Only at the end of March 2019, when the death knell tolls for Britain’s membership of the European Union, will we know for certain of Britain’s new position in the ever-changing game of world politics. The next two years for Great Britain will be perhaps the most crucial in its recent history for the development of the country’s identity as it attempts to build not only a strong relationship with its existing EU partners, but enhance its position globally.
What the coming years will mean for the Commonwealth, only time will tell, but the opportunities to forge a new relationship must not be overlooked. Although Liam Fox may have had to face down criticism recently for the Star Wars-esque, thinly-veiled colonialism of the proposal for a British ‘Empire 2.0’, in the antipodes Brexit is seen not as a suicide pact, but as a considerable (albeit unexpected) opportunity to reclaim what was lost when Britain first joined the European Community in 1973.
Of course, the exact nature of the new relationship between Britain and the EU cannot be yet known, but some conclusions can be drawn.
If the UK is to close off its borders and restrict the freedom of movement between itself and the EU, a labour shortage is likely to eventuate. To compensate for the drop in labour movement between the UK and EU that is likely to eventuate, freedom of movement between certain Commonwealth nations could be presented as a savvy insurance policy — not to mention one which is politically palatable.
It would be economically damaging for the UK if it were to remove itself from the EU’s single market without first building closer relationships with global trading partners. Again, for the Commonwealth, this may prove itself to be an opportunity.
Once the largest trading partner of both Australia and New Zealand, the UK was seen as essentially turning its back on these nations during the 1970s. For New Zealand at least, the drop in trade with the UK (as a share of total exports) from above 60 to 6% over a period of 50 years also catalysed significant economic hardship. Whilst this change allowed both nations to forge their own identities in the world — beyond the cradle of ‘Mother England’ — most notably with China and the US, there is nothing quite like returning home. Of course, the world has moved beyond the 1950s. Britain and the antipodes are barely recognisable forms of their former selves. However, in meetings with Theresa May, both Bill English and Malcolm Turnbull (Prime Ministers of New Zealand and Australia respectively) have expressed intentions to develop free-trade agreements, where many believe they already, or should, exist. Sometimes, in looking to the future, one can look to the past.
In the unpredictable political climate of 2017, the value of diplomatic ties must not be understated. Already members of Five Eyes intelligence alliance (comprising the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia), to build upon the existing relationship between these Commonwealth nations (and the US) would only be natural. Perhaps most crucially, the shared language, heritage, and culture of these nations is also marketable to the UK public. Particularly if we are to accept the conclusions that the Brexit vote was in part influenced by xenophobic and racially-motivated tendencies, the merit in the strengthening of these relationships becomes more significant.
To Britons, Theresa May’s suggestion that Britain should ‘celebrate’ the opportunities of Brexit might seem to be a somewhat myopic statement. However, to antipodeans, it is an expression which reflects the promise of a return to closer relationships. It is an economic promise and it is a diplomatic promise.
After all, to quote again Prime Minister herself, “it’s time to get Britain firing in all areas again”. So when life gives you Brexit, make Brexit-ade — and it doesn’t have to be bitter.