The United States is not the only country with political divisions so deep that government policy is often paralyzed and dysfunctional. Great Britain is within two months of a watershed decision on implementing Brexit — the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union.
The historical antecedents of this moment go deep into the past. Britain, a “sceptered isle” off the coast of Europe, has always been ambivalent about its European identity. The British were slow to join the EU and many citizens harbored deep doubts about the whole enterprise. It was no surprise that Britain, unlike most of the EU, chose to retain its own currency rather than adopt the Euro. The case for joining the EU in the first place came down to two arguments: (1) it was essential for Britain’s economic future that it become part of the new European Common Market and (2) Britain inside the EU would have a voice in European affairs that it would lack outside it.
These arguments carried the day and have been validated over time. The EU has proved a huge boon to the British economy, particularly the City of London which has become Europe’s financial center. The beneficiaries of this economic success have tended to be urban elites, as well as college-educated young people who have found their horizons and opportunities open up beyond Britain to include the entire continent. Similarly, two regions of the United Kingdom, Scotland and Northern Ireland, benefitted from direct access to European money and markets.
But, not surprisingly, EU membership generated a backlash. Suddenly Britain’s borders were open to migrants from elsewhere in the EU. Poles, Slovaks, Croats and others moved to Britain in search of improved employment opportunities. And, like everywhere else in the EU, there were complaints about the heavy hand of regulations emanating from Brussels impinging on everything from food labeling to weights and measures.
The results sound familiar, an accumulating populist groundswell in the name of keeping Britain British. It was the politics of resentment and identity. Things got so testy that Britain’s strongly pro-EU Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised a popular referendum on whether Britain should “remain” or “leave.” He did so in the confident expectation that the vote would favor “remain.” It did not. By a narrow margin, the public voted to “leave” — for Brexit. The vote was more than a little tainted. The well-funded “leave” campaign made a series of unfounded claims that Britain would gain a financial windfall once Britain’s obligations to the EU ended. In fact, the opposite was the case. In addition, Russian government hackers and cyber trolls — the same units that interfered in the United States’ election on behalf of Trump — did so in Britain on behalf of Brexit. The goal was the same: sew discord and weaken the West. The results destroyed Cameron’s career and produced a new prime minister, Theresa May, who pledged to guide the country through the Brexit process.
May cheerily declared that “Brexit means Brexit” and everyone must now make it a great success! But expert observers saw very rough seas ahead. It was clear that many, probably most, of those who voted for Brexit as an assertion of Britain’s identity had no concept of the actual costs of disentangling their country from the EU. The business community had tried to raise warning flags during the campaign with little effect. Regional leaders in Scotland and Northern Ireland spoke out against separation but few in England were listening. In fact, Brexit has already had an economic effect shaving between one and two points off Britain’s growth. Authoritative analyses point to long-term economic damage that will be substantial. Already, major corporations and banks have to make decisions about relocating key facilities and factories from Britain to the Continent in order to stay within the protective walls of the Common Market.
At this point, no one is more aware of the difficulties than is the prime minister. Her plan for a “soft” Brexit that would leave most of Britain’s economic ties to the EU intact was rejected as “unworkable” by the authorities in Brussels. Attempts to negotiate a new status for the border between Ireland (in the EU) and Northern Ireland (outside the EU) have failed utterly. Meanwhile, a pro-Brexit bloc within the Conservative Party is demanding a “hard” if not total Brexit and damn the consequences.
The Labour Party is as divided as the Tories. In their recent annual conference, a grassroots initiative by party members pushed through a resolution calling for a new referendum, something the Party leaders don’t want. They want a new election. However, public opinion is showing distinct signs of second thoughts about the wisdom of Brexit.
So we now have both major parties split and the clock is ticking for May to come up with a final plan acceptable to Parliament and to Brussels. There is a distinct likelihood that whatever she comes up with will be voted down in Parliament by a backbencher revolt in both parties. Then what happens? A new election is unlikely because the Conservatives are not obligated to hold one now and the political climate is terrible. The logical remedy is a new popular vote on whether to continue with Brexit or discard the whole idea and remain inside the EU. But the prime minister had declared a new referendum as out of the question. So Britain is left with a slow motion political train wreck with consequences that are, at this point, entirely unpredictable.