Brexit: lessons and implications for Australia

Reuters/Neil Hall

Discussion of foreign policy remains conspicuous by its absence in Australia’s remarkably dull and insular election campaign. One might have thought given the turbulence in international affairs that the rest of the world might get a look in. One might be wrong.

Almost as noteworthy as the complete lack of discussion of Australia’s relationship with the US – despite the possibility of president Trump – is the absence of a serious debate about the possible implications of Brexit. This is especially striking given the increasingly ominous rumblings in the financial press about Brexit’s possible economic impact, and because of Australia’s history as a former British colony.

Given Australia has a unique and historically unparalleled situation when the leaders of its major political parties are all avowed republicans, this looks like an equally unprecedented opportunity to inject new life into the flagging republican cause.

It is entirely possible that the UK itself will be one of the principal causalities of a possible Brexit. Independently minded Scots are likely to take the opportunity to test national sentiment once again, this time with even greater confidence about the outcome. The Welsh may decide they are better off in Europe, too.

As for Northern Ireland, it may find itself having to come to terms with its larger neighbour, with which it will suddenly be sharing a very real international border. The chances of a revival of “the troubles” in such circumstances are sadly all too real.

If ever there was a time for a coolly dispassionate look at Australia’s relationship with the UK, therefore, this ought to be it. If the UK ceases to exist, then Australian policymakers will have little option other than to rethink the entire basis of the relationship. There is little sign of this happening, or of our supposedly more independent political leaders considering what happens next.

One thing republicans ought to be drawing attention to is the myth about the indispensably unifying role of the monarchy. This, it will be recalled, is one of the key arguments advanced by Australia’s surprisingly numerous monarchists: traditional structures of power and inheritance are the key to social stability and order.

And yet, as Britain teeters on the brink of economic, political and constitutional chaos, this argument looks increasingly threadbare. On the contrary, the “little Englanders” who are leading the Brexit charge are not forces for conservatism and stability, but are actually willing to risk creating the greatest crisis in British and European history since the second world war.

Such outcomes are all too likely when visceral sentiment and nostalgia triumph over the sort of technocratic, elite-level policymaking and discourse that is so reviled by the Brexiteers – especially when it emanates from Brussels.

There may be something to be said for “national interests”, but their calculation needs to be unsentimental and relevant to the world as it is, not as it was when the sun never set on the British Empire.

Given the divisive nature of the debate in Britain and the alarmist claims made by both sides, it is perhaps unsurprising that many seem to be following gut instincts, rather than trying to sift complex and contentious arguments. Things are little better here: the growing popularity of the monarchy among younger Australians seems to be based, in part at least, on the appeal of the young royals and their offspring.

When the issues are complex and consequences uncertain, demagogues and populists prosper. Boris Johnson is the most egregious example of a politician that has put short-term, and very personal political advantage ahead of the long-term interests of his country. Is it any surprise that so many despair about the quality and motivations of contemporary political leaders?

All the more reason, therefore, that our own political class considers the consequences for this country of the upheaval in Europe. If ever there was a time to reconsider our collective relationship with Britain this is surely it.

While the constitutional implications of a Brexit for Australia may be uncertain, actually taking responsibility for our own collective political fate looks like a good idea whatever happens.