2017 will of course be an interesting year because the UK will start along the road to what the victors in June’s referendum often describe as “independence”. Thousands of miles away, Jamaica will likely choose to join other Commonwealth Realms in the Caribbean in a move towards a Republic. The two are linked interestingly.
Leavers tend to omit the point that, on their own terms, the UK has never been independent. In the 17th century, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands became the first English colonies – and they were English, not British, because the UK did not exist yet.
The Union, in its various forms, therefore always relied on free trade. This was, of course, usually on its own terms as an imperial power, as crucial raw supplies were brought in, typically under protection of the Royal Navy, from the Americas, the Middle East, South Asia, the Far East and Australasia.
Decolonisation after World War Two saw the British recognise that they still needed free trade and supplies of what they themselves could not produce to prosper, but they could no longer do it on their own imperial terms, and thus doing it from great distance became rather pointless. They were not alone – countries such as France, Belgium and Portugal faced the same reality just as Spain had already faced it. Thus, in trading terms, the faraway Empire was swapped by necessity, but absolutely consciously, for the European Economic Community by the UK and other European (former) powers. It was this Community which, collectively, allowed them to continue to trade with the rest of the world while still largely dictating the terms, all while allowing for the adjustment to nearer trade between European powers of roughly equal economic size and living standards.
Put simply, some time between 1956 (Suez) and 1972 (European Communities Act), the UK got around to making the only realistic adjustment available to it. During those wilderness years, living standards in the UK slipped from the highest in Europe to the sick man of Europe but, backed by its new economic might within the European Community/Union from 1973, it saw per-capita income grow faster than any other major comparative (G7) economy. The UK swapped, by necessity, “imperialism” for “interdependence” – and it in fact proved rather good at the latter.
The UK, as an entity, has thus either been “imperial” or “interdependent”. It has never been “independent” – recognising always that this would be a rather foolish status for a soggy peripheral island with almost no natural resources and limited land area.
So, this “independence” lark could be intriguing, because the Union as we know it has never before experienced it. Only one thing is for sure – those hoping to “take back” something will be disappointed.