Today’s Guardian reports that Theresa May had to suddenly jet off to Europe to plead for new concessions on her Brexit deal, as the wreckers and traitors in her party circle and prepare for a leadership challenge. Within a day of her postponing the meaningful vote in parliament, Europe’s leaders are in the press singing from the same song sheet, that there will be no renegotiations or concessions, and although they’ll offer “explainers” to help her politically, they are preparing for a no-deal brexit. This is not the first time that the UK leadership have had their efforts rebuffed – David Davis failed to enforce multiple red lines – but it is a stark example of the challenge of managing an independent foreign and trade policy when you run a middling-size country with a fading service economy. This is Britain’s first example of what “take back control” really means.

I think a majority (or at least a large minority) of Britons either grew up after the UK entered the union or were too young to remember what life was like before EU membership. For most Britons, the last time their nation had full “control” of its foreign and trade policy it was an empire, with considerable power and influence globally and large captive markets in the colonies where it could rely on economic support. Naturally, if your history as an independent nation was one of imperial smash-and-grab policies you will have a rose-tinted vision of the benefits of full “control”. But modern Britain is not an empire and never will be, and it would be wise for Britain’s brexiteers to consider what it really means to “take back control” when your nation doesn’t have a huge population and is not an industrial giant. The reality is that as of next year Britain is going to be a nation of 60 million people with a hollowed-out industrial base, a weak agricultural sector and a limited natural resource base. What does it mean to “take back control” for such a country? Fortunately, we have examples, and it might be wise for Britain’s brexiteers to look at how those exemplars of independence achieved success.

I grew up in a country that was not part of any union and had to make its own way in the world, Australia. In order to be a successful independent modern nation Australia went through a 15 year period of reform, starting with Hawke’s Labor party grabbing power in 1983 and ending with the imposition of the GST in 1998. During that time we saw waves of reform. Universal health coverage was introduced (1984), labour reform happened (1983 – 1991), superannuation reformed (the mid-80s and early 90s), tariff barriers were removed, sclerotic industries were modernized and reformed (e.g the dairy industry), education reform was constant and oriented towards making it an export market, the relationship between federal and state governments was modernized and changed, migration was loosened and reformed, tax reform happened in several steps, and through it all we had a long, difficult and often frustrating conversation about the extermination and dispossession that underpinned much of our economic success. We also saw a shift in perspective from our old colonial masters to Asia, with sometimes fraught and complex negotiations with our Asian neighbours. By 1996 commentators spoke of the Australian people’s “reform fatigue”, a phrase I remember well, and this constant shifting of the ground on which older Australians grew up is part of the reason the electorate was described as waiting for the Labor party “with baseball bats” in the 1996 election. Most of these reforms were hugely important and successful, and from 1996 we had 20 years of uninterrupted economic growth. Even reforms that seemed largely cultural and not necessarily economic probably had a role to play in this complete modernization of Australian society – it’s unlikely for example that Aboriginal people would have stood quietly by and let the mining and resource boom of the 2000s happen on their land if they had not been given significant concessions in land rights in the 1980s and 1990s, and it’s unlikely that we would have been as ready to engage with Asia as we are if education had not been modernized with an Asian focus in the 1990s.

Australia also built its post-war success on migration, and I think now something like 20% of Australians were born overseas, with nearly 40% having been born overseas or having a parent born overseas. Our population grew rapidly from 1950 to 2000, and is nearly double what it was 70 years ago, with that increase heavily supported by migration. We also had to make significant concessions to international reality. For example, we outsource our defense policy to the USA and act with them in all their wars, even the illegal ones, and we have supported the One China Policy for practical reasons since the 1970s. When you have a population of 24 million people and rely for your economic wellbeing on trade with big Asian neighbours, you can’t afford to be too assertive in your foreign policy, and you also can’t afford big ticket domestic defense items like, say, Trident, or aircraft carriers. With the advantage of remoteness and the benefit of limited tariff barriers and huge quantities of natural resources we don’t need to worry about defense too much, so long as we keep trading without too many qualms about who we’re selling to. This isn’t a luxury that a nation like Japan or Germany can have, since they have large geopolitical rivals with bad histories quite nearby. Australia has long since given up on expecting to be a major player in the world stage, and where we exert influence we do so through soft power and being likable. Is this something that the UK wants to do?

Singapore is another country that has made it as a successful independent nation, but probably not in a way that is politically compatible with Brexit fever dreams. Something like 80% of Singaporean housing is government-owned, and there are strict rules on ethnic composition of housing blocks and other public amenities, along with strict censorship, to ensure that racial harmony is a fundamental part of the Singaporean way of life. Singapore also has a very large immigrant population, low tariffs, and an atmosphere of competition with other nations and social cooperation internally that the UK won’t be able to develop overnight. Singapore has often been touted as a model for Britain’s independent future, but it’s unlikely to be one that is palatable to the British voter, with its very large transient migrant population, heavy state investment in industry, housing and infrastructure, extremely long working hours, heavy censorship and strict rules to protect racial harmony.

Canada is another successful independent nation, but it has the agricultural and natural resources benefits that Australia has, is neighbour to a huge and dominant economy that is very culturally connected, and also built its economic success through migration. I have a friend who just got permanent residency (with his Japanese wife) in Canada without ever living there, and moved there to be on welfare payments while he looked for work. That’s not a migration model that will please Brexiters (his skin is quite brown!) and probably not a model that will be very attractive to potential migrants once Britain’s economy slumps. Canada also benefits from having no viable external enemies, a long cultural tradition of getting along with each other, and heavy state investment in e.g. health and welfare. It also has bears.

Japan is a nation that has been successful without migration, but it has a very large population (twice that of Britain), is very close to some very big trading partners, and succeeded with the help of major foreign support when it was rebuilding its (very large) industrial base after world war 2. Japan also, like Britain, has a weak agricultural sector and no natural resources. But Japan’s economic and international political success is built on a range of factors that would not appeal to the brexiteers. First and foremost it has a huge national debt and a bipartisan policy of using government money to fund infrastructure, bailouts, and industrial support. It has always maintained a strong industry policy, and tight relations between industry and government. It has a German-style approach to labour relations, in which workers are partners in business and government and disputes are resolved through compromise and consensus, and Japanese industrial leaders often have to tighten their belts with their workers in exchange for not having to put up with combative unions. Japan also has a constitutionally-mandated policy of pacifism, and invests heavily in overseas aid to ensure it maintains a strong connection in the region. Furthermore, Japan is a nation heavily committed to the international order, trying always to work through the UN and multinational agreements rather than being truly independent. Japan doesn’t pick sides or moralize, and is an exemplary global citizen. As a result of its lack of migrants Japan is also ageing, and is opening its borders to migration rapidly.

Something that many of these countries have in common is a commitment to social harmony. To varying degrees they have tried to prevent major outbreaks of social disorder or disruption – Australia does not have France style yellow-jacket demonstrations, and for example while Australia had 20 years of domestic environmental activism that was often quite confrontational, the end result was always some form of compromise to maintain the peace. Part of maintaining social order requires a commitment to equality, which is very strongly observed in Japan and Canada, and to various programs that may (as in the case of Singapore) require heavy government investment in order to ensure that there is a minimum standard of living for everyone. This is also not something that the Brexiters seem particularly happy with.

It seems clear to me that “taking back control” for Britain is going to require some difficult and unavoidable choices, that the British people won’t be happy to make. Cutting back on migration will mean that British people have to work harder and pull together in ways they aren’t used to; going independent will mean burning money on defense or outsourcing it to a great power or lowering expectations about Britain’s international assertiveness; being an open trading nation will require political compromises with trading partners that will stick in the craw of many of Britain’s elder statesmen; maintaining social harmony and a united front is going to demand sacrifices of everyone. But most of all, British people are going to have to come to terms with the reality that they don’t have much clout at all on the international stage, and that until they can develop some industries that foreigners want to buy, build some goodwill outside of the EU, and establish an independent voice that has some actual value to people they haven’t traditionally had much connection to, they aren’t going to be taken seriously globally. Theresa May’s hapless trip to Europe is a harbinger of what awaits them when they “take back control,” and as someone who grew up in a nation that has had to navigate difficult currents over dark waters, I would ask two questions of the British: do you want this, and are you ready for it? Because from what I have seen over the past year, you don’t and you’re not.