“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.” So Macbeth mused before murdering King Duncan — as may the most steadfast Brexiteer, brave enough to bear Britain’s current crises. While Brexit remains an unresolved political issue, continuing coronavirus restrictions and racial unrest vie for attention. Caught in this state of flux, the United Kingdom must cast off any clinging attachments to the European Union while the government’s resolve remains firm. Shoring up support with America is vital on this score.
Since becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson’s bravura on securing Britain’s independence from the EU quelled lingering doubts. Even so, he soon disabused Brexiteers who believed that meeting the January 30 deadline was the first step in “rolling back the frontiers of the state” — as Margaret Thatcher enthused at Bruges — beginning with Brussels and moving on to Westminster.
Instead, the Johnson administration made plans for extravagant infrastructure projects and a program to make the country “carbon neutral” by 2050. Billions of pounds sterling were committed by the government even before its measures to contain coronavirus, closing down the public square and requiring Britons to self-isolate in response.
Britain (like most of the global community) is plunged even further into debt as a result, with few prospects on the road to budgetary stability. Assuming financial responsibilities for much of the “furloughed” workforce is no aid to incentivizing a return to work. Higher taxes will punish wealth creators and crush employment opportunities, while additional red ink only sows dissent ahead.
As James Delingpole suggests, the government’s fear campaign has frightened shoppers away even with the gradual return of normalcy, necessitating mandatory face masks in order to calm the fears of an over-wrought public. “This is a political gesture borne of the Boris administration’s desperation to get Britain up and running again after months of lockdown indolence,” Delingpole writes at Breitbart London. “So successful has UK government propaganda been in persuading the population that Covid 19 is almost unprecedentedly dangerous that a cowed and frit populace are now proving extremely reluctant to leave their homes.”
Or as Edmund Burke foresaw, “Desperate situations produce desperate councils, and desperate measures.” More cumbersome remedial steps may lay in future.
Worrying still, Johnson’s ham-fisted policies have only encouraged the Labour opposition. No more can the Tories take solace from the political incompetence of its former head, Jeremy Corbyn. In weekly contests at Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, effectively points to the Government’s inconsistency and failure in addressing coronavirus.
Moreover, it becomes increasingly difficult for Conservatives to criticize Labour for an “intrusive” agenda in social and economic affairs when Tories sadly lead the way. If “more” government is the answer, critics of conservatism argue, why not let Labour stalwarts take the reins of power?
And so the urgency with America. U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer doubts much ground can be gained toward framing up a U.S.–UK trade agreement before the presidential election begins in earnest in the early autumn, saying it would be “nearly impossible.” Even if one were ready, nothing can be inked until the end of the year, when the EU’s final restraints of British trade are removed.
Still, were a bilateral trade agreement in hand, what then? Consider the implications of President Trump reelected to a second term with a Democratic Congress; or, worse yet, a Democrat in the White House — none of whom share the president’s Brexit bona fides. What happens to U.S. free trade with Britain, then?
Nevertheless, Britain should continue to negotiate with America. Politicians on Capitol Hill will bear witness to the UK’s eagerness for trans-Atlantic trade — no small thing for either country, post-COVID-19. Demonstrating British resolve will not go unnoticed on the Continent, either, as EU officials continue to press for a “level playing field” that restricts UK trade flexibility, while insisting on access to fishing rights and the overview of the European Court of Justice.
Brexiteers began 2020 with such high hopes. Formal recognition of regaining UK sovereignty was at hand, four years after winning the referendum to exit the EU. Mutually beneficial bilateral trade agreements with the world lay before them, with the prospect of more independence on the home front. Now, aspirations for minimal government and maximal liberty seem nothing more than a cruel sham. Still, all hope should not be abandoned. Nil desperandum.
Stephen MacLean, a freelancer based in Nova Scotia,writes the Brexit Diary for the New York Sun.