Brexit Is Getting Far Too Much Attention
Something was missing on a trip to East Asia a few weeks ago.
And on separate visits to Dubai and India toward the end of last year. Took me a while to figure what it was. You know that feeling where you get that you left something behind, but you just can't quite remember what? Ah, yes! Brexit!
Britain's decision in June 2016 to exit the European Union, once seen as a hugely disruptive event for the global economy, doesn't come up these days in conversations with current and former officials, investors and executives. China's increasingly imperial regime? Absolutely. The return of market volatility? Certainly. How Japan put the Trans-Pacific Partnership back together without the U.S.? Yes. How Jerome Powell will do as Federal Reserve chairman? Tick.
In early 2017, Brexit and Donald Trump were the topics on everyone's lips, not only in the U.K. and the U.S. But as I spoke with sources in Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia this February, the 45th president arose only when I mentioned him, and if I broached the topic of Brexit, my interlocutors tended to lose interest and start wandering off.
Western pundits keep saying that the future is being made in Asia, but guess what? Asia doesn't care about Brexit (the pundits' other favorite talking point). Wake us up when it's over!
The Brexit negotiations within the U.K. look like a parish argument about the contours of decline. 1 That decline, depending on your perspective, began shortly before the Great War, immediately after that conflict, or in the post-1945 period when Britain was financially and strategically depleted after World War II.
It's true that Margaret Thatcher made a valiant effort to arrest that decline, helped in part by the rapid expansion of financial markets after the end of the Cold War that lasted until about 2007. Now, decline is back in the form of Brexit. The Thatcher years and, to be fair, those of John Major and Tony Blair just look like a deviation from trend, since corrected.
So why does Brexit get so much attention? For many media organizations either based in the U.K. or the on East Coast of the U.S., Brexit is something to which they can relate. For them, "global" means Western Europe and the Boston-New York-Washington "Acela corridor."
The anglophile media -- and their siblings on the conference circuit -- are obsessed with their own decline. My point isn't that Brexit's unimportant; to those who live or do substantial business in the U.K., it is important. But it's a colorful fish in a vanishingly small pond.
It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to see that the frenzy of attention devoted to Brexit reveals what Britain's apologists already know deep down: They have lost. The U.K. is not at risk of falling in the world. It has already fallen.
Defenders of the empire may already be pointing fingers and saying, "Well, he's Australian!" Let me put a few things on the record. I happily lived two periods of my life in London, once in the late '80s and then for five years in the aughts. My mother's family hails from outside London. I've visited regularly since pulling up the stumps in 2006. (I'm also a naturalized American citizen and reside in New York.)
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