This time next year, if all goes according to plan, the UK will be on its way out of the European Union.March 2019 is the target.
The negotiations are difficult partly because countries were so eager to join, that little thought was given to how a country might leave. Major issues that are being addressed include: what payment is the UK to make to EU? What happens to UK citizens residing in the EU and EU citizens residing in the UK? What new trading relationship will the UK have with the EU? Should the hard Northern Ireland border be re-established? Whatever deal is negotiated, will also have to be adopted by the remaining 27 EU members.
Standing back from these issues, there is the question of the UK's eventual future outside the EU. Here are two scenarios.
Is the UK finished?
According to this scenario, the UK's exit from the EU is a continuation of the sorry saga identified in 1962 by former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson: "Great Britain has lost an empire but not yet a found a role". The 1973 UK membership of the present EU was supposed to give the UK a new sense of direction but it failed; even ardent advocates of it (such as Margaret Thatcher) lost their enthusiasm.
The 1973 entry was supposed to be the "cold shower" to revive UK industry; now Brexit is seen as another "cold shower"; perhaps the problems of the UK economy reside in the lethargic UK industry. The UK's issues are not necessarily EU-related: low productivity, stagnant wages, inadequate training, dysfunctional housing market, and poor infrastructure. Leaving the EU will not solve these problems
The UK still has a tradition of educating each class separately, with cheap low skilled labour supplied via the EU, and Africa and India keeping the National Health Service going via their education of health personnel. Educational reform is still needed (whether inside or outside the EU)
Meanwhile the UK cannot return to pre-1973 economic arrangements. Australia and New Zealand have become more aligned with China; the era of "imperial preference" era has ended. 45% of the UK's exports now go to the EU (which is the world's largest trading bloc). China is now a major economic player (such as the One Belt One Road initiative) but it would not seek any specific partnership with the UK. The US (under President Trump) is turning inwards; there can be no return to US-UK's "special relationship"
Finally, the UK's exit could cause a cascade. There are other potential breakaway areas such as: Spain's Catalonia and Basque regions, and Germany's Bavaria. Meanwhile, Scotland (which wanted to Remain: with 62% of the Brexit vote) might seek a breakaway from the UK to join the EU in its own right.
Therefore the UK's exit could provide a contagion which will engulf other parts of the EU. The UK will have lost the EU and not found another role.
A new lease of life?
An alternative scenario is to argue that the UK could be about to reinvent itself. Winston Churchill in 1948 spoke the UK's "three circles": British Commonwealth, English-speaking world, and united Europe (he supported a united Europe but not necessarily UK's membership of it).
Exit from the EU could enable the UK to further the creation of the "Anglosphere": UK, US, Australia, NZ, Canada. CANZUK (Canada, Australia, NZ and UK) would have a population of 129 million, one of the world's biggest economies and defence forces. Modern communications technology will overcome the tyranny of distance
Meanwhile, the UK is doing fine. In a November 2017 survey, it was reported that Britons since the Brexit vote have become happier (contrary to Remain predictions). The British are at their best in a difficult situation; as in 1940 when the UK was "alone" in fighting Germany. This is the "Dunkirk spirit".
London is a favourite place to work. UK universities still rate highly internationally. The UK has one of the world's largest economies; it attracts more foreign direct investment than France or Germany; unemployment is low. It is safe: a person is 51 times more likely to be shot in the US than in the UK
Therefore crisis creates opportunities. A crisis forces people to think (under pressure) more creatively. Freed from EU constraints, the UK could begin economic experiments such as "locally led development" whereby a location handles its own economic progress, including local currencies like "Bristol pounds". This development is currently hindered by EU procurement policies which are based on equality for all across the EU. Another experiment is at Preston, whereby "anchor institutions" (colleges, police, housing associations, university) are obliged to spend money locally.
To conclude, the value of creating scenarios is that they encourage us to think more broadly about what could happen. History never stands still; we never reach a plateau where we can take a breather. We must listen for the faint signals of change.
We must be ready to think about the unthinkable.