U.K. Prime Minster Theresa May at a European Union (EU) leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium. (Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)

The View From 2029: A New King Looks Back on the Brexit Decade

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- King William V’s Bentley pulls out of RAF Northolt air base into the gray London morning. Britain’s new monarch settles into the ride to Buckingham Palace and steels himself for the weeks ahead. The 10th anniversary of Brexit looms and with it a litany of ceremonies to mark the Festival of New Britain.

The celebrations were supposed to observe the moment the U.K. finally extricated itself from the European Union in 2019 after months of parliamentary drama, political rancor, and a final market panic. It was, its proponents say, the moment when Britain finally seized its destiny in a world rattled by the unstoppable forces of globalization and technology.

But as the electric-powered Bentley hums along into London, William asks himself whether it was all really worth it. He taps on his smartphone, where the headlines seem to confirm those doubts. The U.K.’s only remaining car manufacturer has just announced plans to move its operations to Poland. Trade talks with the U.S. are going nowhere. And yet another opinion poll shows that a majority in Northern Ireland want to reunite with the south.

Britain in 2029 feels even angrier and more uncertain of its place in the world than the nation that voted for Brexit 13 years ago. If the vote reflected a desire to “take back control,” the separation from the EU doesn’t seem to be working. Most worryingly, the threads that bind the U.K. together appear to be coming undone. The poll from Northern Ireland will just encourage Scottish nationalists as they gear up for a 2030 independence vote. Everyone expects them to win.

In times of crisis, the monarch is supposed to bring the nation together. But as the suburbs of West London flit past, William wonders if anyone could do that now.
 
 
Everyone has their own opinion of the blur of events that led up to Britain’s exit from the EU in 2019. Some call it an act of national betrayal. Others hail the realism that staved off economic disaster. But most people just remember the chaos. The final season of The Crown aired in early 2029 and captured the current mood on Brexit pretty well, with its depiction of a bewildered Queen Elizabeth II looking on in thinly veiled disgust as the U.K. edged closer and closer to calamity.

In the end, pragmatism won the day. Theresa May hung on longer than people thought after negotiating her hated Brexit deal with the EU in late 2018. But after fending off repeated coup attempts from her own party, she accepted that her version of Brexit was never going to pass through Parliament. She made way for a new prime minister to work through the impasse. As the clock ticked down to March 29, 2019, the day Britain was due to leave the EU, markets started to slide.

At the last minute, a deal was struck. Britain’s new leader was forced to accept a pact not totally dissimilar to the one May had negotiated. It kept the country inside the customs union indefinitely but gave it no say over EU rules.

Die-hards accused the new prime minister of betraying Brexit. But a lot had changed since May’s original deal with Brussels. The pound plunged 20 percent against the dollar in the first weeks of 2019. Momentum for a second referendum grew stronger and stronger. And there was a growing sense across all political parties that the country was facing a crisis and that a no-deal Brexit had to be avoided at all costs.

It was enough. With just hours to go, May’s successor attracted enough support to get the deal passed—by one vote. The country breathed a sigh of relief. The endless distraction of the divorce was over. The pound recovered some of its horrendous losses. May vanished from the public eye, and Boris Johnson abandoned front-line politics for a lucrative global speaking tour. The hope was the smartest minds in government could turn their attention to other things.

But reality proved otherwise. The rancor Brexit unleashed would poison politics for years. The main parties splintered into a multitude of factions: Some wanted to reapply to the EU; others wanted to tear up the deal altogether and break all ties with the bloc. Far from settling the question of Britain’s role in Europe, Brexit only seared it into the political psyche.

Meanwhile, the world moved on. Silicon Valley companies planning to expand in Europe wondered whether London really was the right place to invest and looked more seriously at Berlin, Dublin, and Paris. A deepening cold war between the U.S. and China consumed most of Washington’s time. The free-trade deal with America promised by Brexiteers remained a distant prospect. Economic decline beckoned.

The new prime minister didn’t last long. Outraged by his Brexit compromises, the hard-core fringe of his party ousted him. A general election was called, and the post-Brexit political chaos provided an opening for one man: Jeremy Corbyn.

While the Conservatives and much of his own Labour Party sank into a cycle of recrimination, Corbyn argued it was time for Britain to address what he said was Brexit’s root cause: rising inequality. The widening wealth gap had been a scar on society since the era of Margaret Thatcher, he said, and it was time to do something about it. There were worries about how far he’d go. But that was nothing compared with the anger directed at the Conservative Party after years of political chaos.

Corbyn was elected prime minister by the slimmest of margins in late 2019 after cobbling together a majority with the support of the Scottish nationalists. Their price: a new referendum on independence at a date of their choosing.
 
 
William’s driver turns to him and says they’ll have to take a detour because of another huge Occupy London protest, which will be addressed by Corbyn. The old socialist is still going strong long after leaving Downing Street.

William remembers him just after he became prime minister. Still second in line to the throne at the time, William had joked to his wife the night before that the avowed anti-monarchist might exile the whole family to Canada. But Corbyn seemed affable enough in his crumpled suit. He even wore a tie. One thing sticks in William’s mind: As the audience ended, Corbyn looked William in the eye and muttered, “The well-off have had it too good for too long. Things are going to change.”

So it proved. In his first 100 days, Corbyn nationalized the rail and water industries and hiked taxes on businesses and the wealthy. He announced plans to repossess the mansions of wealthy foreign owners. Property prices in London crashed 30 percent in six months. Critics drew parallels with the early days of Bolshevik rule, but Corbyn argued he was merely redressing the yawning inequalities of British society.

William looks up and finds himself in chi-chi Kensington, the playground of his youth. It reminds him that Corbyn was remarkably popular for a while. The Mansion Repossession Act was hailed as one of the most radical symbols of wealth redistribution in a century. Cab drivers, nurses, and teachers could afford to rent state-owned apartments in buildings where Russian oligarchs once frolicked. His sister-in-law, Meghan Markle, and Romeo Beckham even sponsored a program that gave artists cheap rents, sparking a creative explosion to match that of the 1990s, when Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin burst onto the scene. Cool Britannia was back.
 
 
The Corbyn honeymoon didn’t last long. The national debt ballooned on the back of his borrowing, and the pound resumed its slide against the dollar, with City analysts predicting it would hit parity by the end of his first term in 2024.

The worsening international climate didn’t help. Hostility between China and the U.S. deepened after Trump’s reelection in 2020, tipping the world into recession. Trump got it into his head that Corbyn was a Chinese spy and ordered his trade officials not to strike deals with “Socialist Britain.”

The prime minister got no help from Brussels, either, in renegotiating the terms of Brexit. The EU—without a true leader following the departure of Angela Merkel—spent most of its time trying to play Washington against Beijing in a world increasingly dominated by three economic superpowers. The nightmare predicted by opponents of May’s original Brexit deal appeared to be coming true—Britain was trapped inside a system where it was forced to accept EU rules without having the power to influence them. The British press started talking about “subordination” and “serfdom.” Calls grew for Corbyn to walk away from the pact struck with the EU.

Meanwhile, a dinosaur stirred on the shores of the Aegean Sea. Little had been heard from Boris Johnson since he retired to his house in Greece two years earlier, supposedly to write the definitive history of the Ancient World. But he started tweeting about how it was time to end this national humiliation. Churchill had once returned from exile to save his country in its hour of peril—Britain needed another savior. Who could he possibly have been referring to?

Corbyn’s government fell in 2023, and the next six years were a carousel of ineffective minority governments. Power ebbed and flowed across the House of Commons, and no one could agree on how to pull Britain out of limbo. Malaise gave way to grief when Queen Elizabeth died in 2028 at the age of 102. A further shock came when Charles, who was 80 at the time, said he’d step aside and let his son be king.
 
 
Approaching central London, William sees Big Ben. Its tower was built in 1859, when the city was capital of the biggest empire the world had yet seen. Things are very different now.

Not only did Brexit cut the country’s 45-year ties to the European project, it also weakened the bonds that tied Scotland and Ireland to London. Scottish nationalists had never been able to explain how their country could stand on its own two feet. Now they can. Independence, they say, would allow Scotland to break away from the torpor engulfing the rest of the U.K., rejoin the global economic mainstream, and fulfill its historic destiny. All at the same time. Polls show a consistent majority of 70 percent for independence.

Northern Ireland might be drifting away, too. Catholics now make up the majority in the province after years of slow demographic change. Not only that, but the Republic of Ireland is thriving as investment flows in from the U.S. and the rest of the EU. Elon Musk has just announced plans to build one of his battery Gigafactories near Dublin. Many people once implacably opposed to reunification now wonder whether it’s such a bad option if it means rejoining the EU.

Back in 2016, it was voters in England who tipped the balance toward Brexit. Little did they know they might have been voting for the eventual breakup of the United Kingdom.

As his Bentley swings into Buckingham Palace, William checks his diary for the next day. In the morning he’ll swear in China’s next ambassador, which will be slightly awkward after last week’s news that Volkswagen AG sold the Bentley brand to Chinese electric car giant Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. His next Bentley, William realized, might well be made in Beijing. After that, he’ll sit down with his new prime minister, who will no doubt have thoughts on the China deal.

William’s head of government isn’t a fan of how Brexit panned out. His hair isn’t as luxurious as it once was—and it’s definitely not as blond. But he’s still a force of nature, and he has a proposal for a final referendum to sever all ties with the EU. Boris is back. He’s finally prime minister. And this time, Britain really is going to go it alone.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Howard Chua-Eoan at hchuaeoan@bloomberg.net

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