The Tragedy of Brexit

As someone who lives half in New York and half in the UK, I have watched with equal horror the arrival of Donald Trump in America and Brexit in the UK.

Trump, at least, may be gone in four years and hopefully sooner. Brexit, on the other hand, is a disaster that will last for a long time, which makes it far worse, if that is possible.

At the end of the Second World War, Europeans found themselves standing amidst the smoldering rubble of Western Civilization. Two world wars within 30 years, from 1914 to 1945, had effectively burnt Europe to the ground. Nearly 100 million people had been killed in those two conflagrations, which spanned but a single lifetime; the great cities of Europe had been reduced to rubble and the world’s most powerful economies had been shattered.

For more than 1,500 years, the nations of Europe had regularly made war on one another ― the French vs. the British, the Germans vs. the French, the Austrians vs. the French, the Russians vs. the Germans, and so on. 1,500 years of hatred and endless fighting. But in the ruins of 1945, the nations of Europe, with great courage, said “never again” and meant it. From this, by an act of willpower, they forged what became the EU.

Now, some 70 years later, pretty much everyone with a memory of those horrors is dead, and shock and disgust that propelled them to find a new way to live is but a fading memory. The EU was not perfect, but it was infinitely preferable to the 1,500-year history that had preceded it. But now, Britain, in a singular moment of fear, driven by lies, has opted to walk away from that unique monument to a new world. That in itself is a tragedy.

But the tragedy for Britain goes further.

For nearly 200 years, and certainly from 1815 to 1914, Britain effectively ran the world. The British Pound was singularly the most powerful currency on the planet. Britain ran an astonishing one fourth of the world’s land surface. The British military was the most powerful and effective armed forced on earth. The term Pax Britannia meant something. Britain and the British knew who they were, and so did the rest of the world.

But by Suez in 1956, that Britain was dead and gone.

And what would replace it?

How does the world’s greatest empire re-invent itself?

It took a few faint-hearted stabs ― The Commonwealth… Cool Britannia… New Labour… Nothing really seemed to fit.

But within the EU, London emerged as the financial capital not just of Europe, a massive union of more than 300 million people; a worthy competitor to the power of the United States, but also as the financial capital of the world. And London was not just the financial capital, for along with that, it was in many ways the intellectual, creative, military and perhaps even moral capital of the new Europe. Brussels may have housed the bureaucrats, but London and Britain housed the power and the future.

Then, in one moment, by a very tiny minority, the British people voted to throw the whole thing away.

It was, I think, a moment of madness, ill conceived and ill thought out, driven more than anything else by endless news videos of streams of Syrian and other muslim refugees making their way across Europe. While this had nothing to do with Britain’s long-standing relationship with the EU, it was a fear that drove a moment of xenophobia, compounded by the cynicism of Boris Johnson.

Well, too bad.

The British people voted to walk away from a bright and limitless future and retreat to becoming a small disconnected country hanging on the edge of Europe, but no longer a part of it.

One moment’s mistake that will unwind not just the past but the future as well.

Trump is an idiot, but Brexit is a tragedy.

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