Queen Elizabeth II had described the year 1992, that of the 40 years of her reign, as annus horribilis. This year had been marked by family problems, a controversy over the tax exemption enjoyed by the royal family, and the fire at Windsor Castle, which also engulfed its private chapel, to which the Queen is particularly attached. The following years proved to be even more difficult with the divorce of Charles and Diana in 1995 and the tragic accident of the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in August 1997. The 2002 Golden Jubilee was tarnished by the death of Margaret, the Queen’s sister, and a few weeks later of the very popular Queen Mother at the age of 101. The Diamond Jubilee in 2012 for the 60 years of rule, celebrated with pomp and great fervor, had on the other hand established the rediscovered popularity of the British monarchy. It remained a reference institution, especially in times of crisis.
2012 was a pivotal year. The message of trust, national communion and grandeur was unquestionably an expression of identity but did it not also correspond to a repression of the crisis? The participation of the Commonwealth in the celebrations – the Queen remaining the sovereign of 16 states of this vast complex – had repositioned the country in its historical perspective and recalled the link with the imperial heritage, another call of the open sea. The United Kingdom was no longer the British Empire which, at its peak, controlled the seas and dominated a quarter of all lands, but it once again had the feeling of being at the center of the world’s attention.
Jubilee pomp and Olympic euphoria also coexisted with the economic recession. The eurozone crisis was no longer enough for the government to explain the country’s difficulties. This observation raised, in depth, not only the question of macroeconomic adjustments but also reinforced the demands for a redefinition of the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union. Does Europe as a whole not run the risk of becoming an outlet for frustration and an indicator of identity?
The country had officially entered a recession at the end of the first quarter of the year. This was the country’s second recession since the start of the crisis, five years earlier (“double dip”). Economists believed that the contraction in GDP would have been even stronger without increased public spending in 2012, particularly in the defence sector. The outlook was not encouraging, as recognized by Mervyn King, the BoE Governor, due to the combination of a deterioration in public finances and the general recession.
Consequently, in the short and medium term, one could expect a continuation of the policy of monetary easing (see “Quantitative easing“) – a modest expression to designate a form of monetary creation – and also on that of the government austerity program. This was launched after the 2010 elections and spread over seven years, with a view to eliminating the budget deficit. The government did not envisage a plan B despite disappointing results and a real rise in social dissatisfaction.
The country was not without antidotes to the crisis. As a counterpoint to the rather gloomy overall tone of the economic and social situation, one could indeed note the openness, the dynamism of society and the cosmopolitan character of the capital, then probably the most international in the world (NB: one third of London’s population comprised foreigners; the global city had 50 communities of more than 10,000 people). The democratic vitality of the country was expressed not only in Parliament, which exercised a real and continuous power of control, notably in the framework of its powerful committees (“Select Committees”), but also through the media whose audience was considerable or through the community association channels (see Foundations, think tanks of world reputation, etc.). The British soft power remained impressive.
However, we cannot forget the grey areas, or even what is behind the scenes. The model of success could not mask a phenomenon of class more marked than elsewhere in Europe. Communitarianism was a potential threat to social cohesion and national identity, and the Labour opposition leader Edward Miliband had even called on his party to reconsider some of its positions on immigration. Deindustrialization left entire regions abandoned and populations on the brink of poverty (see Broken England). A policy of pure liberal inspiration did not make it possible to respond to dramatic social situations. However, Prime Minister David Cameron had equated the welfare state with the “culture of dependency” and the legislation was oriented towards an even greater flexibility of work.
The issue of the future of the City, because of the answers given in the eurozone, arose sharply at a time when the reputation of the financial centre was shaken by the Barclays Bank scandal (see accusations of manipulation of the LIBOR interbank rate) which was just beginning and which it was believed could also affect other banking institutions.
The crisis in the eurozone has become a convenient alibi that has been exploited by the government, in particular by the Prime Minister/Chancellor of the Exchequer duo. The speech of the latter, according to which “British prospect for economic recovery was being killed off by the crisis in the eurozone”, was long-lived. Even within the Conservative Party, backbenchers considered that the “debacle” of the eurozone was a pretext to justify poor economic performance. The statements of the BoE Governor were in line with the discourse aimed at making Europe a scapegoat, even if they also constituted an implicit recognition of intertwined destinies.
In this context, the rescue of the eurozone was considered essential for the interests of a country that carries out 40% of its foreign trade with it, but a worrying question concerned solutions, in particular on the Banking Union project compared to the Single Market project to which London was attached (NB: according to Deputy Prime Minister N. Clegg, 3 million British jobs depended on it).
These debates rekindled demands on the place of the United Kingdom in Europe, or even on its membership of the European Union. The movement grew within the Tory camp itself and, as a result, a hundred Conservative backbenchers have asked the Prime Minister to include in his 2015 electoral programme “the pledge of a referendum”. Moreover, the European Union Act 2011, called a “referendum lock”, provided that a referendum would be required in the event of a new transfer of competence of power from the UK to Brussels.
Prime Minister David Cameron had to take up the issue of the “in-out referendum”. He rejected a priori the prospect of leaving the Union (“leaving the EU is not in our national interest”) and reaffirmed the central objective of a single approach. Nevertheless, he confirmed an audit on the effects of EU directives on UK legislation in four areas: justice and police, employment and social legislation, financial services and regional policy.
Faced with a large nationalist trend in public opinion and the political class, which ended up confining itself to a revolt within a group of influential elected officials, David Cameron pledged to respect the popular will (“to get the full-hearted support of the British people”). For him it was a matter of controlling centrifugal forces by providing democratic loopholes. The gamble was complicated before even proving to be risky. Indeed, committing to the principle of a popular consultation even before the general elections in the House of Commons could only seriously complicate relations with the coalition’s Liberal-Democratic ally.
On the fundamental issue of the relationship with the European Union, it was clear to the government, Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats alike, that their best interests lay in remaining in the Union on the condition of guarantees for the Single Market and a limit in federal construction which could be imposed in London. David Cameron proposed his vision of European reform in his 2013 Bloomberg speech.
But this did not exhaust the internal debate in a period of crisis in the eurozone: how was it possible to remain without being marginalized? How does one threaten to leave without triggering highly centrifugal internal forces in a country where, according to the then Foreign Office Secretary, “Europe has lost the support and affection of the people in the United Kingdom”. It was in this contradiction that the government found itself, which earned it criticism from both sides of its majority and a certain lack of understanding of its real objectives.
The rest is known but the history of Brexit has not been entirely written. Going back to the genesis of Brexit makes it possible to better discern a dimension that does not simple stem of petty calculations, which does not amount to approving the separation decision. Some people like to quote the appraisal that Napoleon had repeatedly expressed at Saint Helena, according to which “the English are a nation of shopkeepers”. However, Brexit has shown the opposite through its irrational component. To put it simply, at the risk of caricaturing, it resulted from the improbable coalition in the ballot boxes of a nostalgic “elite” of a past greatness, inclined to drape itself in “splendid isolation”, and of downgraded social strata especially in the de-industrialized areas of the country.
Politicians unable to deal with the problems of the latter have constantly made Europe the scapegoat for their impotence. The most pro-European minds of the ruling class, like the Speaker of the House of Lords, had been concerned over the years that good things were never said about Europe in the country. How then could the government suddenly be in a position, in a brief referendum campaign, to convince of the validity of the Remain side? The lies by political calculation did the rest.
The British DNA of courage and greatness, brilliantly revealed during the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympic Games, could have been a formidable asset for Europe, whose institutions must indeed be constantly reformed as befits any living structure. Paradoxically, British dissatisfaction could have continued to serve Europe as a whole. How is it possible to build the latter in its political dimension, the organization of security being a prerequisite? These will be the major challenges, beyond the already observed vicissitudes of the post-Brexit period that begins.