Smart Brexit - What Next by Peter Wilding

Making sense

There is a growing disquiet on both sides of the Brexit debate over what the government should do and it is fair to say that one side's salvation is the other's catastrophe. Yet, when I speak to people about their views, usually strongly held, they seem to be more emotional than factual and founded on various spin created over the course of the referendum campaign and beyond.

Why is it that politicians and public alike are staring at the current political and economical impasse with glazed expressions and paralysed limbs? 

It might have something to do with how the whole issue of Britain’s place in Europe has been handled from the outset. Former Prime Minister David Cameron sparked a fierce contest where truth was sidelined in favour of saying whatever came to mind to win a vote. His losing sparked much analysis but the question many of us are left asking is “why did we not know much more about this prior to the referendum being called in the first place?”. 

Our system of politics is just that: a system. We have national politics that comprises a complex system of many variables. That is connected to the European system that increases the level of complexity, which in turn is connected to the global system of politics and economics.

These systems are always in a state of flux that make them hard to discern from a single snapshot in time. However, they are responsive and evolving and in the case of Britain and the EU, at a vital juncture that could impact both for decades to come.

We need “experts” (or “Brexpert’s”)

If we are to try and understand better the systems of politics and economics that are in process and especially the one that we have just voted to leave, it certainly pays to understand why we got into it in the first place and how it has evolved. If we are to envision a future that is safe and prosperous for our nation, then, as many scholars point out in pithy quotes, it pays to know one’s history.

With this in mind Peter Wilding’s succinct book titled ‘What Next? {Britain’s Future In Europe}’ makes very insightful reading. Wilding founded the political think tank “British Influence” in 2012 and has been an active participant in advising and reporting on the Anglo-European relationship for 20 years. Considering that Britain is leaving the EU, we should rest assured that our little island is not itself leaving the shores of the north west Europe. We need more than ever a range of informed voices to help guide us through these very murky waters.

Know thy history

Wilding sets out a history of Britain’s relationship with Europe since the decline of the British Empire, nesting our ongoing travails and hard won victories among quotations from notable players of each period.

Having even a rough sketch of this history places our current predicament in a more coherent context, where we can see the evolution and stagnation that bring us to the current conundrum. 

One of the most interesting and integral elements of Wilding’s book is his explanation of Churchill’s 1940s strategy for post-war Britain expressed in terms of three circles of influence:

Winston Churchill refreshed and renewed the vision, advocating a global Britain, at the heart of three interlocking circles of Europe, the Commonwealth and the United States.

These three circles recur throughout the book, at times rejected but also returned to in one form or another. Churchill was able to take stock of the past and especially how Britain was exposed to injury as foreign nations scrambled into the vacuums of power that had arisen in the post war period. By forging ahead into Europe, supported strongly by the US, Churchill sought to strengthen our position at home and abroad. This is where history finds a familiar echo in our contemporary setting, as Wilding writes:

The four freedoms upon which Churchill fought the war - freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want - are in peril in and around Europe. Britain can use this moment to step up instead of stepping aside. It can apply its hard and soft power to resume its former role as a moral leader of Europe…

What next: step up, or step aside?

At the time of writing, the position of Britain in Europe is precarious. A dense fog seems to be obscuring the direction of the politicians at the helm. Apart from dyed in the wool Europe haters and the polar opposite voices who want to overturn the vote, there is no obvious way to proceed that will work to Britain’s advantage.

What Wilding is clear about in one particularly chilling page is the global trends developing on the larger world stage. By 2050 the West will see a reduced economic output by 50% since 1950. Europe’s presence in the global balance of power is of paramount importance if we are to stave off the predatory forces of enlarged international powers.

On our own Britain cannot hope to remain a significant power in global affairs. Our decline has begun. Brexit maybe happening but it should be managed carefully and the basis by which we continue to communicate and work with our allies in Europe must be rebuilt with firmer foundations.

Peter Wilding outlines his vision of how this can be done and labels it "smart-Brexit". Smart-Brexit involves great use of diplomatic and negotiating skills that have oddly been absent in recent months. It also involves the wide range of institutions that exist outside of, but in parallel to, the EU. It has been within such organisations, such as the European Economic Area (EEA), that Britain has a strong history of influence and could be a force in securing future opportunities. Wilding makes a strong case for how a number of these organisations can be coordinated to great effect so that we avert the spectre of post-Brexit disaster and charter a new course in a renewed Europe.

Time for peace, unity & progress

Wilding’s writing style is clear and precise, rising above the nastiness that has dogged this discussion form the outset. Crucially, he urges a pragmatism in our dealings with Europe. Most of all he presents a vision for Britain that could leapfrog this period of turmoil that is sweeping global politics. It’s worth remembering that no matter what short-term problems Europe faces, without a significant tectonic shift in the Earth’s continental plates, we’ll still be a few hours from Paris by train - and for generations to come, let’s  hope that’s a good thing!

'What Next? {Britain's Future In Europe}' by Peter Wliding