In the few short weeks since 23 June, Brexit has claimed the careers of both David Cameron and his presumed successor Boris Johnson, and left the Labour party in meltdown. This blood-letting in the corridors of power should come as no surprise – it’s all part and parcel of politics. What is striking, however, is the way that this has played out around the world. From a distance, the UK looks like a country in meltdown, riven by division.
If the scale of the vote to Leave, spurred by a complex range of factors – including inequality, despair, disaffection and distrust of the EU – surprised the 48% of the population who voted to Remain, the revelation of the scale of our problems to those abroad has been a wake-up call for those used to seeing the UK as a model to emulate.
To many, the triumph of isolationism epitomised by Brexit – the conviction that we will do better off outside the EU than within it – seems the direct opposite of what they hope to achieve: closer co-operation between countries in southeast Asia, or the rise of the Silk Roads across the spine of Asia, characterised by the goals of mutual benefits, collaboration and hope for the future.
Quite what the months and years ahead have in store remains to be seen. There will be unexpected benefits and unforeseen consequences; some of the hopes of those who voted Leave will be fulfilled, but so will some of the fears of those who chose to Remain. My view is that Brexit will lead to a slowdown in the velocity and rhythms of economic (and cultural) exchange, and our country will be poorer as a result. How that happens, and over what period, requires skills that most historians do not possess.
What history does teach is that volatility, fracture and uncertainty make for uncomfortable bedfellows, which have a nasty habit of spilling into something worse: a century on from the battle of the Somme, we should not fool ourselves by thinking that our ancestors were stupid to use violence to get the better of rivals – or that those who do so in other parts of the world are so very different from us. Civilisation must be nurtured carefully and constantly, as Europe knows better than any other continent.
The most important thing about Brexit, therefore, is the timing. This decision to leave the EU coincides with a period of major geopolitical change, of a fundamental shift in global economic, political and military power. We are living through an age of transition that renders the question of whether we are a member of the EU or not essentially meaningless.
The big questions of today might be about budget deficits, fiscal stimulus and trying to re-galvanise impoverished communities. The big questions of tomorrow are far more profound. What will matter in the long run is not how we get on with our friends in Europe, or what the legal costs alone will be (my estimate: into the billions).
The big questions are about how the UK (and the EU) react to change in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran; what the extension of Chinese tentacles across south, central and western Asia mean; how Russia changes under Putin and his successors. What matters, to quote a recent Ministry of Defence report, is “the reality of a changing climate, rapid population growth, resource scarcity, resurgence in ideology, and shifts in power from West to East”.
How we deal with those questions is fundamentally more important than regaining our sovereignty. That is the world waiting around the corner for us: not an idyll where Britain can contemplate a time of plenty that lies ahead, and bask in the satisfaction of disentangling from the European super-state. We need to put our differences to one side, batten down the hatches and start thinking seriously about the future.
• Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is No. 1 in The Sunday Times non-fiction charts.