Author and climate expert Julian Popov, who had been a minister in a Bulgarian government in 2013, joked recently: “The year is 2192. The British Prime Minister visits Brussels to ask for an extension for the Brexit deadline. No one remembers where this tradition originated, but every year it attracts many tourists...." Likewise, cartoonist Jeremy Banks (who sketches as Banx) sketched in the cartoon in The Financial Times shows two men walking down a street, where one says: “My father was a Brexit negotiator, and his father before him."

Far from it being the moment the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would reclaim its “independence" from the stifling control of the bureaucrats in Brussels, who administer the European Union, yet another “deadline" for Brexit passes today (31 October). Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wanted Brexit done and dusted and had said he would rather die in the ditches, invoking painful British war memories, remains very much around, sulking, blustering and mumbling because he hasn’t had his way, and the nation is simply unable to make up its mind over Brexit.

Johnson had said he wanted to have his cake and eat it, which is not possible, as he is beginning to learn. Parliament has neither the will to accept Brexit on Johnson’s terms, nor the will to grant voters a final say through another referendum: Now that they have a better idea of what Brexit means, do they still want to leave the EU, or remain?

Curiously, while Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May have sought parliamentary approval for nearly-identical decisions again and again, and been rebuffed, neither wanted to let voters have another go. After all, the UK decided to join the EU in 1973, and, since misgivings persisted, held a referendum two years later to reaffirm it.

Instead, the UK will hold a general election on 12 December. Exhausted by a debate increasingly getting technical, parliamentarians were ultimately bickering over the date of the election: 9th or 12th. Conservatives wanted the 12th, probably because universities would have closed for vacation and students would have returned home, and unless they had applied for postal ballots or re-registered in their home towns, they would not get to vote, which would presumably help their party, whose support base is older. Younger voters are also more likely to be “remainers" because they have more at stake; they will outlive the Tory voters who opted to leave, and they will bear the costs and consequences of Brexit.

General elections are called “general" because they are not meant to be fought over a single issue. In the UK, big issues include economic austerity, healthcare, education, immigration, crime, terror, income inequality, and jobs. True, Brexit impacts all these, but it is distinct; it is as much about the UK’s self-image and its presumed role in the world. Johnson hopes that his current 10-point lead over his rival, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, will give him the victory to interpret the mandate to do what he wishes, which is to push through a departure from the EU regardless of consequences. But May had a 20-point lead over Corbyn; she called a snap election in 2017 and lost her majority.

If only the choice were clear: Corbyn is not Johnson’s opponent on the substance of Brexit. He is not a fan of the EU—he sees it as a vast capitalist conspiracy that delays an inevitable socialist revolution—but his hand is forced by many influential members of his party who wish the UK to stay in the EU. Then there is the Brexit Party, which would take away Tory votes, and it would like to leave the EU, leaving behind a mess even bigger than Johnson is capable of creating; and there are the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-EU mainstream party, who would simply revoke Article 50 that declared UK’s intent to leave the EU within two years in 2017. The Greens would like a fresh referendum, and the Scottish Nationalists, who form a majority in Scotland, not only want to remain in the EU, but will hold another referendum for Scottish independence, especially if the UK leaves the EU. Scots voted to remain, but are being compelled to leave the EU because of the narrow UK vote to leave.

That is the real existential dilemma for the disunited kingdom. One stumbling block for Brexit was the status of Northern Ireland: while part of the UK, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is open, without customs or border checks. That has brought down sectarian violence, and government departments like education and health administer both parts of Ireland. A border could reignite conflict, and Ireland, backed by the collective might of the EU, won’t compromise. The UK has had to accept the idea of a border in the Irish Sea, dividing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, which may eventually enable Irish unification. If—some would say when—Scotland goes, and if Ireland is reunited, that would leave a rump nation of England and Wales, a shadow of its former self. Little England at last.

And so it goes for the nation whose colonial rule divided so many other nations. Britannia ruled the waves once; now it is looking for ways to waive the rules. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

Close