Former Ambassador to the European Union and High Commissioner to Britain
There is one modest relief in spending time in the UK these fateful days of political confusion and chaos over Brexit: hardly anyone ever mentions US President Donald Trump. Few welcome his ignorant intrusions into the British debate behind the cause of Brexit.
The obvious reason Trump gets less notice is that Brits’ anxiety over their own affairs doesn’t leave much room to think about the toxic atmosphere in America. But another is that the contemplation of American polarization, its abandonment of the notion of national unity in the name of partisan antagonism, and the ensuant government standstill is a scary look into what could be Britain’s own future if it doesn’t get its act together.
Parliamentary democracies share obvious characteristics and component parts. Factions within parties often try to control the agenda and even the party’s leadership in the interests of their root causes. But rarely in democracies have governing parties — the Republicans in the US, and the Conservatives in Britain — been so attacked from within by single-minded nationalist and ideological groupings such as the Freedom Caucus in the US and the pro-Brexit “European Research Group” of anti-European Tories in Britain.
The respective elected leaders, Trump and Theresa May, each deferentially bestow outsized influence on these extremist wings — Trump because they constitute his loyal “base,” essential to his survival, May because her party’s radical nationalist right is actively disloyal and actually hopes to displace her.
These factions share a central feature: the abandonment of compromise with opposition parties, and even compromise within their own party. That suits Trump, for now, though as his poll numbers erode, he may change. For May, whose leadership is more precarious, the uncomfortable political reality is that she needs her rebels’ support to stay in office. On Tuesday, January 29, they fell into line behind her as she made further concessions to them. Both US and UK leaders count on moderate members to put up with such distorted influence of hard-liners out of fear that partisan disunity would enable the opposition party to oust them from power.
Ultimately, without compromise, the parliamentary situation in both countries has become increasingly dysfunctional, with little in the way of legislative achievement. However, in the US, the November midterm elections produced a split government in which Democrats, under strong legislative leadership, increasingly have the upper hand. Moreover, Trump’s “base” is not mathematically sufficient to carry him much further electorally. He will sooner or later, one way or another, be replaced. Though America will have been changed, internal and external policies can revert to more familiar mainstream perspectives.
Britain’s situation is graver because its factional disarray is part and parcel of the existential national disagreement over Brexit. Once Britain leaves the EU, it will be changed forever. The UK quandary is over how much the UK disengages from the EU. The hard Brexit proponents want the UK completely out on March 29, come hell or high water, with a no-deal Brexit if necessary.
A move a long time coming
Those proponents don’t have anywhere near majority support in the public (probably about 20 percent) or in Parliament (even less), but they have been able to intimidate May, who is now risking the national interest by deferring to the extreme wing of her party.
These right-wing, nationalist Conservatives didn’t come up with the Brexit motif overnight. They related to Margaret Thatcher’s Euro-skeptical leadership in the 1980s, but steamed over John Major’s more moderate leadership in the internationally cooperative 1990s. As the EU deepened and widened cooperation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, their anti-European rancor spawned an outright “independence” party, UKIP, whose electoral successes began to roil the political landscape in rural England, making the Conservatives nervous.
Major’s successor, New Labour’s Tony Blair, was pro-European (and a “Third Way” bridge figure within Britain), but even he acknowledged the exceptionalist sentiment in Britain and opted out of the EU’s major initiatives, the Euro, the borderless movement of people under the Schengen Agreement, and the EU’s system for adjudicating human rights. Moreover, while the UK multiplied its global influence through its leadership in the EU’s cooperative political and security reach, Blair couldn’t resist getting privileged British access to American strategic power, that on the crucial and catastrophic decision to co-invade Iraq, separated Britain from major EU partners and ultimately ruined Blair’s legacy at home.
By the time David Cameron became prime minister in 2010, it was increasingly evident that the UK’s divisions were less about differences with Europe, and more to do with differences within Britain itself. The Scottish referendum in 2014 seemed to awaken a kind of aggrieved “English” nationalism within rural and Northern England. The dissident Conservative back-benchers (whom Major had called “bastards”) were a thorn in Cameron’s side, ostensibly over Europe and “runaway immigration,” instead of historic identity issues in the UK at a time of social and economic transformation.
Rural and Middle England were falling behind as the manufacturing base collapsed under the pressures of globalization, and with it, small town centres and the self-confidence of “ordinary people” who didn’t relate to London’s cosmopolitan affluence and style. The adverse effects of the 2008 financial crisis further eroded confidence in governance. It was easy to target “Europe” as responsible for these woes, and as UKIP began to siphon away Conservative support in rural constituencies, Conservative backbench disquiet caused Cameron to take the fateful decision to run an election in 2015 on a promise of a referendum on EU membership by 2017.
Cameron’s fateful error
Far from believing there was a chance of the government losing a referendum to stay in the EU, Cameron reportedly didn’t believe he’d have to hold one, expecting to remain in a coalition government with the Liberals (the UK’s first in many decades), who would veto the referendum project. But he won a majority (largely by targeting the Liberals’ own seats) and was stuck with the referendum promise to his party.
For anybody with experience with separation referenda (e.g., Canadians) in parliamentary democracies, the UK’s conceptual and organizational decisions were dangerous. Instead of making the outcome advisory to Parliament, the Conservative majority chose to make it decisive. Instead of choosing to make such a transformative decision by super-majority, they chose 50 percent plus one. Rather than seeking a mandate to negotiate an exit from the EU on favourable terms, they chose a simplistic binary question, “Leave” or “Remain,” without specifying what “Leave” might actually entail.
Moreover, for the referendum, Cameron permitted his Cabinet to choose their individual positions, diluting the government’s authority. He ran a desultory and passion-free campaign, seldom stating the truth. The “Leave” side, in a mendacious if passionate daily onslaught, slandered membership in the EU as responsible for all of England’s ills. To great surprise, when the vote took place in June, 2016, the “Leave” side won 52 percent to 48 percent.
Cameron walked away from the damage he had caused, and in a shambolic succession contest, was replaced by May. She will almost certainly be seen as a terrible choice.
A “Remain” supporter in the vote, though not a campaigner for it, May promised to deliver on the “the vote of the British people.” When asked what “Brexit” meant, she repeated facetiously that “Brexit means Brexit,” which we all know now means nothing at all.
To reinforce her personal political position, she called a snap election for June 2017. She was a dreadfully wooden figure on the campaign trail, easily outperformed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist throwback to the class-resentful old Labour party Blair had displaced. May lost her majority, emerging dependent to govern on a small party of Northern Ireland Protestant UK-loyalists.
All eyes on March 29
May precipitously launched the separation timetable under Article 50, calling for the UK’s withdrawal by March 29, 2019. The terms of withdrawal, the extent of withdrawal and the extent of remaining ties were negotiated painfully with the EU’s 27 other members in a 600-page document over two years, with little consultation with Parliament. It was accompanied by a generalized statement describing the future UK-EU partnership in areas where continued cooperation was not specified in the main paper, what May has termed “my deal.”
Having barely survived a challenge to her leadership from the hard Brexiters in her own party, the prime minister finally put her “deal” to Parliament, which rejected it massively earlier this month, as dissident hard-liners joined Conservative Remainers and Labour as well as Liberals to vote against, for some because it retained too much of a tie to the EU, others because it didn’t retain enough.
Asked to return to Parliament with a “Plan B,” the prime minister came back days later with a repeat of already rejected positions.
The UK needs a deal defining its trade and other engagement with the EU by March 29 or it will crash out of the customs union with the bloc that represents 44 percent of its markets. The UK government must retain membership in the EU free trade area, if not in a full customs union that also obliges the free movement of labour, or sink or swim in the trading and economic world as a no longer very large, autonomous, single economy.
Moreover, in a hard Brexit, the UK would have to accede to a “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, thereby erasing one of the achievements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of deadly conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. May’s “deal” on the other hand provides a “backstop” to permit free trade across that border, subject to some inspections of goods coming into Northern Ireland from the UK, objectionable to the small number of protestant unionists from Ulster who hold May’s minority government in power. To the more than a hundred-strong Brexiter hard-line Conservatives, that backstop could keep the UK in an EU customs union indefinitely, thus killing their dream (or fantasy) of the UK negotiating beneficial replacement bilateral trade agreements around the world. They call for concessions from Ireland and the EU.
Both Dublin and Brussels have made it clear further EU concessions are unavailable. The Europeans have held their unity during these trying negotiations. They have protected the EU by not enabling the British to leave the EU on terms any other EU member would wish to emulate. But as a senior EU figure allowed recently, their firm line has been a “catastrophic success,” in that the UK could now crash out without a transitional or replacement deal March 29 to almost certain chaos and deep cost, including to the EU itself.
May is testing Parliament’s patience in deferring to the “bad boys at the back of the class,” as Trades Union Congress head Frances O’Grady put it. She has to face down the dissident hard-liners to force them to support her deal, or she has to ditch them and work with the rest of the House of Commons. This week, she agreed to go back to the EU to seek further changes, including to the problematic “backstop,” to the rejected deal in order to win their support. She was acting out her role as a life-long Conservative partisan who would never agree to split her own party. The risk and danger is that she will come up empty.
‘The end of themselves as they were’
Parliament is increasingly asserting itself, with the support of enough Conservatives who abhor the danger of a no-deal Brexit. An amendment calling on the prime minister to reject a no-deal Brexit in fact passed Tuesday. There will be further pressure in Parliament to seek via a free vote on an extension of Article 50 to provide more time for negotiation. An amendment to do that failed Tuesday but will undoubtedly recur as the clock runs out toward the March 29 deadline. The EU will only grant it if the UK has a clear and convincing plan.
May stubbornly believes she can still get her “deal” (however tweaked) through if people are scared enough by the horrific damage of a no-deal Brexit and also by the alternate possibility of the “betrayal” of there being no Brexit after all.
She has got nothing right yet. But who knows what this crisis will produce? The UK is divided, separated in toxic antagonism by a division of the country’s self-concept into differing imagined realities.
It had been thought that a follow-up second referendum would be a way to resolve the issue, not to ask the same simplistic “in” or “out” question, but to consult on how to proceed now that the complications are apparent. However, May, and especially her hardline backbenchers, are opposed, as they see it as a means of undoing the 2016 referendum result, which, in substance it might well be. So, it is more likely that it will be in Parliament’s hands to define the future. But Parliament needs strong and unifying leadership.
There is an old British adage: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” or now “the woman.” Who could it be and how would it happen? There is no one obvious apt to be able to attract broad cross-party support and unify the country. Or can Parliament itself pull it off? Might this be the beginning of the end of the system of political party domination of politics? Could a new patriotism, to defend contemporary Britain’s achievements and the aspirations of young people for a European vocation, forge a new coalition of interests, or will classic English nationalism carry the day?
The spectacle thus far has been a distressing view of the democratic process, deeply injurious to Britain’s image, and as I heard repeatedly in discussion with people who supported all options, to the embarrassment of Brits themselves. They are fed up with their leadership and their choices and they are deeply worried. No wonder they have no space in their worry-box for the American flim-flam man Donald Trump.
There is in Britain an over-abundance of immersion in the past. Novelist Paul Scott, in his Raj Quartet about the expiry of British imperial occupation of India, wrote that the British had come “the end of themselves as they were.”
So it is again today. They need a wrenching effort to re-align themselves positively looking forward, with realism and without the hubris of gilded memories. They need to play a leading role in Europe in the twenty-first century by whatever institutional arrangements and ties are effective. Whoever can convince them of the substance and urgency of such a plan, over the tinsel of a remembered past, might indeed make Britain great again.