As we look back on 2016, Brexit will be judged historically far more significant than the election of Donald Trump

As we look back on 2016, Brexit will be judged historically far more significant than the election of Donald Trump

There’s no doubt that 2016 will go down in history as the year of the biggest political upheavals since the fall of the Berlin Wall more than a quarter of a century ago.

In an ordinary year the Dutch voting in a referendum against the EU cosying up to Ukraine or the Italians voting in a referendum against constitutional reform and toppling their prime minister in the process might have counted among the top political events in the western world. But this was no ordinary year and two further events quite obviously stand way above those indicators of growing popular discontent towards the political establishment in continental Europe.

Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as US President are clearly the daddies of this turbulent year in western democracy.

But which is the bigger event? Conventional wisdom since 9th November has had it that the election of Trump is bigger than Brexit; that Trump was the main course that followed the British referendum starter. Trump’s election has even been described fairly widely as “Brexit times ten” – not least by the modest Mr Trump himself.

Yet is that right? I, for one, don’t think so.

While clearly the United States of America is a more significant country on the global stage than the United Kingdom, that fact does not lead inexorably to the conclusion that Trump is a bigger deal than Brexit.

What the US has done is to elect a surprising president – a real outlier who disputes many of the orthodoxies that have determined America’s behaviour in the world for several decades. President Trump may well make changes to America’s trade policy, foreign policy, defence policy, immigration policy and economic policy that have global ramifications.

So I am not trying to play down his election as a run-of-the-mill event by any means. Yet its exceptionalism relates entirely to the personality, political style and beliefs of the man himself.

For Trump has been elected in just the same way that his predecessor was and to perform just the same functions – Head of State, Commander-in-Chief, political lode star and all the rest of it.

He may get a second term as his predecessor did and end up serving eight years. Yet that is far from clear given his relatively advanced age and the fact that even at his zenith he lost the popular vote by two million to the worst Democrat candidate of the modern era.

It is already clear that he intends to tone down his act somewhat in office, having already toned it down somewhat between the primaries and the main presidential contest.

I am old enough to remember the fuss that sniffy media elites made when the one time B-movie actor Ronald Reagan was elected to the Oval Office and yet he turned out to be one of the best presidents of the 20th Century.

Of course, Trump has much less political experience than Reagan had – and none of the charm – but even so it seems odd to invest so many notches on the political Richter scale with such certainty in the unusual personality and outline programme of a president whose actions will be mediated by so many different actors.

None of these qualifications apply to Brexit. Britain has not made a decision about how its government is to be led for four or eight years, it has voted to permanently change how it is governed in the most profound of ways. It has decided to reassume nationhood and abandon a failing supra-national state. That is a much bigger change than, for example, a few hints that America under President-elect Trump will be less in thrall to economic globalism.

The other day I heard the eminent historian Andrew Roberts tell a Bruges Group reception that in a hundred years’ time the population of the UK will celebrate 23rd June as British independence day and give thanks for the work of everyone involved in the Brexit movement. I think he is right about that.

It also looks likely to me that Britain’s brave decision to break from the EU now rather than be dragged unwillingly ever closer towards a deeply flawed United States of Europe is going to have significant knock-on effects on the continental mainland.

I think therefore that our Brexit vote will not only count as the most profound political decision affecting our own country this century, but also as a key moment when the apparently inexorable tide towards European political integration was halted and reversed.

Such an important act of British exceptionalism stands in the finest traditions of Britain in its dealings with other European countries.

While Mr Trump may tinker with the requirements of NATO membership or change the relationship between governments and multi-national corporations in important ways, it is the British decision that is more likely to presage the renaissance of the independent nation state that seeks to co-operate with its neighbours in matters of common interest, but always to chart its own domestic course.

Judging by the great span of human history, Mr Trump will be gone in the blink of an eye. To borrow from Sir Robin Day’s famously bad-tempered interview with Sir John Nott way back in 1982, he is destined to be just another “here today, gone tomorrow” politician.

Indeed it may well be Trump’s fate to be replaced with a politician who reverses most of his apparently irreversible innovations – just ask President Obama about the durability of his cherished Obamacare.

But the vote for Brexit is a much more decisive fork in the road. We are still a very important country in the world and on our continent, which in turn is still a very important continent in the world.

We have chosen to do things differently, to prioritise our nation state democracy, to recalibrate our international interactions globally rather than regionally, to cherish and harness the powerful social solidarity that exists between compatriots rather than hunt for it fruitlessly on a continental basis.

In charge of our own borders, laws and money again, we can hope to achieve wonderful things within and without our domain. To open up our consumer markets to developing nations, to construct a colour-blind and rigorous immigration policy that judges applicants fairly by their attitudes and aptitudes, to run our own public services as we see fit, to flesh out our emaciated democracy.

And if we make a success of it, as I firmly believe we will, other European nations will follow our example in the decades to come. And when they rediscover the positive potential of their own moderate nation state fellowship, they will make a success of themselves again and be much better neighbours as a result.

When future historians come to adjudicate, I have little doubt that they will find that Brexit was a bigger deal than the four or eight years of President Donald J Trump. It truly was the biggest democratic decision of this, the 21st Century’s year of peaceful revolutions. And we should be all the prouder of it because of that.