What are you streaming tonight? The 1740s Rule Britannia with its jingoistic slavery era language? “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves. Britons never will be slaves.” Or the slightly later Ode to Joy, an anthem that celebrates collaboration over conflict: “This kiss to all the world!”? Ode to Joy is the theme of a united Europe that has put wars within our continent behind it and is a force for good in the world. It’s also currently No 1 on the UK download charts. Perhaps instead you are singing Auld Lang Syne, which reverberated around the European Parliament two days ago after the withdrawal bill passed.
We must put the rancour and division of the last few years behind us. But we can’t go back to the future. We need to forge a new role in the world. A role that is neither divisive nor self-centred. Protecting our own interests but working for the wider good of our planet. Tackling climate change, inequality, violence and war. We had more strength to achieve those aims within the EU. Now, we are on our own, desperately wanting to be in the company of others but no longer in their company.
Prime ministers change. But their fawning of America has not. Tony Blair was known as Bush’s Poodle. Theresa May held Donald Trump’s hand like she was on her first teenage date. Boris Johnson wants to abandon the international agreement on Iraq’s nuclear capacity and replace it with the “Trump deal”.
Therein lies the greatest danger. That the special relationship with America is replaced by a subservient relationship. That we outsource our international and economic thinking to an ally that acts in its own interest first, not the interests of the world. It hasn’t acted in the best interests of Britain since the Second World War. Making America Great Again (MAGA) is not making the world great. But I wonder how long it will be before Boris Johnson starts talking about Making England Great Again (MEGA).
China has a different approach. No less disconcerting. It is investing heavily in Africa and many other nations through its Belt and Road Initiative. Countries have become indebted and beholden to their Beijing financiers. This is not too far from the model that underpinned the British Empire, though far less brutal and racist. China has a lot of cards up its sleeve. A BBC World Service programme on Chinese influence on Kenyan media explained how training of journalists and soap operas are promoting Chinese interests on the African continent.
Britain once “ruled the waves” and much else. We ran railways around the world. Now, other countries run most of our railways. Chinese company Huawei will run much of the edge of the 5G network after Boris Johnson gave way. It won’t get access to the core which deals with secure communications but secure processing is bound to grow on the edge. A bit like the phone in your pocket does the work that rooms full of computer equipment did decades ago.
We have just stepped out on our own into an uncertain world dominated by bigger countries, with the overconfidence of an 18-year old who refused to attend career advice sessions.
Britain has now done the easiest bit. Okay. It took two general elections, two changes of prime minister and a lot of divisions in parliament to leave the European Union. But during the next year, Britain will negotiate trade, visa, flying and all manner of other agreements with the EU and the world. It will be much tougher. Thirty thousand civil servants are being drafted in to work on the legislation, draw up new forms and issue guidance to households and businesses.
The ordinary processes of government will remain in the slow lane, as it has been for the last three years. The chances are that not everything will be solved in a year. We will end up issuing a series of promissory notes to tide us over as parliament and Whitehall catch up with legislation, secondary legislation, rebuilding computer systems and designing yet more forms. This drain on resources will have huge costs for progress of other domestic legislation.
Although Theresa May said EU law would be incorporated into UK law word for word, that’s no longer the case. Ministers think that commitment might constrain our trade negotiations with Donald Trump. The EU guided our environmental, agricultural and fishing policies. Over the next year, we will see whether sustainability and environmental protection come to the fore. Or whether they are abandoned in a short term fix for the slowing economy.
We can’t relive the referendum. It’s over. It’s history. But it will take a long time for our divided nation to heal. The 2016 vote set the Leave majority against young Remainers. England against Scotland. Lies were told on all sides. High emotions contributed to the intemperate debate that now seems to be poisoning too much of social media. We must move on.
We have embarked on a journey into the unknown. Maybe Bill Bryson is already penning a new book: “Notes from a Small Island – the Brexit Cut”. Just maybe it will be funny. But it doesn’t feel funny right now.