In a hundred years, the history books will record two events in 2016 that changed the direction of global history. The election of Donald J. Trump and Brexit were both narrow victories with dramatic consequences. Confronted with these two cataclysms for liberalism, it is my opinion that Trump is by far the preferable.
Perhaps it is my British nature, a nature prone to grumbling and wary of overt optimism, that tells me to assume that our nation’s load is the heavier, but I doubt it. Donald Trump stands to attempt to dictate his agenda for an absolute (and unanticipated) maximum of eight years, while Brexit will take a toll on my country that will likely live on far into this young century. To start, the EU cannot allow us to leave and still continue to prosper; its credibility will vanish along with us. Brussels knows this and will enter negotiations knowing that its life depends on it. Ours doesn’t—and so we will be fighting a cornered animal. But Brexit will also damage the United Kingdom’s international standing, and for a country still growing used to relinquishing an empire that ruled a fourth of the global population, this inevitability will sting for decades.
Our National Health Service (NHS), in my eyes Britain’s proudest achievement, was designed for a time where people died much earlier in life than they do now. As our elderly live longer and longer lives, the NHS is put under more and more strain. Brexit’s first rule—to harshly curtail immigration—will dry up the supply of immigrants that work throughout the health service, potentially ending the NHS. Combined with a Conservative government obsessed with the eventual privatization of our healthcare system, Brexit may spell the end for the NHS. This can only come as a cruel irony when you remember that it was the elderly working class whose vote carried Brexit into existence.
There is already talk of a second Scottish referendum within the decade, this one far more likely than the last to result in the end of the United Kingdom. This would be another victory for small-minded nationalism and isolationism. England will have gone from the center of an undisputed world power to a country that nobody need listen to. Scotland will have gone from an integral part of the sixth-largest economy in the world to a state dangerously dependent on a fickle oil market. Both nations’ inability to work for the benefits of cooperation will cost them dear. Another blow against international stability and against economic prosperity—and one destined to be borne by the already raging working classes.
Brexit’s new trade deals (and import taxes) will drive up the prices of products on the high street. British people who are already under strain might buckle under the new weight. The sudden need for hard borders with our European neighbours will likely drive the endless, bubbling animosity in Northern Ireland to flare into open violence. And if that happens, just as last time, innocents will be murdered. On bar stools around the country, Brexit will be put down as another dramatic mishandling by the political classes, one that the ordinary man will have to pay for. This is not unjustified. There will be anger for decades, and it will be irrational, unpredictable, and dangerous.
And consider the relationship between Brexit and Trump. Brexit is brilliant for Donald “call me Mr. Brexit” Trump, as it validates the international nationalist backlash that he claims to spearhead. He stands to gain integrity, without costing himself a penny—after all, this “movement” is about putting one’s own kind and country first, and how can he be expected to spend political capital on helping out a needy Britain if it means contradicting that principle? As he attempts to stay afloat on the waves of panicky memorandums that rush across the Resolute Desk, this unique situation will provide him with an easy opportunity to project strength. I’m sure we will see him taking advantage of it soon enough.
And conversely, Donald Trump is very bad for those charged with steering Brexit Britain. Donald Trump is a predictably unpredictable man. His diplomatic gaffes, administrative incompetence, and surreal pro-Kremlin sentiments have created choppy waters in the vast ocean of diplomatic relations. This has made the prospect of our casting off from the stability of an old, massive, clanking trade bloc seem all the more chilling. At Britain’s most vulnerable point since the Battle of Britain, the White House is inexplicably occupied by a toddler with a gun. And, to paraphrase an Englishman of that time: some toddler … some gun.
Prime Minister Theresa May must know this; she must know that in Trump’s long and public private career, those who have gone to him with cap in hand and their tail between their legs have been left to dangle. On June 24, the day the Brexit result was announced and Cameron resigned, May would have known that she would likely be the next Prime Minister, but she could never have known that the first US president she would visit would be Trump. Now, with hindsight, her early ruthlessness in cutting out the upper-class culture of Cameron’s ‘chumocracy’ looks like a mistake.
At the time, she was rightly applauded for cutting out the old guard and fearlessly setting her own tone, but now she is in a vulnerable position and a lot of those alienated in her reshuffle were experienced, popular moderates, steady hands in a crisis. This is a serious problem for her. To an American audience this might seem strange, but any British prime minister must have the support of his or her own party to maintain their leadership. The party can, at any time, call for a leadership election and oust its leader. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were both toppled from within. Therefore, May’s early cull has forced her to court allies in the more extreme elements of her own party, those most fervent “Brextremists.” Her being dragged to the fringes of own party would be a major problem electorally, if it weren’t for the unwaveringly calamitous opposition put up by Jeremy Corbyn—who elected to himself back Brexit once the referendum results had come in, and who, in Article 50 negotiations with the Tories, effectively told them, “give us everything we want, and if you don’t we will give you everything you want.”
May should simply delay the triggering of Article 50 and tell the British people that although she believes in Brexit, she doesn’t believe in Brexit right now. As NATO is put under strain from Washington and Putin flexes his muscles in Moscow, this dangerous time is clearly not the time to leave the security and stability of the EU. This is surely an obvious point, and could be spun quite easily as one of national security. May should say that she will call an election in 2020 and will let the British people judge her wisdom then. Until that date she could concentrate on domestic issues—on putting Britain first (to coin a phrase). Then, as Trump and his far-right nationalist friends spend the next four years proving their staggering incompetence to the world, our electorate might be seduced by the security that the center ground offers. She would have taken the healthy elements of this new politics, and side-stepped the ugliness.
Unfortunately, she snookered herself in her first week and cannot do that. Now she has to trust the hastily assembled, cut-throat cabinet around her to deliver a Brexit good enough to placate the impossibly high standards of both her “Brextremists” and the “Remoaners” voting base. This effort is headed by her Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, a man who only last week was accused of sexually harassing an opposition member of parliament. Unfortunately, May’s hopes will inevitably fail, and her name will be remembered with the ignominy normally reserved for Lord North. And it will be my young generation that will spend the rest of the century paying for her arrogant mistake.
You Americans with your gun-toting toddler—we envy you.
Oliver Longworth is a master's student studying political communication in the UK. For further insights on UK/US relations and politics, you can reach Olly via twitter: @olongworth1
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