No wonder the Brits voted Leave

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This article first appeared in Politico Europe on October 24th, 2022. Click Here to read the original article.

By Ambassador John Bolton

John Bolton served as the 25th United States Ambassador to the United Nations, and as the 26th United States National Security Advisor from 2018 to 2019.  

Watching the United Kingdom’s ongoing political turmoil is hardly edifying, neither is it any measure of London’s long-term international standing. 

All democracies experience periodical political unrest, especially under constitutional systems where executive authority depends on parliamentary majorities. In response to contemporary doomsayers, the British can rightly say their democracy did much better during the 20th century than those on the Continent. 

Forecasting what now lies ahead for the U.K. requires starting with the broader international political environment. Earlier this year, the United States and its NATO allies failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine. Notwithstanding the West’s enormous efforts after February 24, the foundational historical reality is their collective failure to prevent Moscow’s attack ab initio. Nuclear deterrence, after all, brought us through to victory in the Cold War, yet the Alliance seemed clueless about how to establish deterrence against a conventional attack.  

Worrying about governmental instability is entirely proper, but if governments cannot fend off external threats, whether they are stable or unstable ultimately means very little. And the consequences of failing to deter Russia in Ukraine are small change compared to failing to deter future belligerent actions by China along its extensive Indo-Pacific periphery.  

When we look at the international threats now looming, it helps keep Britain’s political dustup in perspective. 

Moreover, following the Kremlin’s attack, there’s a strong, indeed compelling, case that Great Britain has been the leading foreign power supporting Ukraine. Under the triumvirate of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, London was at the forefront of political resolve and leadership, and on a per capita basis — along with Poland and the Baltic republics — Kyiv’s largest supplier of military assistance.  

Of course, aggregate U.S. assistance, particularly including intelligence, has been much larger, but British political resolve and commitment have been consistently robust. There was no talk or uncertainty about a “minor incursion” by Russia, as from U.S. President Joe Biden in the perilous days before the invasion, and no hesitations afterward about what to provide to Ukraine, and how much, as in Washington and European capitals.   

That both Johnson and Truss fell from power without impairing the U.K.’s focus on its Ukraine objectives is a telling point regarding the underlying strength and resilience of Britain’s place in world affairs.  

More generally, there is no credible argument that any other European government is currently doing better in international matters. True, the British pound fell during the tumult and uncertainty of Truss’ government, but has anyone noticed the euro is still below parity with the dollar? 

In France, President Emmanuel Macron had to ram his government’s budget through, using extraordinary constitutional provisions because parliament wouldn’t act, and his own legislative support may be cracking under the strain. (To be candid, of course, America’s federal budget process hasn’t worked for many years either.)  

In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz is struggling with the consequences of decades of misguided energy policy in a coalition government that often seems paralyzed. He has repeatedly faced questions as to whether Germany is up to leading Europe, or even keeping its economy vigorous and its citizens warm this winter. 

Meanwhile, who knows what will happen with Italy’s new coalition government? And so on. 

The real trouble in the U.K. is the unwillingness of many Brits to accept the verdict of the 2016 independence referendum. This ongoing internal political debate has been significantly exacerbated by the European Union and its members, seeking reprisals against Great Britain’s temerity in exiting the EU. The Inquisition must have inspired the determination of many European political leaders to punish London’s heresy, in large part to discourage others from even considering breaking free. The prevailing mood in Brussels seems to be that the more unpleasant it can be made for the U.K., such as turning the Irish border question into a crisis, the better. 

No wonder the Brits voted Leave. 

Within Britain, there’s now a kind of Donald Trump problem. The former U.S. president refused — and still refuses — to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election (notably, almost no other election outcomes, at any level, across the U.S. were contested). Similarly, many British Remainers simply will not acknowledge that they lost in 2016. In Parliament and in the courts, Remainers tried to sabotage legislation implementing the Brexit referendum’s result and will not abandon hope of another vote. 

Even the many Remainers who publicly said that they accepted the results, didn’t really feel it in their hearts. For example, they continued adhering to the fiction that, before Britain’s formal exit occurred, EU treaties and regulations precluded London from negotiating bilateral trade agreements that could be brought into effect once full independence was achieved. But this was nonsense. The British people had announced, by their votes, that the U.K. was leaving.  

To accept being bound by requirements that were unenforceable and unreasonable in the circumstances tied Britain’s hands when it could have secured dozens of bilateral trade deals. Would Brussels have then behaved worse than it is now? 

Similarly, the British, especially the Conservative Party, shouldn’t conclude that Truss’ tax proposals, however badly mishandled, are doomed forever. Currently, little is understood about what the Truss government did or did not do in its rollout strategy, but whatever is later revealed will simply detail the tactics and mechanics of how bad politics derailed good policies. It will say nothing about the merits of the plans themselves, other than the fascination that U.S. and European Establishments have with keeping taxes high and interest rates low. Perhaps they really do fear economic growth. The moral is to remember the courage that Margaret Thatcher (“The lady’s not for turning”) and Ronald Reagan showed in their tax-cutting days. 

We shall soon know Britain’s next prime minister, and how they intend to proceed. For all the dire warnings about the Conservative Party’s imminent demise, remember who their opposition is: the Labour Party. That alone should lift their spirits. 

“Land of hope and glory . . . God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet!”