Manhattan Institute

Dangerous Times in the U.K.

Thoughts on the Brexit mess

The imbroglio over Brexit has at least had the merit of revealing to the British public the extent of its political class’s incompetence. If it is accepted that people get the leadership that they deserve, however, thoughts unflattering to self-esteem ought to occur to the British population.

Theresa May did not emerge from a social vacuum. She is typical of the class that has gradually attained power in Britain, from the lowest levels of the administration to the highest: unoriginal, vacillating, humorless, prey to the latest bad ideas, intellectually mediocre, believing in nothing very much, mistaking obstinacy for strength, timid but nevertheless avid for power. Thousands of minor Mays populate our institutions, as thousands of minor Blairs did before them.

Avidity for power is not the same as leadership, and Brexit required leadership. There was none to be had, however, from the political class. From the very first, it overwhelmingly opposed Brexit—for some, the eventual prospect of a tax-free, expense-jewelled job in Brussels was deeply alluring—but found itself in a dilemma, since it could not openly deny the majority’s expressed wish. Many Members of Parliament sat for constituencies in which a solid majority had voted for Brexit. They feared that they would not win their next election.

The opposition Labour Party was as divided as the Conservatives. Irrespective of what its MPs actually believed about Brexit—its leader was, until recently, ardent for leaving the European Union, which he believed to be a capitalists’ club, changing his mind for reasons that he has so far not condescended to disclose—its main concern was to force an election that it believed it could win, a victory that would soon make Brexit seem like a minor episode on the road to ruin. The majority of the Labour MPs wanted first to bring about the downfall of a Conservative government and second to prevent Britain leaving the European Union without an agreement—what might be called the leaving-the-Union-without-leaving option. But they wanted the first more than they wanted the second, so under no circumstances could they accede to anything that Prime Minister May negotiated. Because of her tiny majority in Parliament, the hard-line Brexit members on her own side who want Britain to leave without a deal, and the refusal of her coalition partner, the Democratic Unionist Party, to back her, May needs the support of a considerable proportion of Labour MPs—which, so far, she has not received.

But the House of Commons as a whole, including the Conservatives, deprived May of leverage with which to renegotiate, because it voted that it would not accept leaving the Union without a deal. This deprived the European Union of any reason to renegotiate anything: it was a preemptive surrender to the demands of the E.U. that makes Neville Chamberlain look like a hard-bitten poker champion.

The prime minister, who will not take no for an answer, wants to try a fourth time to get her deal through Parliament. This is unprecedented: no unchanged bill is supposed to be presented to Parliament more than twice. May therefore much prefers to violate the constitution than to lose.

Four options now remain.

First, Parliament could finally accept May’s deal. If it does so, though, it discredits itself by its abject surrender and futile previous resistance to what it claimed was a bad deal. If it was a bad deal before, then it is a bad deal now.

Second, Britain could leave without a deal. This will undoubtedly cause disruption, but only for a relatively short period.

Third, Britain could hold another referendum. It is by no means certain what the result would be. If the result were the same, it would be back to square one. If the result were different, it would reinforce what is now a European tradition—referenda as confirmatory plebiscites of what the political class wants, exactly as Napoleon III used them.

Finally, the government and Parliament could unilaterally revoke Article 50, which, incidentally, was framed by a British diplomat with the express purpose of making it difficult for any country to leave the Union. This would annul the result of the referendum. It would also have long-term and intangible damaging effects on Britain as a parliamentary democracy.

We live in dangerous times. The hatred and contempt in which our politicians are now held is justified, no doubt, by their dismal performance, self-seeking love for power, and lack of principle. But man is a political animal, and we need politicians, however much we dislike them. It is in situations like this that populations long for a providential leader—and providential leaders are usually dangerous.  

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