There is a bit of the lost Empire in the Brexit campaign. It smells of gung-ho nostalgia of the days when Britain called the shots around the globe and enjoyed power to order the world. Times have changed. The world has become wiser to Britain’s machinations. The very countries outside Europe that Britain once ruled, are now far too powerful and rich to bother about Britain. If Britain still has respect it is because it has coopted power from two big blocks, Europe and North America and a permanent seat at the UN. Without these props, its first challenge will be from the commonwealth, the club of ex colonial members who the Brexit group are much fond of quoting as Britain’s great hope of surviving without Europe.
Europe has given a big supporting clout to Britain after it lost the Empire. Many European countries share a guilt ridden colonial history with Britain. As a collective they assert similar power as once they did on their own within their respective Empires. Each one has still its own sphere of influence and trading blocks that Europe collectively pools. Brexit will have an effect on that. Britain’s circle will be the commonwealth without the collateral support of Europe.
None of the Commonwealth countries sing a glowing tribute to Britain colonial role in their countries. Slavery, exploitation, oppression, destroying local cultures and making many countries dependent on it economically, do not compensate for railway lines (India) or telecommunications and civil service (African countries). There are plenty of non-European countries who have developed these without the blessing of colonialism.
There is enough resentment among many commonwealth countries against Britain. Only pragmatism, diplomacy and Britain’s propped up power stops many from challenging Britain’s leadership of the Commonwealth. Many countries remember Britain’s role in colonialism as one of deceit and Machiavellian diplomacy. Agreements signed often had small print clauses which were interpreted creatively to remove indigenous powers once they were lulled into believing ‘friendship’. It is no wonder that a UK led resolution at the UN is carefully vetted by others. The world has changed, Britain hasn’t changed.
As Britain drifts, some of these commonwealth countries will pounce on the opportunity to weaken Britain even more. It is in the nature of politics that when competitors smell weakness, the powerful go for the kill. History will avenge. The first challenge in a few years will be to the reign of the British Monarch as head of the Commonwealth.
A challenge was made in 1986 by the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who questioned Britain’s legitimacy as head of Commonwealth when Britain refused to employ sanctions against the South African Apartheid regime. India, under its new nationalistic fervor harbours considerable anti colonial sentiment among the intellectuals who are behind the Hindutva project. Once Britain is seen as weak, they are likely to push for review of the British Monarch’s role as permanent head of the Commonwealth, even though it is only a symbolic role. Once that happens, other will join in, marginalizing Britain’s role and influence in the Commonwealth, encouraged by the anger of colonial resentment.
Britain’s so called special relationship with USA will also change. If Hilary Clinton wins, she may be the last of the Americans to value that special relationship as a cultural relationship. Trump has shown no affiliation to Britain’s historical roots with USA. Obama has subtly expressed his indifference. Future Americans are increasingly of non British stock and have little ancestral affiliation with UK.
Britain will be seen as getting weaker and losing its supporting props. Even its position in the Security Council will come into question. There is increasing clamour by several countries to change the structure of the United Nations.
Of course the Commonwealth will change one day with or without Brexit. Britain’s current role in the Security Council will also change somewhat as the council expands. But they will come gradually without much shock. With Brexit, the changes will be swifter and a shock to the system.
Those Brexitors who are gambling on Britain’s current roles in non European clubs, such as Commonwealth, Security Council and UK’s deep historic links with USA and Canada may wake up to find that realpolitik does not spare drowning powers. The shake up, or even breakup of the Commonwealth, a threadbare special relationship with USA and most possibly dethroning of the Queen as sovereign head of Canada may be the unintended consequences of Brexit. The world has changed much and there are very big political and angry crocodiles in the pond now. Even China hasn’t forgotten the Opium wars. Britain might end up drifting alone in the world, writing its own epitaph in the great corridors of power. Leaving Europe and putting faith in the rest of the world! The deceits of history may boomerang.