The United Kingdom, former colonial power, world’s seventh largest economy (India now ranks fifth), country of my birth, once seen as a bastion of stability, servant of due process and beacon of hope, is in the throes of a far-reaching political and constitutional crisis. A quasi revolution is unfolding in the Mother of Parliaments.In the making for decades, its ramifications will be felt for generations to come.
It’s difficult to see any upsides.
The economy has stalled. It shrank by 0.2% in the April-June quarter, the first retraction for six-and-a-half years. Sterling has lost 20% of its value in the three years since the European Union referendum. That may be good for a handful of wealthy Indians wanting to buy Mayfair real estate but not great for anyone in Britain buying imported goods or services. Investors, including Tata Motors, have diverted funds to other markets unencumbered by uncertainty.
The country is polarised. Parliament is hung and unable to pass legislation to resolve the conundrum of exiting the world’s largest trading block.
What the world knows as Brexit – the UK’s controversial and contradiction-riven attempt to leave the European Union – has always been a battle for the heart of the Conservative Party. On Tuesday night, the wood-panelled chamber in which members elected to the House of Commons debate and legislate, was the stage for the latest act in a comedy of terrors.
Former prime minister and Old Etonian David Cameron called the 2016 referendum on the UK’s continued membership. He sought to ward off the threat of UKIP, a far right, anti-immigrant party gaining popularity with core Conservative voters and simultaneously to quiet the increasingly vocal Eurosceptic wing of his own party in which his erstwhile school chum Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was a rising star.
Cameron fronted the Remain campaign – and lost. Rather than staying to sort out the mess he had created he resigned the next day. He was replaced by Theresa May, a former Remainer turned Brexit supporter whose stilted delivery, lack of charisma and tendency to parrot clichés resulted in her being dubbed “The Maybot”. The savage sobriquet stuck for her three years at the helm.
She negotiated a deal to leave the European Union, but due to the continued in-fighting within her party and jostling for position of her prospective successors as Conservative Party leader, failed to find a majority in the House of Commons. Her deal stillborn, she resigned in May. A summer leadership contest followed. The electorate was not the UK’s 46 million eligible voters but a mere 160,000 members of the ruling party. They tend to be old, wealthy, white men with a hankering for what they see as Britain’s glorious colonial past.
In July, they anointed Johnson, who uses an abbreviated version of his name, former mayor of London, face of the Leave campaign and a proven liar, and cheating husband. The Clown Prince. He is a prime minister with no popular mandate trying to push through a “no deal” or Hard Brexit in which the UK exits the EU with no new trade terms in place and has to make do with the World Trade Organisation terms. You can read here seven reasons why that’s bad for the UK.
Because he knows there’s no majority for that course of action he proposes to suspend or – in the arcane language so beloved of the English Establishment, and Shashi Tharoor – to prorogue Parliament for five weeks. This would castrate parliament and nullify its ability to review and challenge any further Brexit proposals.
Members of Parliament on Tuesday voted to legislate against “no deal”. The British prime minister and his cronies have been equivocal on whether he will abide by that legislation.
The watching world was treated to the unedifying sights and sounds of a political leader at the dispatch box, huffing and puffing, ranting and waving his arms around like a demented despot. His colleague and fellow posh-boy Jacob William Rees-Mogg, named by satirists as the Honourable Member the 18th Century for his outdated style and attitudes, chose to show his contempt for proceedings in the august chamber by reclining across the leather seats, snoozing and sneering. It makes India’s Lok Sabha appear a shrine to decorum.
Johnson’s response, to the 21 of his own party who chose to vote against the government and in support of no-deal blocking legislation, was to sack them. The culprits included the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s war time leader. The date marked the 80th anniversary of the commencement of WWII.
He has called for a general election – the country’s third in four years. The battle lines for Johnson will be a “people versus parliament” narrative in which he and his Old Etonian cronies – the epitome of Establishment elites – will set themselves up as the guardians of the public’s interests against the actions of a democratically elected house of representatives.
The United Kingdom looks more like a basket case than a beacon.
Mark Hannant is the author of Midnight’s Grandchildren: How Young Indians are Disrupting the World’s Largest Democracy.