Follow host Jeremy Hobson's on-the-ground Brexit reporting from London.
Let’s back up for a moment from the daily political drama, the extensions and the calls for an election to remind ourselves why Brexit matters.
There are economic reasons, of course.
Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, Britain’s stock market is only up about 10% as many investors have stayed on the sidelines amid the uncertainty. In the same period, U.S. stocks are up more than 30% and French stocks are up more than 25%.
But for the U.K., a country that has a seat at the table for most of the world’s major decisions, Brexit is also about national identity and pride.
Great Britain brought forth the world's first bill of rights — the Magna Carta — in 1215, and now its own commitment to democracy is in question. So is the famous British “stiff upper lip,” which now appears to be quivering amid the uncertainty about the road ahead.
Great Britain was a global superpower as recently as World War II, and because of that, historian Andrew Hindmoor says Britain was comfortable with a go-it-alone approach to foreign policy. But, he says, Britain’s role in the Suez Crisis in 1956 led to an “elite level recognition” that going it alone wasn’t a viable option.
Planting The 'Leave' Seed
The public’s only vote on Europe before Brexit was a referendum in 1973 to remain a part of the European community, which would eventually become the European Union.
Since then, concerns about British sovereignty have been brewing, even amplified in a 1988 speech by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in which she said: “Europe will be stronger precisely because it has France as France, Spain as Spain, Britain as Britain, each with its own customs, traditions and identity.”
Hindmoor calls that speech “the start of the road to Brexit.”
Two decades later came a major political scandal in the U.K. in 2009 in which members of Parliament were found to have asked for taxpayer reimbursement for questionable expenses, including the costs of their second homes.
That shook British confidence in their political system, Hindmoor says. There was a sense that “things have gone horribly wrong and things have to change.”
Around the same time, the global financial crisis was underway, bringing an end to a long economic expansion. European countries were drowning in debt. Spain, Greece, Portugal, Italy and Ireland were unable to pay their bills.
It was amidst that crisis that former British Prime Minister David Cameron pulled the trigger — saying there would be a referendum on Britain leaving the EU.
There would be one question and two choices — stay or go.
The Irish Question
But leaving was never that simple. Not least because of the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. and would “Brexit” with the rest of Great Britain, and the Republic of Ireland would remain part of the EU. That would mean people and goods crossing back and forth would likely have to go through checkpoints, something that hasn’t happened for decades.
And the last time it did happen, there was a constant threat of violence because of a conflict, known as The Troubles, between Protestants and Catholics that left thousands dead.
There is still a belief among some that Northern Ireland is really a part of the Republic of Ireland, and the idea of British soldiers manning border checkpoints would almost certainly inflame tensions.
Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter at University College Dublin says the issue of the Irish border “wasn’t discussed very much” in the lead-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum in part because following the peace process in the 1990s, and given the fact that both the U.K. and Ireland were part of the EU, the border was basically invisible.
But Ferriter says the border issue reminds him of an old quote from a senior British member of the House of Lords in 1924. As Lord Salisbury said, “The average English voter has little interest in, and even less understanding of, the Irish question.”
Ferriter says that endures today.
“The Irish question has always been regarded as an irritating one in Britain,” he says. “But the lessons of history are that these issues come back to bite you on the behind. They don’t go away because you wish them to go away or because you ignore them. Indeed, quite the opposite.”
Now that the U.K. has another Brexit extension and an election coming up in December, issues like the Irish border will no doubt resurface.
There are plenty of political divisions on the road ahead. But history is written — and it’s a reminder of how high the stakes are with Brexit.
Alex Ashlock edited and produced this segment for broadcast.
This segment aired on October 30, 2019.