Brexit and the prospect of national humiliation

The UK faces a range of uncomfortable outcomes from negotiation with the EU

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Things are going badly wrong in Brexit-land. The UK government is weak and divided. The EU is confident and uncompromising. The negotiation clock is ticking and only the wilfully deluded now believe that a “cake-and-eat-it” Brexit is on offer. Instead, Britain appears to face a choice between three different types of humiliation.

The first humiliating outcome is that Britain becomes so desperate for a trade deal that it is forced to accept the EU’s terms, more or less in their entirety. That will mean that Britain agrees to pay a bill of up to €100bn in gross terms, merely to get trade negotiations going. To then secure access to the single market, Britain would have to make further humbling concessions — accepting free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

An alternative humiliating outcome would involve Britain refusing to make an agreement on these terms and crashing out of the EU without a deal in March 2019. British goods and lorries would then stack up at the Channel ports, as they hit new trade and customs barriers — amid general sniggering on the other side of the channel. Job losses would mount in manufacturing and a range of service industries, from finance to pharma. And as investment was diverted to continental Europe, the economy would take a permanent hit.

A weakened Britain would then turn to Donald Trump’s America, in the hope that the US president would make good on his promise of a “very, very big” trade deal. But the dream of a proud, prosperous, “global Britain” would look like a sick joke.

The third humiliating outcome involves Britain realising that there is no good Brexit on offer and abandoning the whole idea and returning meekly to the EU fold. Even to secure agreement to this outcome from the EU27, Britain might have to give up its cherished budget rebate.

Each of these results will cause dismay and anger in Britain. But there is an argument that a dose of national humiliation can be good for a country. The writer Ian Buruma argued recently that British and American politics have become vulnerable to nationalist self-harm because, after the second world war, “generation after generation grew up with . . . the feeling of being special”.

All of the other big nations in Europe experienced occupation, defeat, humiliation or the collapse of democracy during the 20th century. By contrast, Britain takes a frank and understandable pride in never succumbing, in its modern history, to political extremism or military defeat. However Britain’s national pride, viewed from the Brussels perspective, has made the UK an awkward customer that has never accepted the concessions of sovereignty that are necessary to make the EU work. The Eurocrats murmur that if Britain is humbled by Brexit, that might have a positive effect in the long run, persuading the UK eventually to return to the EU with a more realistic assessment of its own power, and of the benefits of the European project.

But is humiliation really good for a country? It is arguable that Britain’s much-prized record of political moderation is connected to the fact that the country has never really been humbled.

Angry and confused countries often take refuge in political extremism or aggressive nationalism. The Chinese government has made avenging the country’s “century of humiliation” (which began in 1839) the centre of a nationalist ideology that its neighbours find increasingly threatening. Vladimir Putin’s sense of humiliation at the collapse of the Soviet Union has driven Russian revanchism in Ukraine and Georgia. Going further back, German humiliation, following defeat in the first world war and the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, contributed mightily to the rise of Hitler.

But if post-1918 Germany offers a warning about the dangers of national humiliation, post-1945 Germany demonstrates that being humbled can sometimes be good for the soul. Out of the moral and physical ruins of Nazism, the next generation of Germans built a country that is now rich, stable and widely admired.

Fortunately, however badly Brexit goes, it will never be a humiliation to rank alongside responsibility for the Holocaust or occupation by a foreign power. Nonetheless, any of the three possible Brexit humiliations will be a profound blow to national confidence.

The resulting public anger is likely to cause a further polarisation in domestic politics. The nationalist right is likely to blame Europeans for allegedly ganging up on Britain and the liberal establishment in the UK for “selling out the country”. The Corbynite left would also stoke anti-establishment anger, and would use the general chaos to push for a massive expansion in the state — and a radical realignment in British foreign and defence policy. That, in turn, would provoke a counter-radicalisation by the right.

But it is also possible to imagine more cheerful scenarios. A country that has made the self-mocking ditty “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” an alternative national anthem, might have the ability to shrug off a Brexit humiliation. Stereotypes about Britain’s “national character” tend to emphasise pragmatism, a sense of humour and an ability to cope with adversity. The Brits may need all of those qualities to cope with the fallout from Brexit.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

Letter in response to this column:

Stop sparring and get down to business / From Sir Christopher Coville, Sherborne, Dorset, UK

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