It’s frightening to watch someone drive slowly towards the edge of a precipice and inevitable disaster. It’s also fascinating. I have found the last few days watching the shenanigans going on in the British parliament over Brexit both frightening and fascinating.
Teresa May, the previous Conservative prime minister, negotiated a withdrawal agreement with Brussels but could not get the support of her party or the opposition in parliament. She resigned.
In stepped the UK’s answer to Trump, Boris Johnson, a right-wing buffoon who is whipping up populist fervour against the establishment in order to achieve his goal: a no-deal Brexit, i.e., a withdrawal from the EU without an agreement, which most observers agree would be an economic and financial catastrophe.
Since becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson has lost every Brexit vote in the house of Commons. In the process, he expelled from the party 21 of his Conservative MPs who voted against him. These were not fringe members of the party but eminent and long-standing conservative stalwarts. This was a Stalinist purge of the moderates.
Boris now runs a minority government and the backbenchers in the House have taken hold of the parliamentary agenda. They have passed legislation prohibiting a no-deal Brexit.
In retaliation, Boris proposed legislation calling for a general election. That was defeated. He is now trapped. The only way out is for him to propose a vote of no-confidence in himself, but, in an Alice-in-Wonderland twist, the Labour Party would no doubt not support it because they realise that Johnson would use the calling of a general election to prorogue parliament and push through his no-deal Brexit. To top it all, Boris’ brother, Jo, a minister in three Conservative governments, resigned in protest against his brother’s insane Brexit policy.
Ever since the British voted three years ago in a referendum to leave the European Union by a slim margin of 52 to 48 per cent, the discussions on how Brexit might be accomplished have turned British politics upside down, provoking what many British experts are now calling a constitutional crisis.
A no-deal Brexit will not just be an economic catastrophe for Britain, but possibly lead to the independence of Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly (62 to 38 per cent) to remain in the EU. Moreover, the fragile Irish peace process that has prevailed since 1998 depends heavily on the existence of a ‘non-existent’ or ‘soft’ border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. This arrangement was a key part of the strategy of normalisation of relations between Protestant and Catholic communities on both sides of the border by permitting the free flow of people and goods with no checks. This open border was facilitated by the fact that both Ireland and the UK were members of the EU.
If Britain crashes out of the EU, this open border will no longer obtain. It might lead to the end of the peace process, or perhaps even to Northern Ireland being reunited with the Republic of Ireland.
The core of the problem with Brexit is that those who voted to leave the EU had no idea what this entailed. They were told during the referendum campaign that they would lose all the disadvantages of EU membership including all the bureaucratic restraints and regulations (and, to be truthful, most of these are not only burdensome but also unnecessary) but keep all the benefits. Now they are learning that they cannot have their cake and eat it too. The better solution for those who found EU membership intolerable was to stay in the EU and find common cause with the people and governments of many other member states that find the EU Commission in Brussels to be a despotic law unto itself. But this would have been a slow process and populists want simple, immediate solutions to complex problems.
The second option, which most in the Conservative party pursued, was to negotiate an orderly transition that would be as least disruptive as possible. The problem is that the far-right ‘leavers’ want a disruptive exit because they believe it will provoke political chaos and they thrive on chaos. Their hope is that they can take over the Conservative party and push it as far right as possible, just as Trump has taken over the Republican Party and turned it into a racist, misogynist, bigoted party of hate and fear.
One option that many people of different political persuasions are reluctant to take is to hold a second referendum, which would almost certainly result in a ‘remain’ vote but would leave the country even more bitterly divided, especially if the result was as close as the first referendum.
And therein lies one of the two fundamental causes of the present constitutional crisis in the UK.
One: there should never have been a referendum in the first place. A referendum is a direct vote in which the electorate is asked to answer a question on a specific proposal. It is an example of what is known as ‘direct democracy’. This is in contrast to what we call ‘representative democracy’ in which decisions are made by elected representatives, as in parliamentary systems such as in the UK and Barbados.
It is important to note that many constitutional experts while conceding that referendums are consistent with parliamentary sovereignty, claim that they do not bind parliament. Many are skeptical of referendums because historically they have been used by demagogues and authoritarians and usually do not take into account the interests of minorities, for example, in Switzerland when a 1959 referendum refused to give women the vote. On the other hand, most people accept that referendums should be used prior to any proposed major change of the constitution. None of this, of course, negates the idea of greater ongoing popular participation in national governance.
Practically everyone agrees, however, that matters of extraordinary complexity should not be the subject of a referendum. The decision to leave or remain in the EU was one such matter, based as it could only be on emotional attitudes to the EU rather than on a thoughtful consideration of all the complexities involved.
Two: the second fundamental cause of the present crisis in Britain is the same cause that has led electorates in several countries such as the US to elect right-wing, populist, anti-establishment candidates however obviously unqualified and unstable they appear to be. Namely, the forces of neoliberal economic globalisation that have swept the world and have enriched the five per cent at the expense of the vast majority of working people.
Statistics show that in the past three decades in the advanced capitalist countries, wages have stagnated and inequality increased. Large segments of populations have been left behind while finance capitalists reap billions.
Most governments around the world have failed to address this devastating social and economic problem with resultant popular unrest that far-right demagogues have used to their political advantage by scapegoating specific ethnic groups as the cause of all the problems, as Hitler did with the Jews and as Trump is doing with immigrants of colour.
The British are, unfortunately, now faced with an ideological dilemma: stick with the far-right buffoon or go with the far-left nut-job. I suspect, though, that the British people, imbued with their legendary pragmatism, will muddle through.
They always have.
(Dr. Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and head of the Foreign Service who once served as Barbados’ Ambassador to the United States)