The irony of Brexit: What the UK can learn from its former colonies, explained

In January 2019, Britain’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt embarked on his three-day visit to Asia, the first of which found him in Singapore. Speaking at the 34th Fullerton Lecture for International Institute for Strategic Studies at the Fullerton Hotel, Hunt commended Singapore’s progress in building on the “British legacy” of the rule of law, clean administration, independent courts, and the English language.

The statement can come across as presumptuous and a slightly insulting one—attributing Singapore’s success to an assumed subservience to a “British legacy”—in a certain sense of arrogance that can only be described as uniquely British.

However, what is, perhaps, more interesting in Hunt’s speech is the admittance that “there is much [Britain] can learn from Singapore, not least the excellence of its education system, the long-term investment in infrastructure and strategic approaches to how a nation sustains competitive advantage in the world”.

He was speaking under the looming shadow of Brexit, bound for March 29, the impending deadline that continues to scorch the heels of UK politicians and threatens to ignite a wildfire of chaos in the entire country. Indeed, it seems that as the British cry for a return of national sovereignty and independence from the European Union (EU), they have much to learn from their former colonies, which did so in the past, under much less favourable and sympathetic circumstances.

Where’s Brexit at?

After her Brexit deal was rejected in Parliament on January 15, Prime Minister Theresa May has returned to negotiate with the EU to attempt to scrap together more changes and salvage her deal. However, the EU claims that it has already negotiated a deal and most member states are unwilling to reopen negotiations.

May asserts that the MPs will allegedly have a second vote on the deal by March 12; herein lies the problem—there simply is not enough time to alter enough or gain concessions at all.

On February 25, the Labour Party had said it was prepared to back another EU referendum, should their own proposed Brexit deal be rejected. Such an option brings yet another layer of complexity to the entire process. Should there be a second referendum, what would be the choices open to the voters? Remain/Leave, Hard/Soft Brexit, or ‘all of the above’?

Meanwhile, all around the UK, Brits are moving quickly to cushion the expected disaster. Since last October, many are purchasing £300 survival/emergency kits in fear of “chaos” in the months after Brexit, and even a “Prepping for Brexit” page has appeared on the Internet.

Drawing parallels

How ironic is it that the UK, a former coloniser, is grasping so desperately for independence from the EU! The most apparent difference does not work to Britain’s advantage—at least its membership to the EU was voluntary.

However, there are many similarities. In terms of issues plaguing the country, the UK is facing an economic disaster—many of its former colonies faced economic problems post-independence, India, for example. Also, there is a divide within the UK—between England and Wales, and Scotland and Northern Ireland, which brings back memories of the British’s favourite ruling tactic of “divide and conquer” that also hindered the process of nation-building post-independence.

In Singapore, they riled up Chinese-Malay conflicts, while in India, they created tensions between Hindus and Muslims, which are prevalent even today. So, if their former colonies were able to stand as nations this many decades after breaking free, perhaps, the UK can learn to do the same after “breaking free” from the EU.

What does Britain want?

There exists a desire and wish, post-Brexit, for the law and constitution of the UK to return to the way it was before joining the EU; that, however, is an empty dream. While the UK constitution does not exist in written form and is, thus, more flexibly altered, this becomes an issue post-Brexit.

In the 40 years of being in the EU, it is not only the concrete laws (in the forms of directives, regulations, etc.) of the EU that have become imbedded within UK law, but it’s also the unwritten principles and norms. To extract these from UK law would be absurd; to return to a ‘before’ would be to ignore the flow of time and the progress of society.

But what must it learn?

Let’s take India’s independence and the Government of India Act, 1935, for example—its creation was almost 20 years in the making. It began with the Government of India Act, 1919, in the British parliament, the establishment of the infamous Simon Commission in 1928, and three sessions of round-table conferences in 1930, 1931, and 1932.

A committee of 20 representatives from British India and seven Indians worked on white papers from April 1933 to December 1934 and submitted its report to the British parliament. The Bill was passed in February 1935 and given the royal assent in July 1935. The Constitution came more than 10 years after, following the appointment of Dr B R Ambedkar as the head of the drafting committee in 1947. The committee referred to the Government of India Act, 1935, and in January 1950, 616 signatures were taken on the two handwritten copies (in Hindi and English) of the Constitution of India.

Given that the UK is unlikely to resort to the written constitution, stubbornly preserving its parliamentary sovereignty, the process of reforming its laws—both private and public—cannot be estimated vis-à-vis India. While the membership of UK within the EU is nowhere as long as India’s colonisation, one cannot downplay the massive undertaking facing the UK—the two years given under Article 50 is certainly inadequate. Perhaps, however, UK can follow India’s example on where to begin, in which areas of law reform must take place first.

Ghosts from the past

UK’s economy post-Brexit, admittedly, will be nowhere as devastated as India’s, after what the former coloniser inflicted on it—British economist Angus Maddison argues that India’s share of global income was the second largest in the world before the British arrived, and from 27% in 1700, it plummeted to 3.8% in 1950.

While the West benefitted from the Industrial Revolution, Britain established an agricultural base in India, providing cheap raw materials to England at the cost of Indians, which stagnated India’s economy for 90 years.

The British only welcomed Indian economic development where it benefitted their own markets, an accusation the British are now, ironically, levelling at the EU.

At the end of its colonisation, the UK left India an economically underdeveloped nation marked by hunger, poverty, and low national income; the Subcontinent is struggling to recover even now. While the UK offers aid to India today, as economics professor Jayati Ghosh had said to, “The amount given is so little that it’s really not noticed.”

In other words, here, there’s no equivalent. Yet, Brexit is not, in any case, an easy economic problem to deal with.

The economics of it all

The EU is the UK’s largest trading partner; in 2017, 44% of all UK exports and 53% of imports were with the EU. Indeed, UK’s trade deficit of £67 billion in 2017 was one figure quoted during the Brexit campaign to convince voters to vote ‘Leave’; however, one must note that a trade deficit, as well as surplus, is never a positive or negative in itself.

The very fact that the EU has a minimal Brexit safety net prepared is not good news. It has already been warned by London mayor Sadiq Khan that a shocking £5.2 billion “emergency” grant package would be needed for housing alone to cope with Brexit.

Furthermore, since Wales had qualified for the highest level of aid from the EU for producing below 75% of the EU’s average, under Brexit, the UK government must now provide that funding; and so far, it has failed to give concrete assurances that it will follow through.

And the irony of it all

What is ironic is that the internal divisions in India, and other former colonies, were Britain’s doing, and the same within the UK now also are very much its own fault. It is causing the same economic devastation to itself, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Where India is still feeling the after-effects of the British Raj on its economy, it is quite hard to see what the possible solution would be for the UK to treat the problem it has created for itself.

There, of course, exist many other factors to look at post-Brexit, for which the UK may look towards its former colonies for answers. However, as Hunt said during his visit to: “What was right for Singapore will not always be right for Britain.” It remains to be seen, as Brexit draws ever closer, if this was a wise statement of pragmatism, or brash and overconfident negligence.

Skylar Cheng Geyu is a writing analyst at Qrius

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