Ann Berry: Brexit or no Brexit, a divided Britain needs the queen more than ever

On July 24, Boris Johnson became Britain’s new prime minister. The former mayor of London has promised to pull the nation out of the European Union on October 31 – with or without a negotiated deal in place.

A “no deal” Halloween Brexit is a ghoulish prospect. Overnight, tariffs would apply to most exports the United Kingdom sends to the EU – by far the nation’s largest trading partner. Border checks for goods would appear where none currently exist – at ports utterly unprepared for them. The U.K. services sector, which accounts for approximately 80 percent of GDP, would lose its guaranteed access to the European single market.

In November, the Bank of England warned that such a chaotic departure from the EU threatens to tip Britain into a recession worse than the 2008 financial crisis. The bank – equivalent to the US Federal Reserve – projects a “no deal” Brexit scenario of an 8 percent economic decline and a plunge in the value of the pound.

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Any Brexit at all – even an orderly one – will drive home deep national divides. The 2016 referendum on whether Britain should exit the EU saw 51.9 percent of votes to “Leave,” only 3.8 percentage points more than the 48.1 percent wanting to Remain.

Voters were split along several lines. By age: 71 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted Remain. By income: the majority with household incomes under £40,000 (nearly $50,000) chose Leave. By education: 68 percent with college degrees wanted to Remain.

Splits by region threaten to shatter the 312-year-old United Kingdom. In a 2014 referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country, 55 percent of Scottish voters said no. Passionate voters turned out at a record 85 percent. But for all its desire to be part of the U.K., Scotland may want to be part of the EU more: in the Brexit referendum, 62 percent of Scots voted Remain.

If Brexit happens, Britain will need strong icons that predate the EU to serve as national focal points for life outside it. The 1,200-year-old monarchy is a natural fit. If by some miracle Brexit is avoided, leadership – even if only ceremonial – will be vital to rally a divided people.

Scottish leadership is openly exploring independence again in order to stay in the EU. A standalone Scotland almost certainly would not qualify for EU membership. But not having it will infuriate Scots watching their futures determined by Leave voters in England and Wales.

The British government is in disarray. The Foreign Office minister quit in the past 48 hours. More resignations will follow if Boris Johnson continues his “Leave at all costs” crusade. The main opposition Labour Party has flip-flopped between grudging support for Brexit, demands for a second referendum, and triggering another election to see if Labour can take power.

Only one institution stands above the fray: The Crown. The queen has preserved the dignity of the British monarchy for the past 67 years by staying out of party politics. Neutrality has kept republican sentiment at bay since long before her reign.

The queen’s public comments on Brexit (she does not use the word) have only been veiled references to “coming together to seek out common ground.” Senior members of the government reportedly plan to ask the queen to demand a Brexit delay. This is a step too far: bypassing the new prime minister would cause a constitutional crisis. Behind closed doors, perhaps she can hint at the merits of measured action. We will probably never know. But at a certain point – and we are close to it – national unity transcends politics and becomes central to a nation’s identity.

If Brexit happens, Britain will need strong icons that predate the EU to serve as national focal points for life outside it. The 1,200-year-old monarchy is a natural fit. If by some miracle Brexit is avoided, leadership – even if only ceremonial – will be vital to rally a divided people.

The queen can – and must – articulate more loudly that Britain is stronger united than fractured. As late as a few days before the 2014 independence vote, she restrained her “enduring love of Scotland,” merely suggesting that people headed to the ballots “think very carefully about the future.” If Brexit happens, more visibly embracing Scottish unity is critical to getting ahead of round two.

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A 2018 poll showed the queen at a 74 percent positive approval rate. Younger members of the royal family enjoy soaring popularity. The queen must prepare them to focus that goodwill on healing the nation – and fast. But having ruled longer than any other British monarch in history, the queen has a gravitas and credibility across generations unmatched by any other national public figure. She is still admired as the only living head of state who served in World War II and the only female royal to have joined the British armed forces.

At 93 years of age, Brexit or no Brexit, Britain needs the queen – and more of her – more than ever

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