It is a busy week in the UK House of Commons. At this writing, Meaningful Brexit Vote 2.0 (We Really Mean It This Time) has failed by 149 votes. This deals an apparent death blow to PM May’s attempts to negotiate an orderly retreat from the EU. The likely result will be a lot of hand wringing and a vote to delay the process.
The entire exercise appears to be based on what Winston Churchill once accused Americans of doing, namely “Once we have exhausted all the other possibilities we do the right thing.” Ignoring the will of the people after a referendum requires a period of slow torture and likely another popular vote (We Really, Really Mean It, We Promise).
All of this is quite impossible for one simple reason: Brexit isn’t really about Brexit. Like most political issues in developed nations today, the cause of all this noise and nonsense isn’t really the issue at hand. It’s not about whether the UK should be in the EU or not – in an ideal situation it’s rather obvious that it should be. The problem is that we are so far from ideal that no one can make any sense of anything. And that’s where this American politely, humbly, offers his opinion on this situation.
By the time you read this, it’s impossible to know just where the UK will be in the process of making breakfast for its dog or, for that matter, Brexiting. The entire process is essentially the nation holding a gun to its head and declaring, “I’m gonna do it!” so there is a sense of urgency. That urgency is met with a vigorous debate about what the best pistol is for the job and how PM May is holding it wrong.
We can take it as a given that a negotiated Brexit is an impossible task. The best proof of this is how PM May has survived multiple no-confidence votes despite an historic defeat for her plans to accomplish the only issue anyone is paying attention to. Given that it is clear no one else wants to be in charge of the UK, we can safely assume that the suicide analogy is at least valid for the career of anyone unlucky enough to live at 10 Downing Street.
The process, as it will continue, involves a number of choices. Most of them neatly devolve into putting everything up to another referendum under the guise of proper consultation with the electorate now that more information has been obtained. This has the advantage of being accurate while giving Parliament the ability to avoid all blame for whatever happens next.
That’s why you know it has to happen.
The net result is likely to either be no Brexit, now that everyone seems to realize how expensive it will be, or delays that stretch out about as long as the last time England and France were hopelessly intertwined politically and the Hundred Year’s War broke out. While that had the advantage of many colorful characters, like Harry Hotspur and Joan of Arc, this version will feature May and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Shakespeare is unlikely to ultimately chronicle any part of this, largely because he is quite dead.
What will ultimately happen? I think that the UK will eventually turn their attention to the actual problems at hand which are quite real. None of this has anything to do with free trade or free exchange, which the UK once rather exclusively championed. This is all about political systems which are not functioning well because they are set up in ways which make them ineffective at best.
I’m not talking about the UK Parliament here. Their gridlock is only a symptom.
The first issue is that the EU, while largely a good idea, has been implemented horribly. It is necessarily bureaucratic as it tries to iron out the ambitions of 28 member nations without any real power to do so. It has also stumbled forward into the trappings of a nation state simply because trade comes with mobility which comes with identity which comes with just about every aspect of what a supposed “nation state” actually is.
Once the Brexit talk is all over, is it possible that the process of reforming the EU can begin? It would be wonderful if the UK could lead it, but they probably have destroyed their credibility at this point. It would take a bold and decisive leader to make this happen, and the UK simply doesn’t have anyone worthy of such a task at this time.
The situation is somewhat akin to an alternate history scenario in which the US didn’t scrap the Articles of Confederation but instead kept revising them in an ad hoc manner. We can easily predict that such a process would never have produced the US as we know it.
The second problem is shown most clearly in the Brexit referendum results themselves. Certainly, a split between the city and the rest of the nation is as old as civilization itself. We can speculate that Sumerians were considered too posh for their own good and generally hated by the people who actually fed them through hard labor. That situation, rather apparent in England today, is exacerbated by the political reality that they have a point.
After deconvolution, Scotland and Wales have their own parliaments. Norther Ireland has its own parliament, too, even though it doesn’t actually function most of the time. England? Well, they have the same parliament filed with Scots, Welsh, and Irish. There is no federal structure to the UK, even though they have been slouching towards one for decades. Even London finally pulled itself together as one city with one mayor recently, but England is still nothing more than a football team.
Has England outside of the City been forgotten? The short answer is “Of course.” This doesn’t mean that they have to blame all those foreigners in London for their problems but it does contribute to the sense that they have no reasonable control over anything. It was very easy to blame the EU for this, but the problem is considerably more local.
These two problems, to my mind as an American, are the root issues. None of this is really about the importance of free exchange or even what structural arrangement might bring that about the best. What we do know is that the EU and UK are both deeply flawed as they are constructed now.
What will happen with Brexit? One way or the other, the issue will go away someday. It’s hard to imagine, but the UK Parliament will eventually move on to other matters. Hopefully, that will include the two real issues at hand.
Europe needs UK leadership, whether anyone cares or not. The UK has to finish creating a proper federal structure. Everything else is nothing more than a desperate threat to destroy everything simply because something desperately unnamed is clearly wrong.
That takes us back to the suicide analogy. As a non-Brit, I would love to talk you all into putting down the gun and realizing your problems are actually solvable by other means. Please?