At a time when nostalgia is becoming a potent factor in politics, Brexit has become a beacon for politicians seeking to exploit the public’s new longing for old ways.
The conviction that things were better in the past and that hope lies in returning to how things used to be was a critical factor in the Brexit vote, in the US presidential election and in the populism that is now being driven by ambitious politicians everywhere.
In Commonwealth countries such as Australia, where there has been a deeply rooted sense among conservatives that Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) was a betrayal of its former colonies, Brexit is being seen as marking a return to times when things “worked much better”.
Since the Brexit vote, in the “Anglosphere” countries in particular, there have been loud conservative voices applauding the British vote and calling for action to support Britain by re-establishing old connections, especially in trade and commerce.
The latest of these is former Australian Foreign Minister, and now Australia’s High Commissioner to London, Alexander Downer.
Downer pointed out that the story of Britain’s involvement in the European Union was neatly “bookended” by his own family.
Downer has just done a round of media engagements in London in which he urged Britain to “get on” with leaving the European Union.
He argued that leaving quickly would open up new opportunities for Britain’s relationship with important trading partners like Australia. He said that a free trade agreement (FTA) could be “easily” established with Australia.
Downer pointed out that the story of Britain’s involvement in the European Union was neatly “bookended” by his own family. His father, who had been Australia’s High Commissioner to London when the UK was deciding to join the EU, had argued ferociously against it, warning that it would do terrible damage to Australia.
Downer said he took pleasure from being High Commissioner when Britain decided to leave the “protectionist European Union”.
Downer’s comments, while indulging in nostalgic reflection, appear to have had a deeper political motive. There is growing concern among those from outside the UK who back Brexit and want to see it lead to the revival of old trade and commercial ties that the British Government will opt for a “soft Brexit” which maintains some key elements of EU membership.
In particular, there is concern that the UK might seek to remain within the European Customs Union. This was floated as an option by Britain’s Trade Minister Liam Fox and was canvassed in a report of the House of Lords trade committee last week.
The Lords committee said it was “troubled” that the government appeared to have failed to give sufficient consideration to the costs to British business and the British economy of withdrawing from the Customs Union. It called on the government to consider the issues as a matter of urgency.
Although there would be major complexities for the UK in trying to stay within the Customs Union while no longer being an EU member, there would be important benefits for British trade and economic relations with Europe.
However, membership of the Customs Union would preclude Britain from negotiating its own bilateral free trade agreements. It would be bound to the EU’s FTA with its trading partners.
Because an Australia-UK free trade agreement is seen by conservatives as having symbolic value over and above what they see as its considerable economic benefits, the possibility that Britain might continue to have a relationship with the EU which would make such an agreement impossible, is a serious concern.
The most high-profile advocate for using an FTA to restore the “special relationship” between Australia and the UK is former conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Abbott wants to go even further, calling for free movement of people between Britain and Australia.
Interestingly, however, Abbott’s successor, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke at a weekend rally of Australian republicans strongly supporting the case for Australia to sever its most important symbolic tie with Britain – the Queen as its head of state.
Pro-monarchy conservatives in Turnbull’s own party were outraged.
Brexit has given them the hope of strengthening ties with Britain. The idea that, just as Brexit appeared to have created the opportunity of returning to the deeper ties of the past with Britain, Australia’s Prime Minister would speak out for cutting away from the monarchy, was dismaying.
By Geoff Kitney