One corner of my heart will always have a soft spot for England. Not really surprising given that it was the country where I was born and lived for the first 22 years of my life.
I have now spent more than twice that time – and virtually all my working life – right here in Hong Kong, the city that has given me everything including four children, a fabulous career in the public sector and now a second career in the private sector, with some media opportunities thrown in as well.
Remaining links with the UK are limited – a younger brother, a few nieces, an old school friend or two, a small state pension – though I am a member of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
Was it really so surprising that I wanted to carry the passport of the place I have called home for almost half a century? Some people clearly think so, but I am still allowed to cheer for England in the World Cup (and Manchester United in everything), though as a confirmed republican I tend not to sing the national anthem.
All this by way of explanation of why I no longer follow British politics as closely as I once did. But last week, the sudden resignation of two cabinet ministers over the proposed terms of Brexit forced me to dust off old memories and focus on what was going on.
The UK formally entered the European Economic Community in 1973 (two years after I departed its shores). The move, though supported by all three major political parties at the time, proved unpopular with some sections of the public. To put the controversy to rest “once and for all” the issue of entry was put to a referendum in 1975 and confirmed by a two-thirds majority.
The question of continuing membership was put to a second memorandum in 2016 and a small majority – roughly 52 : 48 -- was in favour of leaving. The UK government is now negotiating the terms of departure.
Now I am not, as a matter of principle, in favour of referendums. I think they boil down complicated issues into a simplistic question that omits the many nuances involved. So put me down in the Edmund Burke school of democratic representation (I was a member of the Edmund Burke Society at college). “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion” he once said.
I do not propose to debate here whether entry in the first place was correct or not because that is water under the bridge. Nor is it useful to discuss the merits of now staying or going, because that has been the subject of other opinion columns by people with greater knowledge and a more direct interest. No doubt there are valid arguments on both sides. There were also many outright lies told in the recent “Leave” campaign, especially the notorious claim that 350 million pounds per week would be freed up that could be better spent on the National Health Service. But I would like to comment on practicality.
It simply is not possible to make the “clean break” that the leave campaign wanted. After more than 40 years of membership, complex supply chains have evolved that involve components moving back and forth between the UK and continental Europe, sometimes several times before the completed product is finished. Companies have invested many billions of dollars in manufacturing facilities in different locations on the basis that free trade would continue forever. If that is not to be the case, if instead there are to be customs checks and even the possibility of tariffs and other controls, then those supply chains would need to be completely re-engineered. That process would take many years indeed with consequential economic disruption and cost.
Anyone in Hong Kong could have advised the British electorate on this point. After all, we are a trading hub par excellence and the total value of our imports and exports is a multiple of our GDP. You do not need a degree from the London School of Economics (though as it happens I have one) to realise that a sharp break would be a disaster. The British Cabinet has reached basically the same conclusion and is now at the “soft Brexit” end of the range. Hence the departures in a huff of Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who claim prime minister Theresa May’s stand is a betrayal of the referendum. There is still a way to go in reaching agreement with Brussels of course and the dissidents are no doubt correct that even a “soft Brexit” offer may not pass muster.
So where does all this leave my former compatriots? Basically, in a mess. The conclusion that trade in physical goods must somehow stay within EU auspices is surely correct, but it only applies to the 20 per cent of British GDP derived from manufacturing. The same issues are sure to arise, albeit in different form, in the 80 per cent of the economy devoted to services.
So Brexit is not going to mean Brexit at all. There is an old joke where a couple of lost holidaymakers ask an Irish farmer how to get to their destination. After puffing on his pipe, he says slowly “Well I wouldn’t start from here”. But that is precisely the issue. Britain is in the place that it is and cannot will itself to be somewhere else as a starting position. Or to put it another way, the eggs were used to make an omelette over 40 years ago, it’s no good asking to take them back now.
A majority of the members of the House of Commons are known to oppose Brexit, preferring instead to make further efforts to reform the EU from the inside.
They should dust off their old Edmund Burke books.