Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Mad dogs and Englishmen: Brexit and Britain’s decline

So, should the UK walk out of EU without a Brexit deal? The responsible thing is to go back to the voters and seek another referendum

The staggering margin by which the British Prime Minister Theresa May lost the so-called “meaningful vote" on Tuesday night over the deal she had negotiated with the European Union, setting out the terms under which the UK would leave the EU, ought to have been enough for her to resign promptly. Prime ministers have resigned in similar circumstances—most recently David Cameron did, after he lost the 2016 referendum, in which British voters voted by a narrow margin—52% to 48%—to leave the EU.

But she is not expected to resign. At the time of writing this, within hours of her catastrophic defeat, she is expected to remain prime minister. In fact, despite the scale of her defeat—432 members of parliament (MPs) voted against her deal, and only 202 voted for it—she may even win the vote of confidence that the Labour Party has demanded. Conservative Party politicians opposed to her squandered their opportunity before Christmas, when they failed to defeat her in an internal vote, and as per party rules, a new challenge cannot be mounted for a year.

So May may retain influence over her party, but to what end, nobody knows. So unprecedented is the utterly inexplicable self-harm that the British have inflicted upon themselves by deciding to leave the EU, and so divided are the people, let alone parliamentarians, that nobody knows the way forward.

Should the UK simply walk out of the EU without a deal? Indeed, some Conservative leaders with the supremely snobbish swagger that elite public school education brings in this country, have the delusion that the rest of the world is waiting to strike trade deals with the UK the moment it frees itself from the grip of the EU. But none of the large markets are interested. The United States is protectionist; China is mercantilist; India will want more visas for its students and entrepreneurs. The prosaic reality is that there is no long queue of suitors; the UK is all dressed up, but nobody is asking her to dance.

Can the UK go back to the EU and seek better terms? That would require May to act as the leader of the House working through consensus, and not as a prime minister in full command. She would then have to present MPs with options—leave without a deal, leave but remain in the single market, leave but as part of a customs union while ensuring that the Irish border remains open, or effectively become a rule-taker, like Norway, which means an open border with the EU and free trade, but without a vote. And go back to the EU with whichever option gets the largest vote among parliamentarians.

Looming deadline

However, time is not on her side, and those options are not palatable to the majority of MPs. And as European leaders have said it often and in plain English, there is no other deal on offer. There are 27 European nations and yet they speak with one voice. There is supposed to be one UK, but it speaks with many voices. In a perverse way, the British divide-and-rule policy has returned to mock the UK itself.

The British are divided as never before, between towns and country; between cosmopolitans and Little Englanders; between the urbane elite at ease in European capitals, knowing tiny bistros where you can have a great meal, and the blue collar workers who’ve seen their jobs disappear to market forces or taken by immigrants often from the EU, who are willing to work longer, harder, and for less; between the ‘citizens of the world’ who are, as May mockingly calls them, ‘citizens of nowhere,’ and those who feel rooted.

The EU is unlikely to oblige, not because it wants to be mean—German auto companies, Spanish tomato farms, Greek tourist resorts, French wineries, all stand to lose if the UK leaves the EU—but because the EU knows that there is no British consensus about staying or leaving, and what the country wants in either case.

The option that makes the most sense is to have another referendum in the UK. In such a scenario, politicians would admit to the voters that they cannot agree. They should give up the idea of “being pro-secco but by no means anti-pasto", as former foreign secretary Boris Johnson quipped, giving a continental flavour to the idea of having your cake and eating it (incidentally stealing a joke his father had made originally), and instead eat the humble pie. Enjoying the benefits of membership without paying costs was never realistic, but the voters were misled into believing that it was possible.

The party positions

The choice is not between May’s deal or no deal, but May’s deal or the present deal: of remaining in the EU and keep fighting your corner. This requires courage. And sadly, the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of Labour lacks that courage. Corbyn has failed to seize the moment because he sees the crisis as a problem of the Conservative Party, from which he wants to benefit by forcing fresh elections that he thinks he might win. (Polls suggest otherwise.)

It is not helped by the fact that Corbyn sees the EU as a vast conspiracy to keep capitalism alive, preventing the inevitable arrival of a Marxist Nirvana. He has been against the EU, and is not swayed by the fact that some of his biggest supporters today—the young voters—are most certainly pro-EU.

During the referendum campaign, Corbyn was lukewarm in his support of the UK staying in the EU. When asked to rate his enthusiasm out of ten, he said he was “seven or seven-and-a-half", which was probably less than honest, for his past politics would have led him to rate it at three or below. On the other hand, former Prime Minister Cameron was cavalier in assuming he would win easily. Pro-leave politicians probably broke electoral commission laws by overspending (the police is considering whether to press charges) and made outrageous promises that were lies—such as claiming the National Health Service would benefit by £350 million a week from savings generated by not making contributions to the EU; or fantasies of a free-trade heaven.

The most irresponsible of them all was Boris Johnson, who saw the referendum as the means to boost his chances of becoming a future prime minister. He treated it as an Oxford Union debate, where you make powerful arguments to win a debate where there are no real-world consequences. The trouble is, he won, but the prize—prime ministership—eluded him.

The UK is paying for the Conservative Party’s inability to enforce internal discipline over Europe. Cameron thought that voters would do the trick, unaware of the growing resentment in the countryside. And Labour was torn—its support base includes the country’s most pro-remain constituencies in liberal London and other big cities, and the most pro-leave areas, where industries have vanished, and with that, jobs. Triangulation was an art former Labour leader Tony Blair mastered, but today’s Labour is busy distancing itself from Blair who committed the cardinal sin of actually winning elections thrice.

Meanwhile, successive Conservative Prime Ministers tried portraying themselves as champions of British interests, seeking rebates and securing concessions from Brussels. Party backbenchers sniped at their heels, derailing their own prime ministers, without wanting responsibility, nor commanding enough support to be entrusted with it.

Pro-Leave politicians in May’s cabinet resented the hard work they had to do to make Brexit successful. Some eventually swallowed their pride (as Michael Gove did this week, warning darkly that “winter is coming" if the ‘meaningful vote’ were lost, after having claimed how easy it would be to leave), or revealed their ignorance (as Dominic Raab did, when as Brexit secretary he said, with the wide-eyed wonder of a child discovering that the earth is round and not flat, that the Calais-Dover crossing across the English Channel is kind of important for trade with Europe), or go unprepared for negotiations in Brussels (as David Davis, Raab’s predecessor, did, when he went to the first meeting with almost no position papers to offer).

A very English problem

At the root of this bizarre spectacle is what the astute Irish writer, Fintan O’Toole, has described in his magnificent book, Heroic Failure: that Brexit is an English, and not British phenomenon.

Scotland, London, the university towns of Cambridge and Oxford, other pockets of metropolitan UK, and Northern Ireland opposed Brexit, whereas parts of the UK which have little interaction with immigrants, which are relatively isolated, often predominantly white, and which often rely on a single investor for jobs or EU subsidies to keep their farms viable, voted to leave.

These were English votes, and the English voted to leave because of the English tendency to see England as the underdog, wallowing in self-pity and stoically fighting the cruel world. The EU was seen as an occupier, as though Germans had won World War II, and, in their ultimate fantasy, “Little England" was becoming a vassal state.

O’Toole shows that in fact the UK is an extremely successful economy that controlled vast territories as colonies. And yet the UK celebrates its defeats and losses, seeing glorious failures as important markers in history.

It Is Coming Home, which became England’s de facto theme song during the last Football World Cup, was instructive: it was ironical, since nobody expected England to win in Moscow and bring back the World Cup. England loves Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, which says that triumph and disaster are the same, asking the English to “lose, and start again at your beginnings, and never breathe a word about your loss". Mustn’t grumble. Stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on. Those aren’t empty slogans—they define a national character.

O’Toole points out the work of historian Stephanie Barczewski, whose book Heroic Failure And The British lists the disasters that have shaped English consciousness. The suicidal Battle of Balaclava and the Charge of the Light Brigade, where “the six hundred" rode down the valley to certain death in 1854, “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die". Or, the doomed Franklin mission to find the Northwest Passage; Scott at the Antarctic, certain of his impending death, but proudly saying he was “determined still to do our best to the last"; the ‘miracle’ of a retreat from Dunkirk; the “last stand" against the Zulus at Isandlwana; the carnage at Somme; or the slaying of Gordon in Khartoum.

Brexit, O’Toole says, is “imperial Britain’s last stand".

The UK’s power began to diminish at the end of World War II. The Suez Crisis in 1956 showed how Britain had became diminished after World War II.

The empire had shrunk. John Osborne was writing Look Back in Anger, ushering in the age of the angry young man. Bertrand Russell and others were calling for nuclear disarmament, suggesting Britain accept its more modest present.

Dean Acheson, who was US President Truman’s secretary of state, said in 1962 at West Point: “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role."

The Brexit voters are the senior version of the angry young men. They are older and bitter; they don’t like how the world is treating them and they think it is others’ fault.

Understanding that shrinking requires statesmanship, which neither May nor Corbyn possesses. It is left to the fictional M in the Bond movie which shows a diminished Britain, Skyfall, to recite Tennyson’s Ulysses:

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

By stubbornly not yielding and living a fantasy, the UK is in this crisis of its own making.

The responsible thing is to go back to the voters and tell them—we heard you; a small majority of you wanted to leave; we tried; and this is the best deal we can get. If you are happy with it, say so. If not, let us remain in the EU. When George Orwell wrote 1984 and said “Ignorance is strength," he meant it as a warning, not a prophecy.

Salil Tripathi is a Mint columnist based in London.

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