Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government. He is also a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Growing up in Australia during the 1960s and early 1970s, Britain loomed large in not only Australian national consciousness, but in our daily life. School assemblies and cinema outings ended with standing for God Save the Queen. Union Jacks flew atop our public buildings and iconic structures like the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Australian Broadcasting Commission announcers spoke with cut-glass BBC accents. British TV programmes and pop music were an integral part of our culture. Australia was a Little Britain.
So Australians watched the 2016 Brexit referendum with intense interest. As in the UK, few saw the result coming, but when it did it was welcomed widely. To us, and to the world beyond the European Union, it seemed that Britain was breaking its voluntary shackles and becoming great again. The prospect of new economic and trading relationships with the ‘Mother Country’ enthused political leaders in Australia and around the world. It seemed once again the Britain of our sentimental imagination – that the confident Britain, whose political and economic power over centuries created not only Australia, but the United States and other great nations of the Anglosphere, was back.
Two years on, and that dream looks dead. For two years, the world outside the EU has looked on, appalled as not just the Conservatives, but Labour and the entire British polity, devours itself over Brexit. To the rest of the world, Britain’s ugly struggle with leaving, and with the EU in negotiations, has not raised her standing and prestige.
Instead, these have been diminished and, as next year’s Brexit deadline looms ever closer, continue to diminish day by day. Whether Theresa May survives her latest and gravest crisis – the Chequers statement, its fallout as Boris Johnson and David Davis quit the Government, and now the White Paper – is just the latest chapter in a horror story from which no leading figure, Leaver or Remainer, has emerged with great credit.
Britain bled herself dry not once, but three times for Europe: saving it from Napoleonic domination in the nineteenth century, and from German hegemony in two catastrophic world wars, which cost her Great Power status. She could have invited Angela Merkel to walk with her through British war cemeteries on the Western Front, and Emmanuel Macron to meet at Waterloo, and dared them to then to claim Britain owed the EU more that it owed Britain. Britain has already paid her European dues many times over, and yet has negotiated with the EU as if it was 410 AD, and still the Roman province of Britannia, asking permission to leave instead of flourishing a mandate to do so.
Negotiations, like politics, are about perception. If Britain ever does succeed in freeing herself of the EU’s dead hand, she will need to re-establish old economic and trading relationships given away in 1973, and forge new ones. By their inward-looking antics, however, Leavers and Remainers in Westminster and Whitehall collectively have made that task much, much harder.
While Britain desperately needs the respect and support of the wider world as she seeks to rejoin it, the perception they’re both giving is of a Britain lost and unsure of herself, with no confidence that she’ll ever shake herself entirely free of Brussels: easy pickings for tough political and trade negotiators like Donald Trump or Xi Xinping. And, sadly, there’s no guarantee that will change, even if there is a new occupant in Number Ten.
It’s no longer former colonies like Australia, with their rose-coloured remembrance of imperial splendours, that are Little Britains. As its political class keeps tearing itself apart over Brexit and diminishing the standing of a United Kingdom that once coloured a quarter of the globe red, sadly Little Britain is now Britain herself.