THE BLOG

Countries, Like People, Rarely Elect To Change

17/08/2017 11:26
Yves Herman / Reuters

Countries, like people, are resistant to change. It is therefore no surprise that the vast majority of developed nations choose economically and politically easy paths; whether that is the allure of cheap credit and amassing debt or the ease of deferring key decisions to the next government and even the next generation.

Britain is no doubt guilty of this. Regarding Brexit, the easiest option both economically and politically would have been to remain in the European Union. Over the years we have been happy to sit back and allow the European Union to slowly assume large swathes of domestic policy, we have been happy for EU officials to halve the workload of our civil service, and happy to use the European Union as a scapegoat for all that is wrong in our country.

Ultimately European Union membership has provided us with convenience. The convenience of not needing a visa to work and live in Europe, the convenience of not having to negotiate tricky trade deals, the convenience of not having to constantly change currency, and even the convenience of no mobile data roaming charges. These conveniences whilst attractive and worthwhile do not come without a price. Convenience leaves the marks of expectation, institutionalisation and blind acceptance of the status quo.

The established order in any country is resistant to change, for financial reasons but also in an ideological defence of the way we do things. All the answers to the major questions of our time, be it how to prevent global warming, how to stop the exploitation of the global poor, or how to fight terrorism, are stopped dead in their tracks by the power of convenience.

Like people, countries rarely change by choice. Nations change only when forced to, whether that is through the pain of economic recession and austerity: which has been forced on Greece by the ECB and the IMF; or through the shedding of much blood, sweat and tears in wars that inevitably lead to regime change. It is undoubtable that modern day Germany and modern day Japan are both examples of the change that can arise out of violent conflict.

Where Brexit is unique is that by voting to leave the European Union, Britain elected to change. It wasn't forced to by the grip of an economic depression or through a violent war. Instead in an un-dramatic and normal fashion ordinary citizens went and casted their ballots and voted for a change in direction.

Of course, change is hard and time consuming, it took sixty-one years to abolish the horrific and long established practice of slavery in Britain and across it's empire. Sixty-one years between Lord Chief Justice Mansfield's ruling that the condition of slavery could not exist under English common law in 1772 and its eventual abolition in 1834 across the British Empire. Even then it's abolition was done on a gradual basis out of fear of the economic ramifications, and the Government had to heavily compensate slave owners for lost income. It took nearly seventy years for Britain's industrial revolution to run its course. While in 2017, the economy is still feeling the huge loss of our manufacturing base which fell away in the 1980s. Make no mistake that this change requires the best in us and the best of us.

It often takes generations to break the cycle and force change. Countries, like people, often cling to outworn dogmas and fight fading battles long after the real struggle has ended and moved. New generations who can be the catalyst for such change can also find themselves the victims of it. Take the financial crisis of 2008, its impact has written off the economic prospects of a whole generation who are now destined to be worse off than their parents. While the greatest casualty in Syrian civil war, as it rages into its seventh year, is the lost generation of children, who are now more used to living in a warzone then learning in a school.

Change requires patience, investment and long-term planning, all the things government far too often lacks. It is no secret that David Cameron was overcome with such hubris and certainty that Britain would vote to remain in the European Union that the civil service conducted little to no contingency planning for Brexit. In calling a snap General Election in April, Theresa May wasted even more time and with it destroyed her parliamentary majority and political capital. While the creation of a Department for Exiting the European Union and for International Trade recognises the enormous logistical task of negotiating Brexit and post-Brexit trade deals, it cannot cover up the pressing need to invest in thousands of new civil servants to take on the increased workload.

After only two rounds of Brexit negotiations it is telling that those who are already frustrated with the process are also those who fervently want Britain to stay within the EU. Already they demand that we row back to the shore and stand on the sinking sands, while arch-Brexiteers might suggest instead we blindly jump off of the cliff. It begs the question, row back to what? Row back to where? The lack of patience masks the lack of foresight, the ability to understand that Britain has already set itself on the path of profound change.

There is no returning to how things were. In physics we learn that once something is put into motion it cannot be put back. A nation cannot be blinded once it has seen. Nor can people be denied a say once they have been asked. We should not forget that to see a problem and want to change it, no matter the risk and accepting the cost, is a brave and noble thing. But what cannot be doubted, once a country elects to change, whether it takes five or ten or twenty five years, change will inevitably be reached.

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