The “greatest catastrophe” of the 21st century? Brexit and the dissolution of the U.K.

Twenty-five years ago, in March 1991, shaken by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of nationalist-separatist movements in the Soviet Baltic and Caucasus republics, Mikhail Gorbachev held a historic referendum. He proposed the creation of a new union treaty to save the USSR. The gambit failed. Although a majority of the Soviet population voted yes, some key republics refused to participate. And so began the dissolution of the USSR, the event that current Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Today, in the wake of the referendum on leaving the European Union, British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to have put the United Kingdom on a similar, potentially catastrophic, path. Like the fall of the wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fallout from Brexit could have momentous consequences. The U.K. is of course not the USSR, but there are historic links between Britain and Russia and structural parallels that are worth bearing in mind as the U.K. and the EU work out their divorce, and British leaders figure out what to do next, domestically and internationally.

A quick Russian history recap

The British and Russian empires formed at around the same time and frequently interacted. Queen Elizabeth I was pen pals with Ivan the Terrible. The union of the Scottish and English parliaments in 1707 that set the United Kingdom on its imperial trajectory coincided with the 1709 battle of Poltava, in which Peter the Great ousted the Swedes from the lands of modern Ukraine and began the consolidation of the Russian empire. The Russian imperial and British royal families intermarried, even as they jockeyed for influence in Central Asia and Afghanistan in the 19th century. The last Czar and his wife were respectively a distant cousin and granddaughter of British Queen Victoria. The Irish Easter Uprising and the Russian Revolution were both sparked by problems at home, imperial overstretch, and the shock of the World War I. 

Like the fall of the wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fallout from Brexit could have momentous consequences.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.K. and Russia have both had difficulty figuring out their post-imperial identities and roles. The U.K. in 2016 looks structurally a lot like the USSR in 1991, and England’s current identity crisis is reminiscent of Russia’s in the 1990s. After Gorbachev’s referendum failed to shore up the union, the Soviet Union was undermined by an attempted coup (in August 1991) and then dismantled by its national elites. In early December 1991, Boris Yeltsin, the flamboyant head of the Russian Federation, holed up in a hut deep in the Belarusian woods with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus and conspired to replace the USSR with a new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). With Gorbachev and the Soviet Union gone by the end of December, the hangover set in. Boris Yeltsin was the first to rue the consequences of his actions. The CIS never gained traction as the basis for a new union led by Russia. 

The Ukrainians, Belarussians, and everyone else gained new states and new identities and used the CIS as a mechanism for divorce. Russians lost an empire, their geopolitical anchor, and their identity as the first among equals in the USSR. The Russian Federation was a rump state. And although ethnic Russians were 80 percent of the population, the forces of disintegration continued. Tatars, Chechens, and other indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation, with their own histories, seized or agitated for independence. Ethnic Russians were “left behind” in other republics. Historic territories were lost. Instead of presiding over a period of Russian independence, Boris Yeltsin muddled through a decade of economic collapse and political humiliation.

Separating the U.K. from Europe…could be as wrenching as pulling apart the USSR.

Is Britain laying the same trap?

Another Boris, the U.K.’s Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and main political opponent of David Cameron, risks doing the same if he becomes U.K. prime minister in the next few months. Separating the U.K. from Europe institutionally, politically, and economically could be as wrenching as pulling apart the USSR. People will be left behind—EU citizens in the U.K., U.K. citizens in the EU––and will have to make hard choices about who they are, and where they want to live and work. The British pound has already plummeted. The prognoses for short- to medium-term economic dislocation have ranged from gloomy to dire. The U.K is a multi-ethnic state, with degrees of devolved power to its constituent parts, and deep political divides at the elite and popular levels. Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with Gibraltar (a contested territory with Spain), clearly voted to stay in the European Union. The prospect of a new Scottish referendum on independence, questions about the fate of the Irish peace process, and the format for continuing Gibraltar’s relationship with Spain, will all complicate the EU-U.K. divorce proceedings. 

Like Russia and the Russians, England and the English are in the throes of an identity crisis.

Like Russia and the Russians, England and the English are in the throes of an identity crisis. England is not ethnically homogeneous. In addition to hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens living in England, there are many more English people with Irish as well as Scottish ancestry––David Cameron’s name gives away his Scottish antecedents––as well as those with origins in the colonies of the old British empire. And there are the EU citizens who have drawn so much ire in the Brexit debate. 

As in the case of the USSR and Russia where all roads led (and still lead) to Moscow, London dominates the U.K.’s population, politics, and economics. London is a global city that is as much a magnet for international migration as a center of finance and business. London voted to remain in Europe. The rest of England, London’s far flung, neglected, and resentful hinterland, voted to leave the EU—and perhaps also to leave London. At the end of the divorce process, without careful attention from politicians in London, England could find itself the rump successor state to the United Kingdom. If so, another great imperial state will have consigned itself to the “dust heap of history” by tying its future to a referendum.