What Comes after Brexit? Not the End of the United Kingdom

Brexit FT
What comes after Brexit? Not the end of the United Kingdom necessarily, as Scots will want to hold on to the pound. (Flickr)

By Hansjörg Müller

Four days after nearly 52% of British voters chose to leave the European Union, newspapers still have the live-tickers on their websites. Here are six answers to the most important questions about the future of the United Kingdom.

  • Is Brexit irreversible?

This is not certain. Prime Minister David Cameron is employing delay tactics, having announced that he will only step down in October. That might be a sign that Brexit might be reversible. It’s remotely possible for a new government to call for a national election and interpret the result as a second referendum.

The holding of a second referendum, however, is unlikely. There is an online petition to hold a second referendum which (is now investigated for fraud and) already counts with three million signatures, but ignoring last Thursday’s result would contradict the notion of fairness held by many Britons.

  • Who will succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister?

Probably Conservative Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and semi-official leader of the Brexiteers. His most important potential contender, Minister of Justice and former Minister of Education Michael Gove, has already confirmed his support for a Johnson premiereship.

Nevertheless, Johnson will face a strong opposition within the Conservative Party. Cameron’s allies prefer Home Secretary Theresa May, who played a subdued role on the Remain side of the Brexit referendum. According to The Observer newspaper, one source close to Cameron told the media that “there is a special place in hell reserved for Boris. We need to get behind Theresa (May). She’s the grownup.”

David Cameron’s preferred successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, has no chance of becoming Prime Minister. His allies are running away from him. A Conservative minister who was supposed to be Osborne’s ally told the Sunday Times that, after all that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have achieved, its better to support them than attack them.

  • How will the European Union respond?

There seems to be two possibilities. Some EU leaders want Britain to leave as soon as possible, others are willing to hold prolonged negotiations. Martin Schulz, the German President of the EU Parliament, consolidated his reputation as a boor (“I know every hog in Europe,” he once claimed) by warning the British that they should announce their withdrawal at tomorrow’s EU summit.

Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, has tried to strike a conciliatory tone: “To be honest, it should not take forever, but I wouldn’t want to struggle just to achieve a shorter time period.” An internal document of the German Finance Ministry recommends to reach a deal without an excessive amount of concessions for Britain to remain an associate.

  •  Will Scotland become independent?

Continental journalists and commentators appear to assume that an independent Scotland will be an inevitable result of Brexit. In truth, however, it is more than uncertain. According to a poll conducted on Saturday, 52% of Scots are in favor of independence from Great Britain. Taking into account that anger over Brexit in Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, should come to a head a few days after the referendum, this is not an impressive pro-independence majority.

Some leaders of the Scottish National Party, the biggest grouping in the Edinburgh parliament, are calling for an independence referendum to be held soon. They know that the farther in the past that the Brexit shock lies, the more Scots will be aware of the risks of splitting from the UK. Without cash transfers from England, Scotland would face an enormous fiscal deficit. At the same time, a decision between the EU and the UK would be a decision between the pound sterling, which is relatively solid even after Brexit, and the Euro, a currency whose future is fully uncertain.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, now stands before a difficult decision. In 2014, 55% of Scots decided to reject a separation from Britain. If the nationalists lose a second referendum, their dream of independence could be lost for good.

  • Are Britain’s young and old divided?

At first sight, this would seem to be the case. 73% of 18 to 24 year-olds voted against Brexit. Among those 65 and older, 60% voted in favor of leaving the EU. However, only 36% of the youngest voters turned out to the ballot box. Many of the “apolitical” young who abstained could have well tended toward Brexit.

The activist portion of the youth which has taken to the London streets in recent days to demand that Britain remain in the EU is not representative of Britain’s entire young population.

  • Is Labour lost?

Britain’s most important opposition party now faces the most difficulty crisis in its history. Over the weekend, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a self-proclaimed left-winger, fired his Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hillary Benn. Eight other members of the Shadow Cabinet resigned immediately. Today, Labour MP’s will recommend a no confidence motion against Corbyn.

The root of the problem is not the Brexit referendum, although the EU question has made Labour’s dilemmas more visible. The party that once represented British workers is losing its primary constituency. Corbyn campaigned to remain in the EU, albeit half-heartedly. A majority in the north of England, previously a Labour stronghold, voted in favor of Brexit. There, voters are critical of unlimited immigration.

Nigel Farage‘s UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) is replacing Labour in many areas, just as the SNP already did north of the England-Scotland border. It is very possible that UKIP will now become something akin to an “English National Party.” Labour, on the other hand, must still find its roll in the post-industrial society, or else the party will sink.

*Hansjörg Müller is the Basler Zeitung‘s correspondent in England. This article appeared originally in German in the Basler Zeitung.

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