Could Britain’s vote to leave the EU be based on the similar mentality that saw Australia, Canada, New Zealand and others vote or fight for independence?
We look at the UK in bewilderment and wonder why it is that the Brits are leaving the world’s greatest trading block. “Surely that would be economic suicide”, we may think from Australia.
Some of Australia’s businesses are also annoyed their footprint in Europe is being taken away. The Brits will be surprised that Australia’s (albeit small) trade with the UK will drop, not increase, after Brexit, as some Australian business must relocate to Europe.
But history is full of countries that have traded ‘wealth’ for ‘freedom’.
Think Uganda, Kenya, then-Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Zambia and many other former colonies that traded freedom for questionable immediate economic return. Economics take second place to national identity.
If you research the debates in Australia at the time of the 1899 independence and Federation referendum, you will see that very similar arguments of freedom versus economy were in the public mind.
For those opposed to Federation the arguments of losing the trading block and economic subsidies of the ‘motherland’ made them think Federation was as silly as many of us find Brexit today.
For Australia, things have worked out pretty well, as they have in New Zealand and Canada. For Britain they may well, too. No one wants Britain to go down the Zimbabwe route.
So, is the UK like a colony gaining independence on questionable economics but feeling of freedom?
For many the answer is yes.
To understand this, one needs to go back to the birth of the EU. Immediately post World War II, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle hatched a plan to intertwine European countries’ economies to make it far more difficult for the continent to return to war.
The history of Europe is a history of bloodthirsty wars, not a history of economic peace. Borders have changed so often in Europe that there is not a single European country, on its current borders and current constitution, that is older than Australia (even the UK borders have changed after Irish independence). Think about that next time you think Australia is a young country.
Key to the post-war plan was the slow integration of economies and politics, and to gradually make European identity superior to that of national identity.
Europeans first, Dutch second – much like we are now Australians first, Victorians second.
For many Europeans, the fluidity of borders and changing of nations meant it was relatively easy to start thinking like a European. I do as I am a UK/Australian dual national living in the UK, and have lived in France on my European passport.
I will lose my right to live and work in all the other European countries – and this European integration is the essence of why I voted to remain.
Not so the pro-Brexit British.
Many of the British population have never felt European, anything like in the same way that Germans, French or Dutch do.
Britain has never been a comfortable European, despite being ruled over by a German royal family who married Greeks.
Many British object to the European Convention on Human Rights (even though the British largely wrote it). Many don’t like the jurisdiction of the European Court (much like Australian got rid of the Privy Council’s oversight of our court system). Many British don’t like a parliament in Brussels passing laws that impact on UK citizens.
So, for many who support Brexit, ‘taking back control’ is not a racist view, it is a de-colonial one. But what now?
While 52 per cent of voters (note electors as the UK does not have compulsory voting) chose Brexit, 48 per cent of voters said Remain, and about 30 per cent of those entitled to vote didn’t bother.
So here we are, less than 80 days from the supposed departure date and no one really knows what’s happening.
Many in the pro-Brexit camp have said they will turn to the Commonwealth to increase trade post-Brexit.
But what these people forget is just like they harbour negative feelings to Europe, many in the colonies hold little warmth for Britain.
Former colonies, like Australia and Uganda, may well negotiate with Britain for trade deals, but will do so with their own national best interests in mind. There will be no special deals for the former colonial overlord decolonising themselves from Europe.
Britain will have to make its own way in the world, as a unified kingdom, without colonies or empires, for the first time since the Romans left London. That’s what independence will mean for them.
Will they be a Rhodesia or an Australia? Only time will tell. Now no one on the Brexit side has put the challenge in those terms.
Andrew Macleod is the founder of BrexitAdvisoryServices.co.uk, which brings together pro and anti Brexit experts to advise businesses.