Brexit: The incurable British headache that won’t go away
By Nick Rowley
Rather like a computer game, once you escape one level of the Brexit game the next is even harder, with even nastier sword-wielding opponents around the next dimly lit corridor. But unlike a computer game, you can’t turn Brexit off.
Next week, most likely on Tuesday, the British Parliament faces the next level: the so-called “meaningful vote” on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit “deal”. No matter what the result, the political and policy implications will be immense.
If May loses badly, could she continue as Prime Minister? With so much of her energy and political capital invested in the deal, and despite winning a Conservative leadership vote last month, perhaps even May’s stoic resilience will dissolve. Faced with the potential chaos of a “no deal” exit from the European Union, how might Parliament choose to proceed? A second referendum? A general election?
Over the past two and a half years, British politics has been an experiment to see if a parliamentary democracy can accommodate a plebiscitary decision. In the coming weeks we should find out whether the British Parliament, and the British system of government, is up to the task.
Theresa May’s stoic resilience will face another challenge this week. (Reuters: Frank Augstein)
The orchestra has lost its way
The political and policy challenges now facing the country are without precedent. Even the most experienced observers of British politics are hard pressed to stay on top of each development and understand it. Not that anyone believes that Brexit and the European question will go away — even a large Parliamentary majority for Mrs May’s deal cannot achieve that. The best to be hoped for is a time when the country might move forward and be able to tackle other national, social, economic and environmental challenges.
Former colleagues of mine still working in the public service have their inboxes overwhelmed with the implications of any number of potential future scenarios: “no deal”; the “current deal” (or more precisely Parliament voting for the 585-page withdrawal agreement); an “amended deal”; the whole process falling in a heap with a change of prime minister; a general election or a second “people’s vote” to allow the electorate to make a choice based on a deeper understanding of what the implications of leaving the European Union actually are.
These public servants are some of the most capable and serious people you are ever likely to meet. And yet their sophisticated knowledge of the orchestra and how to master a symphony is constantly drowned out by the raucous noise of free-form jazz mixed with amplified hip hop as the latest drum solo or amplified trumpet comes from another development or twist.
It could be a Conservative leadership vote; the Prime Minister presenting her plan to the House of Commons and then withdrawing it; Boris Johnson making some statement, or a major car manufacturer halving production. Far from being able to work on developing new policy, their work has become, and is likely to remain, almost entirely reactive.
Members of the media watch as some 150 trucks leave Manston Airfield during a “no-deal” Brexit test for when 6,000 trucks could be parked at the former airfield. (AP: Matt Dunham)
When I met with some of them in London last November, much as we wanted to discuss policy and new approaches, Brexit simply sucked all the oxygen out of the room. There was no bandwidth to consider much else.
On top of this, the terms of the debate are confusing, and a powerful turn-off to all but those who understand the jargon. Think of a young family looking for a house they can afford, close to good schools and rewarding work and who might care deeply about climate change or the quality of care for their ageing parents. For them the constant discussion of Article 50, the Irish “back-stop”, a “hard border” or “Canada plus” means little and only serves to diminish their trust in the political system.
The great error of the Brexit referendum was a belief that it would — or could — somehow resolve the European question. Much as we might want complex problems and challenges to be simple and straightforward, wishing it does not make it so.
Both parties to a divorce might want a quick, uncomplicated settlement, but after years of shared living arrangements a divorce is simply more complex than breaking up after a few dates.
Divide from Europe and itself
Britain’s difficult relationship with Europe today involves elements and factors going back more than 70 years.
The European question has waxed and waned in the political and public consciousness, but like an ever-present tension occasionally becoming a headache, it has never gone away.
In his 1946 speech at the University of Zurich it was Winston Churchill who made the case for a “United States of Europe” and 1951 when the Treaty of Paris established the European Coal and Steel Community. Over the following decades every British prime minister and government has had to grapple with the historical, economic, cultural and political dimensions of the European question.
Prime ministers like Winston Churchill, Edward Heath and Tony Blair were enthusiasts for the European ideal. Others such as Margaret Thatcher, Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson more circumspect. The period has been punctuated with moments and decisions which have energised and dominated British politics: entry to the European Economic Community in 1973; a referendum on continued membership won by 67 per cent to 33 in 1975; the dire economic effects of Britain leaving the European exchange rate mechanism on Black Wednesday in 1992; the challenge to John Major’s leadership by euro-sceptic John Redwood in 1995, all as the membership of the EU grew from nine when Britain joined, to the current 28 members.
The June 2016 Brexit referendum was a culmination of this lengthy and fraught history. The purpose of the referendum was to resolve the European question: was Britain to leave or remain?
Unlike in 1975 when Britain voted to join with Europe, the result was less than clear. Nationally Leave prevailed by the narrowest of margins (51.9 per cent of the vote). Only the English (53.4 per cent) and the Welsh (52.5 per cent) even voted to leave. Scotland voted to remain by a significant margin (62 per cent) as did Northern Ireland (55.8 per cent).
More than a divided nation, these results revealed a divided Union. Further examination reveals further division: young and old; social class; London and the south-east vs. the rest of England. On Brexit, Britain is clearly far from a United Kingdom.
Six challenges facing Britain
The factors surrounding this break-up are to do with far more than the “rules” and their implications for policy and governance. They go to the heart of at least six challenges to Britain’s once clear but now confused national identity and purpose.
1. Britain’s role
The European question raises fundamental questions about Britain’s place in the world. The operation of the global economy in the 19th and early 20th century was largely established by a series of British foreign policy and economic decisions. After it emerged as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, British influence over global affairs was immense. From around 1750, British inventions created a wave of technological innovation. Railways and steam ships massively increased the speed and volume of domestic and international trade. British alliances and a willingness to intervene shaped much of Europe through wars from Napoleon to the German invasions of Belgium and France in 1914 and 1940. And as Australia’s own history demonstrates, British actions — good and bad — were consequential for millions of people a long way from the British Isles.
Often dressed in tweed and double-breasted suits, many of the fiercest advocates for Britain leaving Europe have a nostalgia for this period. Conveniently, those wanting to “put the ‘great’ back into Great Britain” forget the role that the Atlantic slave trade, and the many abuses of colonial rule, played.
The Anglo-Irish question is now core to the European question. With a 500-kilometre land border between Northern Ireland (in Britain) and Ireland (still part of the European Union); the deep unease with the words in the agreement threatening the open movement of people and goods; a government reliant on the support of the Ulster Unionists to retain a majority in Parliament, and; little clarity regarding future arrangements and the so-called “back-stop” designed to avoid future dispute, many see Brexit as a recipe for increased tension and a weakening of the 1998 Good Friday agreement. An agreement which brought an end to 30 years of sectarian violence.
The European question has become a threat to the very union of the United Kingdom. Scotland clearly voted to remain. The Scottish government and Parliament have since been excluded from negotiations with the European Union. Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party government, clearly sees the confusion in Westminster as a platform on which to base a further push for Scottish independence.
The deep social and economic divisions in the country have been further revealed. While the wealthy south-east and London are enjoying many of the benefits of globalisation and a single European market, this is less clear for those living in the north, where the globalised economy and immigration are viewed by many as a threat. Coronation Street has never been Kensington, but the differences in lived experience for people in different regions has become ever more stark. That London and its surrounds now has a higher productivity than Germany is remarkable, and yet there is a 44 per cent gap between the south-east and the rest of the country.
Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing euro-sceptic, is resisting moves for Labor to support a second referendum. (Reuters: Phil Noble)
5. Party politics
The British party system has been placed under enormous strain. Where parties are meant to add coherence to political debate in and outside of Parliament, on Brexit they have clearly failed to do so. In both the 1975 and 2016 referenda, Members of Parliament did not have to tow any party line. All governments since the 1950s have contained ministers ranging from deeply sceptical anti-Europeans through to Euro-enthusiasts. You can hardly get two people more unlike one another than Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the European Research Group, and Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor under the John Major government. Their shared membership of the Conservative Party tells you nothing about their views on Europe. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, a long-standing euro-sceptic, continues to resist strong moves within his own party to support a second referendum. Where parties are meant to add coherence to political debate in and outside of Parliament, on Brexit they have clearly failed to do so.
6. Parliament itself
Parliament has been placed under immense stress. Can the so-called “mother of Parliaments” prove up to the task and be a forum for open, deliberative debate on questions of the national interest? Might it come to the rescue to propose and agree on a manner in which a “no deal” Brexit is avoided? Or will it vote down the Government’s unpopular deal with no alternative process or plan? Over the coming weeks it is clear that Parliament — and British Parliamentary democracy — will either be emboldened or greatly diminished by the process.
So what’s next?
The stakes over the coming days are high. Even a media prone to exaggeration might underestimate them. Trying to make sense of it all is hard. But having worked for two years at Downing Street, it is nothing compared to the practice of actually informing the arguments and the decisions that need to be made.
I remain hopeful that Parliament, and the Government, can come to some arrangement that avoids the chaos of a no-deal Brexit. It could be an agreement to cancel the Article 50 Brexit process requiring Britain to leave by March 29.
This would achieve no more than time, with Britain remaining a member of the EU on its existing terms. But relieving the deadline pressure could help initiate new approaches such as
- Theresa May, or a new Conservative prime minister, going back to the European Union to try and negotiate a different deal
- Parliament to vote on holding a second referendum putting clearer choices before the public (the logistical means of doing so are fraught and will require a decision on the question posed)
- A general election following a vote of no confidence in the government.
Brexit is a governmental, political and national labyrinth in which Britain remains trapped. No one seems to be able to see the walls, let alone find a way to get free.
A no-deal Brexit has the potential to threaten the core role of government as provider and protector. That might read like over-statement, but empty supermarket shelves, hospitals running out of medication and lines of trucks unable to make it to ports due to the delays from new customs rules are a genuine dystopian prospect.
Under such a horror scenario, the risk is that a disengaged and angry public will further lose faith in the Parliamentary system.
The European question has been the great disruptor of post-war British politics. No longer an occasional headache, it is now influencing the ability of the system to function. And it is hard for anyone to see what an effective prescription might be to settle the pain any time soon.
Nick Rowley was an advisor to then-prime minister Tony Blair and worked at Downing Street between 2004 and 2006.