All the world's a stage: Britain and the EU

10:36 am on 28 June 2016

OPINION: For the first time in decades the United Kingdom is front page news and fills the airwaves and television screens across the globe.

Day after day.

But it is not good news for the world (where markets, currencies and trade agreements are all threatened) and in particular for Britain.

Brexit headlined newspapers

Photo: AFP

For New Zealanders the near equivalent of what the UK has just achieved with its referendum on continued membership of the European Union would be for New Zealand to vote to leave the economic partnership with Australia or to end free trade with China all because the Aussies banned our apples or deported convicted criminals back here and too many Aussies or Chinese were coming to live in New Zealand. Unimaginable? Disastrous for the country?

Quite so, and for Britain, all done in order to appease a vociferous and almost permanent minority of petty nationalists in the (currently) ruling Conservative Party who have always detested Johnny Foreigner - especially when the EU allows him to live in Britain and do the jobs Brits won't.

The fact that WWII was Britain's finest hour when - with a lot of often unacknowledged support from the then Empire - it stood alone, is a mantra for the far right and their fellow travellers.

No wonder the now-resigned British Prime Minister David Cameron has been likened to Neville Chamberlain the arch-appeaser.

Up to a few days ago it did not stand alone, but was part of the 28-strong EU bloc of countries in Europe.

New Zealanders know the financial, economic and cultural benefits of this. Thousands of young and older Kiwis travel and work unhindered there. Now the future is uncertain.

For Britain, what the 52 to 48 percent referendum vote to leave revealed was the extent of rage and xenophobia, the divide between old and young, the geographic, poor and rich, social and educational differences between "leavers" and "remainers" and the failure of the established political parties to listen, hold and lead their supporters.

This failure was exacerbated by political opportunists, cynics and racists and an almost complete refusal by the British media to question and challenge them not just this year but over years.

Partly this reflects the limited spread of the ownership of news channels and the diminishing quality of national news broadcasting. New Zealand pay attention.

The reputation of the EU in Britain has been under sustained attack for decades: bureaucratic and interfering.

As it happens 90 percent of all the laws and regulations passed by the EU that apply to Britain were supported or proposed by Britain: many of the remainder were vetoed by the British Parliament.

But the "take back control" slogan of the leavers won the day.

Promises were made day in and day out that there would be money galore by not being in the EU. That immigration to Britain would be turned off when Britain left.

Within three days of the vote the leading out campaigners admitted that neither promise was true.

Boris Johnson leaves after casting their votes at a polling station on the EU Referendum in London, United Kingdom on June 23, 2016.

Boris Johnson after casting his vote. Photo: AFP

Candidates to be the new Prime Minister are lining up.

Chief among them Boris Johnson, a leading "leave" campaigner (coincidentally enough only a few days before the referendum campaign began), a former and rather undistinguished Mayor of London except for his manner and appearance: Toad of Toad Hall meets Donald Trump.

In fact the Donald has endorsed Britain's leaving and so has Marine Le Pen the French National Front leader and Vladimir Putin. Guilt by association?

The turmoil is not confined to the right of politics.

Leader of Britain's Labour party Jeremy Corbyn

Leader of Britain's Labour party Jeremy Corbyn Photo: AFP

The Labour Party with its leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has always been anti-EU in any of its forms for the past 40 years, is splintering.

He had to put on a show of being in favour of the EU. That is Labour policy. His enthusiasm was clearly lacking. Only addressing a handful of big meetings in several weeks campaigning has resulted in about half of his senior colleagues resigning from the front bench.

Labour's share of the vote to remain fell away. Will he be the leader in a month's time and of what?

And finally however Britain relates now to Europe - if the European Union can hold together - there is the matter of the United Kingdom.

Scotland and Northern Ireland voted heavily in favour of staying in Europe. Will they, in the couple of years ahead allowed by the European Treaty to negotiate withdrawal, remove themselves from the UK in favour of continued EU membership?

Ironically it is possible that Northern Ireland and the Republic could find a mutual peace and harmony through the departure of what would become Little England from the EU. Always a silver lining.

*David Townsend is an ex-UK Parliamentary Labour candidate, a former Labour ministerial speech writer & special adviser and contributor to The Guardian, The Independent and The Times.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs