Is there a more pathetic-looking nation today than the one on whose dominions, for more than a hundred years, the sun never set? I grant there are a few. It is instructive, however, that the question does not sound deranged, as it would if asked about New Zealand, or Taiwan, or Rwanda.
There are five actors in the interminable theatre of Brexit, of whom two have reason on their side. The European Union says, “You voted to leave, so leave.” The Leavers say, “We voted to leave, so let’s leave.” But the government, the opposition, and many who voted Remain cannot or will not take the play to its logical conclusion.
Consider, first, the party in power. In 2015, a supposedly close race between the Conservatives and Labour turned into a substantial victory for the former. As prime minister, David Cameron had five more years clear to get the economy in shape. Instead, he called a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.
The UK had already conducted such a referendum in 1975, and over two-thirds of those who voted had elected to remain in the European Community, as it was then called. Following that poll, the UK carved out a distinctive semi-isolationist niche within the EU, refusing to join the Eurozone or the Schengen Area. Yet, the pressure to leave only grew.
The wise thing for Remainers to have done was sit tight and let the Leavers whinge. The Tories had promised a referendum, but it would not be the first promise politicians had broken. Cameron, though, was overcome with hubris following his election triumph, as also the Remain victory in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. With most political parties officially supporting Remain, along with a large majority of intellectuals, big business owners and media houses, a trifecta appeared a done deal. Though named David, Cameron was the well-armed Goliath of the Brexit referendum, brought down by the slingshots of a bunch of inexperienced, incoherent and underfunded activists.
Out he went, having sought glory only to find ignominy, and in came Theresa May. Not long after taking office, she triggered Article 50, the legal process for withdrawing from the European Union. It left the UK and the European Union two years to work out their post-break-up relationship. May had no clue about where that negotiation would land, nor its prospects in Parliament. Having learned nothing from Cameron’s fall, she gambled on a snap poll, expecting a resounding mandate from the Leave faction. Instead, the election produced a hung parliament.
An impossible obstacle
She kept up a brave face, but now depended on the Democratic Unionist Party, a Eurosceptic Protestant outfit from Northern Ireland. This created an impossible obstacle for her. The UK had signed an agreement with the Republic of Ireland two decades previously, which guaranteed a largely open border between the north and south of the island. The only way of staying true to that guarantee after Brexit was to create some form of customs barrier between the island of Ireland and the island of Great Britain, something the Unionists would not allow.
When May brought her finished deal to parliament, it was soundly rejected. She asked for a second vote on the same deal, and was defeated once more. Her response was to ask for yet another vote, perhaps hoping that divine intervention would change the minds of MPs, but the gods seemed callously indifferent to Brexit diplomacy.
Thus fell Theresa May, making way for Boris Johnson, a clown in 10, Downing Street, eager to serve as sidekick to the joker of 1600, Pennsylvania Avenue. Earlier this September, Johnson’s slim majority was reversed when a pro-European Union Tory MP went over to the opposition benches, quite literally, sauntering across during a parliamentary session. A number of Johnson’s cabinet colleagueshave also resigned, leaving the fate of the UK outside Europe as uncertain as ever.
The Miliband warriors
Given the anarchy in the Tory ranks, you might expect an opposition landslide, should an election be held today. Incredibly, that opposition has regularly matched, and occasionally exceeded, the unpopularity of the woeful Tories. David Cameron was handed his 2015 victory on a platter by the Labour Party which, five years earlier, had rejected its best candidate for leader for his less charismatic younger brother. The Labour Party gives equal weightage to three groups in leadership elections: general members, party MPs and Members of the European Parliament , and affiliated trade unions. David Miliband won comfortably with the first two, but the Trade Union category, in which a mere 9% of eligible votes were cast, handed Ed Miliband the crown.
After the 2015 loss, Miliband gave way to Jeremy Corbyn, who might be a worse leader than Rahul Gandhi, if that’s possible. Gandhi has led the Indian National Congress to ruin, or somewhere close, but he can at least argue he was up against two political geniuses in the shape of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Corbyn gives the impression of being more amateurish than the shockingly incompetent Tories. I have yet to hear from him a single coherent statement of intent on Brexit, by far the most important issue facing the UK during his tenure. Perhaps he expects to become prime minister by default, and maybe he will, but I doubt if that will help resolve the Brexit mess.
More likely, Corbyn will become the sixth Labour chief from among the last seven never to lead his party to a general election victory. The one exception in the past 40 years was Tony Blair, who would have deserved a seat at the high table of the greatest British prime ministers since the Second World War, had it not been for the small matter of his collusion in a war crime that cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.
The stupidity of the crowd
The last dismal part in this drama is being played by the Never Leavers, among whom I count many friends. They keep pretending the referendum was somehow stolen, though it was as fair a vote as imaginable. It is true that the Leave faction’s arguments contained many falsehoods, but lies, like broken promises, are part and parcel of politics. We must try our best to eliminate them, but cannot question a verdict on the ground that it was precipitated by distortions.
The constant clamour for a second vote undercuts the fundamentals of democratic politics. There is no evidence that positions on membership of the EU have changed radically since theBrexit referendum. What would a do over produce, aside from demands for a third vote, should it end in a 51 to 49 decision in favour of Remain?
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Once the decision has been made, close your ear even to the best counter argument: sign of a strong character. Thus an occasional will to stupidity.” Those who voted Remain should show their strength of character by accepting as irrevocable the stupid but democratically validated choice of the majority to leave the European Union.