After Brexit, the U.K. may be forced to come to grips with the limitations it had managed to surmount in the past
Over four years after the historic referendum held in 2016, where citizens of the United Kingdom (U.K.) decided to leave the European Union (EU), in December 2020, the U.K. and the EU finally struck a provisional free-trade agreement as part of their Brexit deal. While the recently concluded trade and cooperation agreement charted out the key aspects of everyday governance and the rules for enforcement between the two parties, at a broader level, the U.K. may now be forced to face the constraints it had originally escaped.
Since the beginning of the 19th century, Britain had the unique advantage of relieving its constraints on land, energy, and (localised) power. But with Brexit in place, the country may have to evaluate its limitations.
As historian Kenneth Pomeranz argues in his book The Great Divergence, Britain, in the 19th century, solved its land problem by anchoring “ghost hectares” in the Americas, where it could exploit the land, labour and capital of the continent to “relieve its hard-pressed land”, and “turn a demographic and proto-industrial expansion that (unlike in East Asia) far outpaced advances in agriculture into an asset for further development”. Dr. Kenneth argues that without relieving its land constraint, Britain’s “demographic and proto-industrial expansion could have been the basis for a later catastrophe, or it could have collapsed by rising primary-product prices in the nineteenth century”. Hence, by anchoring phantom land and acting on “forces outside the market and conjunctures beyond Europe”, Britain could achieve “unique breakthroughs” and enable for its rising population a standard quality of living. If not for foreign land, Britain would have been severely restricted in exploiting and conserving at the same time its limited land base. With Brexit, however, the U.K. may now have to find contemporary ‘ghost hectares’ through its trade deals.
The mainstreaming of coal and oil in the 20th century ensured that Britain’s phantom land could be maintained in other ways. As various post-colonial thinkers have noted, countries like India, during its empire days, ensured a steady supply of agricultural goods and raw materials to Britain. With a heavy dependency on fossil fuels, Britain became a consumer of energy, which was, in practice, generated by others. It was not until the 1970s that the U.K. started taking steps to move from being a net importer of energy to a net exporter. While this dependency on energy ‘ghost hectares’ continues even today, the discovery and development of high-quality coal in England and Wales led to the creation of its own energy system.
New power positions
This new energy system, however, led to the creation of new dynamics of power, position and political representation, where those in control did not oversee just the flow of energy, but also had the power to slow it down or disrupt it. The coal mining strikes of the 1980s, which Margaret Thatcher termed as an ‘enemy within’, is the perfect example of such power and agency. But with oil, things became different. While the power of the ‘enemy within’ diminished, the anchoring of ghost hectares in OPEC countries continued, to the extent of nearly 50% energy dependency in 2013.
Nevertheless, an analysis reveals that for the first time in 2019, the U.K. generated more electricity from renewables than fossil fuels. While this is a welcome step, and the U.K.’s presidency at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference indicates its commitment towards the Paris Agreement, a lot is yet to be achieved. The withdrawal of the U.K. from the EU only complicates the issue. The anchoring of coastal ‘ghost hectares’ via offshore wind farms is an example of the choices the country will be forced to weigh up — including the issues around living on a thin critical zone of Earth.
Lastly, by the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, it was argued by many scholars that a liberal democracy with access to a free market is the best way to organise societies. An idea that all nations should pursue unequivocally is globalisation. It was envisaged that the infinite expansion would last forever and national citizens will eventually become ‘global citizens’. It was in this swell that the Maastricht Treaty of the 1990s led to the creation of the European Union — a Europe without frontiers. But with Brexit, where do the citizens of the U.K. go?
For the first time in centuries, the U.K. faces these constraints together, with an added burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will have to learn to pass this astounding hailstorm and become ‘earthbound’, as French sociologist Bruno Latour calls it, and rethink its organising structure and the relationship it will have with its land.
Gaurav Daga is Associate Vice-President at Guidance, Industries Department, Government of Tamil Nadu. Views expressed are personal.