Superlatives such as ‘seismic’, ‘terrible’ and ‘Britain’s independence day’ have been used to describe the referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU). It has come as a shock and disappointment to many, including in the world of finance and business. But to anyone following the insular impulses of the David Cameron government since 2010, it cannot be seen as anything but a logical conclusion. The ‘Leave’ option was always there on the binary ballot paper. The reaction betrays how many had taken for granted that the referendum would merely rubber-stamp the ‘Remain’ vote. The outcome takes Britain into uncharted territory where, despite the many promises of a land of milk and honey outside the EU made during the long campaign, no one quite knows how a post-Brexit Britain will look like. Besides the uncertainty at the national level — will pro-EU Scotland leave Britain in another referendum? Will there be an international border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between Scotland and England? — there is also serious doubt about the future of the European Union project itself. The political-economic union is not exactly loved in member-states such as Greece and Portugal facing harsh Brussels-directed economic curbs, while there is already talk of holding ‘UK-style referendum’ in some EU countries.
There are two big-picture imponderables of the referendum outcome: Given the context of Britain’s long outward-facing history, empire and internationalism, what role does Britain see for itself in future; and the outcome’s implications in the globalised world of finance and industry. London’s pre-eminent position as the capital of global finance is under challenge, as well as the many knock-on effects on 45% of its exports to the EU. When Britain extricates itself after a two-year process, it will no longer benefit from tariff-free movement of goods and capital, with all its adverse effects on its economy. The many claims of Brexit benefits made by the ‘Leave’ camp will be put to severe test.
From New Delhi’s point of view, India will lose a close ally in the EU. Over 800 companies use their base in Britain to access the European market; there are already indications that some of them may relocate to other European capitals. The ‘Leave’ camp claimed that Britain outside the EU would provide a ‘massive boost’ to relations with India, mainly in the area of trade and business. The Brexiteers have also held out the promise to put in place a fairer and better visa system for people in India and the Commonwealth. That is all in the future, but for the moment, Britain has turned its back on John Donne’s famous 16th century conception that ‘No man is an island’, and for many, far from putting the Great back into Britain, the referendum has turned it into ‘Little England’ in this age of globalisation.