysayers failed to convince the public, however, with a landslide majority of 67% electing to remain.

That Australia should have featured so prominently in the first Brexit-style referendum is unsurprising. Only three years earlier, in November 1972, the government of Conservative prime minister Edward Heath had suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Commons over new migration rules granting Europeans freer access at British ports than Australians and New Zealanders. That same year, during the negotiations over whether the UK should join the Common Market, Australia’s High Commissioner in London, Alexander Downer snr, had conspired with Fleet Street’s far-right press to mobilise public opinion against accession. And in Australia the leader of the Country Party, Doug Anthony, had issued the shrillest warnings about the dire consequences of European tariff barriers for Australian primary producers in their most valuable and protected market. Indeed, for more than a decade successive Australian governments had regarded Britain’s “turn to Europe” as an existential crisis, abrogating Australia’s traditional role as an exporter of food and raw materials for British consumers. Cries of unrequited loyalty and maternal “betrayal” echoed across the political spectrum.

But by then Australia was already rapidly diversifying its political and economic ties in the region – a process that was itself accelerated by the shock of Britain’s European ambitions. When Britain finally joined the Common Market on 1 January 1973, the effects in Australia were almost negligible. “Britain is in Europe and the sun is still shining,” quipped one leading newspaper at the time. An event that had once inspired the gloomiest forebodings had come and gone without any discernible trauma.

Now, four decades on, Britain is embroiled in an equally divisive referendum, and Australia’s stance could hardly be more irrelevant. Although the Turnbull government has made clear its preference for Britain to stay put, neither the “Leave” nor “Remain” camp in the Brexit debate has seen fit to give this position any prominence. When John Howard announced in February that the British would be well advised to abandon the “fundamentally flawed concept” of the European Union, it drew surprisingly little publicity. Wayne Swan caused even fewer ripples when he declared in London’s Telegraph that a decision to exit Europe would be a “mistake of monumental proportions”. Nor have these interventions attracted much notice in Australia.

Of course, London’s former mayor and leading “Leave” advocate Boris Johnson did try to make some headway out of Britain’s antipodean affinities during his visit for the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2013. Latching on to the story of an Australian teacher who had been forced to leave the UK when her work permit expired, he ventured that Britain’s “disgraceful … disgusting … indefensible” treatment of Australians was the “infamous consequence” of entering the EU in 1973, a decision that amounted to the betrayal of a people who were much more “intimately cognate with Britain”.

Johnson’s political antennae are eminently well tuned, and he is not normally given to pronouncing publicly on matters liable to fall on deaf ears. When he announced in February his decision to throw his weight behind the “Leave” campaign, he explicitly appealed to the dynamism and fortitude of a people who “used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen”. Although he was roundly rebutted by a succession of Labour frontbenchers (former leadership contender Yvette Cooper entreated him to “wake up to the 21st century”), he remained characteristically unrepentant.

Other prominent “Leave” supporters, like former Conservative Party chairman David Davis, have campaigned on the purported opportunity for Britain to renew relationships with “Anglosphere countries” like Australia. But these appeals have gained little traction. The status of the Commonwealth of Nations has completely faded from view, compared to the more immediate issues of refugees, sovereignty and stagnant Eurozone growth. Even the recent decision in New Zealand to retain the Union Jack on the flag (an inverse Brexit poll of sorts) failed to rally the “Leave” campaign.

When the Brexit polls close on 23 June, the British people will have reached a decision far more momentous than their first tentative vote back in 1975. In those days a vote to leave would have been a political setback and a personal embarrassment for the government of the day, but Britain could have decoupled from the still-nascent European project without major disruption for either side. In 2016, after decades of harmonising policies right across the political, economic and social spectrum, the prospect of disentangling the EU from one of its largest member states not only raises a puzzle of Rubik proportions but also seriously risks bringing the entire edifice down with it.

Much depends on the likely terms of separation, and this is the great unknown. Pundits from all sides are projecting wildly varying outcomes, ranging from the “Leave” dream of a newly prosperous Britain, unshackled from the debilitating bureaucracy of Brussels, to the “Remain” camp’s portrait of an unmitigated national calamity. As with the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, there exists no guiding precedent for the decoupling process.

The EU, with its statutory commitment to an “ever closer Union”, is instinctively geared towards convergence, to finding new pathways to integration and new partners to absorb. It is wholly counterintuitive for the Brussels machine to switch into reverse gear, and therefore nigh impossible to predict how a “Leave” result would play out at the negotiating table.

Whatever the fallout, it seems unlikely that Australia stands unaffected by the outcome. Britain is by no means the only EU member with a thriving Eurosceptic element, and a win for the “Leave” supporters would only galvanise these centrifugal forces. The attendant political uncertainty would not be short-lived, affecting long-range economic conditions that could hardly be quarantined in the Eurozone.

The “Remain” campaign has marshalled a formidable array of experts and arguments to paint the ruinous consequences of withdrawal, not only for Britain but also for global prosperity more generally. Yet in trying to placate the anti-EU yearnings of his unruly backbench, Cameron has also lent their cause unprecedented popular legitimacy. Having gambled with Britain’s future to secure his own, he now finds both on the line.

Stuart Ward

Stuart Ward is professor of history at the University of Copenhagen.

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