What explains an unprecedented, disastrous political defeat ever of a government on the floor of the British Parliament (432/202, a loss by 230 votes), followed within a day by its reaffirmation in government – prevailing over a no-confidence motion by a healthy margin of 19 votes? Essentially the Tories still cannot agree on an outcome for Brexit but bunch up to prevent their worst fear, the possibility of a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Government.
The Brexit process is already the cause of many failed assumptions and expectations. And will be for many more before it is done, as its consequences linger down the ages as with earlier traumas in British history.
To fully appreciate this, at this time, it is necessary to be in Britain and exposed to the intensity of feelings underlying the deep divisions. This is not a conflict between the Left and Right of politics, Both are widely represented across the factions. The issues lie within and between the homes and families throughout the nation. They are visceral and emotive on both sides. Reason and rationality account for little in discussion. Agreement implies betrayal. Belief in righteousness is unremitting and unforgiving. The initial referendum on Brexit was close. But a second, if called, may resolve nothing, and stir further resentment if positions were to remain unchanged, whatever the practical consequences.
Prime Minister May was well suited in the role she has been placed. Naither a conciliator nor a negotiator she sees herself as fulfilling albeit doggedly the mandate brought about by the 2016 Referendum, even though the full implications of leaving the EU were neither clear nor much understood at that time. (Indeed, as a fact, only 37% of eligible constituents voted to Remain.) May was a Remainer herself but sees it as her duty not to betray the Leavers. While she appears not to have a deep grasp of the technical issues involved she has held firmly to principle, believing that with true British grit and persistence there will be an outcome reflecting the British character. But for that, against her grain, she needs to be a conciliator to prevent further disaster.
At the heart of this conflict, about which the EU has been essentially on the sidelines, is a conviction on the part of the core body of Leavers, that goes back well before the 2016 Referendum, to Ted Heath’s advocacy for the UK’s original membership of the EEC in 1973, and to immediate post-WW2 over which the British public were and, it is alleged, were always being misled about the ‘European project’, the ultimate objective of which is a fully federated United States of Europe and the total subordination of the constituent states. Brexit is seen as the last opportunity to escape that fate. The EU is seen as benefiting the tertiary economy, essentially those participating in globalisation, with loss of control and any genuine stake for others in the country’s future, There have of course been similar on-going reactions in other areas of the EU, raising issues about its purpose and future.
Hence the present unresolved crisis over Brexit – some people and areas vehemently for and others vehemently against, across party and social lines. It’s not a question of ‘my party or country right or wrong’. It is a question for many of a country loved, disappearing before their eyes. As for the survivors and beneficiaries of globalisation, they are appalled at what they regard as the ignorance of those who see it differently from themselves; especially the latter’s cavalier attitude to the negative consequences of Brexit. Appalled too at the reckless degrading of 70 years of positive, cooperative institution building for the prosperity and security of Europe as a whole, including the UK.
Examples of disingenuous rationalisations and opportunism on the part of leading Brexiteers are being given by MPs such as Boris Johnson, making another bid to lead the Party. He argues that a no-deal exit would make the British people richer by keeping the £35 billion which the EU is claiming for the divorce settlement, and that the two year transition period after Brexit would allow sufficient time to resolve any ensuing trade and transport disruption after the breakup – overlooking the fact that there will be no transition period in the event of a no-deal, plunging businesses and most others into legal limbo.
Another prominent Brexiteer, the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, has breezily pointed to the many opportunities for Britain to develop independent trade relations with the US, China and India, among others – overlooking the fact that the US is fast becoming the world’s leading protectionist trader and would insist on Britain importing its chlorinated chickens; that China would certainly raise issues surrounding Britain’s security fears about allowing Huawei, the Chinese electronic firm, to bid for Its 5G networks; and that India, notoriously difficult to negotiate with at the best of times, especially in regard to agriculture, would insist on the British easing visa conditions for Indian students and workers. Moreover, in relation to WTO trade terms, assumed to be readily available, there would be the matter of the UK negotiating its own accession to the WTO and its trade schedules with each of some 60 affected WTO members, a process that could take 5-10 years!
As a writer in the Financial Times remarked very recently, noting the number of FTAs and other trade agreements already negotiated or about to be negotiated by the EU with third countries: “The sad truth is that if the Brexiteers are really serious about negotiating trade deals that will open up new markets for Britain, they would be clamouring to stay inside the EU”.
That the Brexiteers are determined to press on in spite of the many anticipated negative consequences is evidence of the power of emotion and tribal impulse to overcome self-interest or indeed self-preservation, just as people do (or used to do) when it comes to war. So we have Mrs May, yielding to some extent in the face of the massive defeat of her much worked-over Withdrawal Agreement, by widening her range of consultations beyond the Tories, and preparing to meet the requirement of last week’s Commons motion, as amended (and therein lies another story with echoes of 1668) to submit a Plan B by Monday, 21st of January – to be voted on the 29th January. Her consultations have not so far included Mr Corbyn who has made it precondition that she should leave a no-deal Brexit off the table but whose preference is for an early General Election and is constrained anyway by divisions in the Labour Party over a 2nd Referendum (or People’s Choice).
What are the options now? First, not one of the options mooted in the Parliament would on its own gain majority support. Secondly, most if not all could not be carried out, and gain EU acceptance, by 29th March – to forestall the UK crashing out without a deal. Dedicated Brexiteers are not phased by this as they regard crashing out as a clean break, even though the consequences would be highly disruptive. But that outcome would greatly concern most others, including the EU. It is the latter that may prompt Mrs May to get Parliament to show a readiness to be pragmatic, and make the EU disposed to allow an extension of the Article 50 consultation period for another 6 months or so while a withdrawal agreement is settled within a framework that the EU could allow.
While hard-line Brexiteers may not like Britain remaining in a quasi-customs union with or without the single market, or an extensive free-trade relationship overall, this would make much sense by preserving critical supply chains, etc., with the potential for dropping the Irish backstop issue altogether. This may not be very far removed from the type or arrangement that existed when the EU was the EEC, which was beneficial then and since to all parties, and didn’t threaten or foreshadow a United States of Europe.
An approach advanced by John Major, the former Prime Minister, is for Mrs May to work for a Parliamentary solution as the basis for a revised withdrawal agreement and avoid the pending disaster. He suggests a process whereby all main options are subjected to indicative preferential voting through which would emerge an option with majority support. Otherwise both the Executive and the Legislature would be paralysed to avoid a crash.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic, and trade policy adviser, at present visiting the UK.
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