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Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.

The Globe and Mail

With apologies to Winston Churchill, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth were to last a thousand years, men will still say: This was their dumbest hour.

The Empire is gone. The Commonwealth is irrelevant. The union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is about to fracture. Little England, post Brexit, will shrink unto itself; smaller, more isolated and insular, content apparently with its own dreams of past greatness and illusions of future glories, a country of less significance to its friends.

The English did this, to themselves, to their fragile union with Scotland, to Europe, to their allies, to their economy, to their future. The old among the English pushed their country backward, dictating a poorer future for the majority of the next generation who voted to Remain in the European Union.

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There will be no liberation from the European Union, except in certain symbolic ways. The Little Englanders seem to believe that Europe will be on its knees to negotiate a new economic arrangement with England. What the Little Englanders will discover is that the EU, with approximately nine times the population of England (the Scots will almost certainly depart), will be doing the demanding and Little England will be doing the agreeing, in the same way that a secessionist Quebec would have discovered how thin its bargaining power would have been faced with a much larger Rest of Canada.

Any deal Little England negotiates will largely follow EU dictates. Little England's laws, as the Norwegians and Swiss learned when they elected to remain apart from the union, will have to conform with EU laws for access to the EU market to be assured. Much of the sovereignty the Brexiters insisted would be repatriated to Westminster will still reside in Brussels, either directly or because Westminster will have no choice but to follow Brussels rules.

The British – and they were united then – invented the theory of free trade (David Ricardo, Adam Smith et al.) and practised it for a long time, once merchants and not the landed class began to run the country. Now, they have spurned a free-trade deal they had within Europe in exchange for something to be negotiated outside. And they will be spending years negotiating separate deals with all those who had, or, like Canada, were about to have, free-trade deals with Europe.

The British created that empire of which Churchill spoke. In one of history's great ironies, it is immigration from the empire's former non-white colonies – Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, parts of the Middle East, the English-speaking Caribbean – that provided the ugly undercurrent pushing Brexit to victory.

Brexiters were not complaining about the French who live in Kent or the Italians who work in the food industry. They were upset to some extent about Poles and Lithuanians who were doing jobs the British themselves disliked, but they especially disliked people with non-white faces who had arrived in large numbers in recent decades.

Now that the Little Englanders have won, the pound has fallen, Britain's credit rating has fallen, the stock market has dropped, the English will be disliked throughout Europe (for all the English care about "foreigners"), the young will be denied mobility and opportunities, money will leave London for other cities within the EU, years of negotiation and therefore uncertainty lie ahead, domestic politics will be in turmoil as Labour rids itself of its terrible leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the Conservatives replace David Cameron, who has already earned a reputation as one of the more careless, thoughtless toffs ever to run the country.

Worldwide, the English – who once prided themselves on their pragmatism and ability to muddle through – have signalled that nostalgia can defeat the future; that emotion can clobber rational reasoning; that the impulse to self-harm lies within every collectivity; that fear of the "other" is a powerful motivator; that immigration can engender a political backlash; that open markets and free trade are no longer viewed as evident economic virtues, even in those countries that have benefited from both; and that the peeling of Europe, the unity of which has been such a force for stability in a frequently troubled part of the world, began in the English heartland that had so often through the centuries tried to bring balance and peace to Europe.

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As Churchill once said: "The problem with committing suicide is that you live with the consequences."

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