Brexit was meant to usher in the Apocalypse. According to our more hyperbolic leaders, war, famine, plague and death would stalk the land if the British people had the temerity to vote to leave the European Union.
Six years ago this week, our then Prime Minister David Cameron warned of the threat of war in Europe, the British Sandwich Association said delays at the ports put the sandwich at risk, health chiefs fretted about the spread of infectious diseases because of a collapse in cooperation with Brussels, and then Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker judged that Brexit would be a “catastrophe”.
Of course, it is true that since Britain finally closed the door on the EU in early 2020, we and Europe have witnessed much death, war and plague and rocketing food prices are now causing much distress to families across the land. But no one is seriously suggesting that Covid-19 originated in a lab at Porton Down or that President Putin set out to destroy Ukraine because he was horrified by Britain’s repudiation of the Common Agricultural Policy.
In fact, the opposite is the case. Far from being isolated and incapable of exerting influence, Britain has played a pivotal role in the world in the brief time it has resumed its historic and natural place as a mature sovereign state able to make its own choices and deal with the vicissitudes of the planet as it thinks fit.
Since January 31, 2020, the world has experienced two dreadful shocks. The first was the pandemic, which cost millions of lives across the world and 180,000 in the UK. The second was Russia’s brutal re-invasion of Ukraine.
Yet, by common consent, the UK has not been found wanting in these times of international trial. It was one of the first countries in the world to develop a test for Covid and the first – along with its old ally the USA – to develop a vaccine.
Demonstrating a fleetness of foot not seen in decades, it was at the forefront of developing systems for rolling out the vaccine to its people, far outstripping the supposedly highly coordinated EU.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is the toast of Kyiv for his rhetorical and military support for Ukraine as it heroically resists the Russian assault. Britain has supplied more weapons to Ukraine than any other country in Europe and Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has hailed our Prime Minister’s “historic leadership”.
Now a new report from the think-tank the Centre for Brexit Policy seeks to capitalise on Brexit. Produced by a team of around 20 academics, politicians and foreign policy specialists, over 100 pages it sets out in detail how Britain can exploit its new-found freedoms, much as it has done over Ukraine and the vaccine roll-out.
Brexit is not a scourge inflicted on a land fit only to shelter behind the skirts of Brussels. It is a unique opportunity for Britain to regain its self-confidence and take its place in the chancelleries of the world as a leading voice for civilisation.
Of course, this is not new for us. Twice in the last 100 years Britain has stood virtually alone in the face of tyranny. Twice its people have made enormous sacrifices to preserve the values of liberal democracy – the right to vote and choose a government, the right to live under the rule of law, the right to free association and free expression, and the right to a private life, untrammelled by the State.
And, having withstood the might of Nazi Germany, together with the USA and Western Europe, Britain, through Nato, faced down the menace of the Soviet Union.
Yet, the skies are darkening again. Putin’s Russia regards liberal democracy with contempt. Autocratic China dreams of conquering the world.
Despots are on the move in much of the world and a new divide between the authoritarians and the freedom lovers threatens our peace and prosperity. Are we too soft and decadent to defend our way of life? Moscow and Beijing think we are.
The CBP report seeks to answer the question, what comes next? What role will a genuinely independent and sovereign Britain play in the world over the next 50 years? How should we fashion our relations with our friends, the USA, the Commonwealth, the EU and the individual countries it comprises.
And what of our foes – or at least the countries that threaten our interests and deride our values, Russia China, Iran, Syria, North Korea.
How do we ensure that civilisation survives this century?
Detailed chapters in the report Defining Britain’s Post-Brexit Role in the World, seek to answer these questions.
Most importantly, the report begins by scotching the myth of declinism – the mindset that has dominated the thinking of our elites since the end of the Second World War and still – post-Brexit – holds us back from capitalising on our break with the ramshackle European empire.
Britain is not a superpower and never was a superpower. On any objective measures we were in the first rank of nations 300 years ago and we are today.
We have not declined because our relative standing in the world, in terms of military, economic and soft power, is roughly where it was when George I was on the throne. We have not gone up and we have not gone down. Not even at the height of empire in the late Victorian age were we a superpower in the sense that the US is a superpower.
But the notion that we are a country in decline is deeply ingrained in our elites, especially Whitehall and Westminster. It explains why we joined the EU and why we are struggling to escape its orbit even after our departure.
As the report says: “How different would our view of the world and of our role in it be if we thought of ourselves as a new and rising force, rather than a nation in decline?
“Whether post-Brexit Britain will in fact turn out to be a rising or a declining force is not determined by history or geography: it is essentially in our own hands.”