John Bercow entertained in classic style a room-full of investment types in London on 6 November. A tough act to follow, to be sure, but four brave ex MPs gave it their best. Britain boldly setting sail to conquer new and exciting territory – or cutting itself adrift without a life-vest in a menacing sea of fearsome monsters? And, erm, do we mean Britain or England? Frances Cowell was there.

First came John Bercow’s classic performance. Then he hosted a panel of heavy-weights reflected on What Next for Brexit? at a giant investment shindig in London on 6 February. They included Baroness Sharon Bowles, of the House of Lords, Philip Rycroft, erstwhile Permanent Secretary for Exiting the EU, Rory Stewart, a former Tory MP and candidate for Mayor of London and Gisela Stuart, a former Liberal-Democrat MEP. Appropriately for an investment shindig, some things seemed more certain than others.

What we think we know

  1. We may well see another referendum on Scottish independence, especially if the SNP does well in the Scottish parliamentary elections due in May 2021; and all agree that pressure will mount for the reunification of Ireland. (This was two days before elections to the Irish parliament delivered a surprise result)
  2. Any “deal” with the US, is likely to be more face-saving fudge than anything substantial, and certainly will not be to Britain’s advantage. Rory Stewart coined it: “Trump doesn’t do win-win deals”, stating what is obvious to all but the most starry-eyed Atlanticists.

3. The UK and the EU simply do not understand each other.

Anybody’s guess

Some see a bare-bones deal with the EU by year-end, even if only for goods. Others think it virtually impossible. Some say the EU has a strong interest in securing a deal, others think it will do all it can to block a deal. Why it would do this was left unsaid.

Baroness Bowles was the most optimistic about Britain’s future outside the EU, although, given her prognosis for its integrity, should she say England’s future outside the EU?

Philip Rycroft is wary about powers being transferred from the EU, specifically where, precisely, they will be transferred to; his point being that UK regulations may well turn out to be more onerous than anything the EU has come up with.

Rory Stewart laments the lack of clarity about immigration rules, and hurdles that will prove unaffordable for would-be immigrants, which in turn will lead to a shortage of critical talent. Many firms will need government financial assistance, especially those in the north of England and some will find they need to relocate to an EU member state.

Gisela Stuart spoke with the authority of a former MEP. She seems certain that, as negotiations get under way, the EU’s fundamental fragility, together with some external shock, will lead to a north-south split.

Northern Ireland, she insists, will be driven by its economic interests, by which presumably she means that, as the rest of the UK is its biggest trading partner, it has an interest in avoiding a hard border in the Irish Sea.

Which sits oddly with her insistence that Brexit is not about prosperity, but about identity, belonging and community.

Little England?

And this of course is nothing we haven’t known all along. What is interesting is that, given near consensus among the panellists that Britain will at some point disintegrate, then the identity in question is Englishness, not Britishness.

Which brings us back to the very unpalatable conclusion that Brexit is about rising nationalism. Like a dark family secret that everyone knows but nobody dares talk about.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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