The United Kingdom stands at the precipice of its greatest change since the collapse of empire. It will be just as painful.
This week Britain got a new parliamentary grouping – the Independent Group – that might in time form the kernel of a new political party. It started with a breakaway of seven opposition Labor MPs, and on Feb 20 picked up an eighth defector as well as three MPs who ditched the ruling Conservatives.
The environment shaping the splintering, unsurprisingly, is Brexit.
Let’s start with the Conservatives. Prime Minister Theresa May arguably has the worst job on the planet right now. May believes the 2016 referendum in favor of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union obliges her to lead the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. We can debate whether referendums truly are the will of the people (I’d argue that since referendums ask explicit questions they are purer gauges of the popular will than elections), but the point is that May’s interpretation of the results are that hell-or-high-water the UK will leave.
It was always going to be messy. There was never going to be a divorce deal with the European Union. EU policy dictates that in any big issue each individual EU member must approve of the final text. The Irish want to maintain restriction-free access to Northern Ireland. The Spanish want a path to recovering Gibraltar. The Dutch want the British as close to the common market as possible, but not if it means they have to follow rules the British do not. The French want to gut the British geopolitically. The Germans seek to maintain market access but deny London any rule-making influence.
There simply is no iteration of any deal that can satisfy all these divergent interests, much less in the short two-year timeframe the Brexit negotiations allowed. Getting a comprehensive trade deal with Canada took the EU a decade. Even if there were a path forward that would please all of Europe, any such deal couldn’t get through the British Parliament. In losing those three MPs, May has lost her majority – which was already razor thin and only in existence at all with the help of a minor Northern Irish party which has some pretty uncompromising views on issues Irish.
No, there is zero way forward here that is anything other than a hard crash out. I’ve held this position from the beginning, but now the United Kingdom cannot get anything done that requires a parliamentary majority.
Those of you on the political left, don’t get cocky. British Labor’s mess is just as bad with the added problem of not being in power. Between 2016 and 2018 the Labor Party came back from the bleeding edge of dissolution under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn by tacking to the hard left and bringing in a lot of youthful energy.
The problem is that young Brits tend to be exceedingly pro-Europe while Corbyn is anti-…. pretty much everything, with Europe near the top of his list. When you’re not in power it is easier to paper over such differences, but with many in the Labor Party agitating for a second referendum to undo the first one and with Brexit the issue of the moment, it is getting harder to hold the party together. The seven Labor MPs who founded the Independent Group did so expressly because they want the UK to remain in the EU and felt their leader was on the wrong side of the issue.
I see a few things here:
First, the United Kingdom’s party structure is in freefall. Neither the Conservatives nor Labor are unified on the issue of the day and so MPs are breaking off in an attempt to form new poles of power. Something similar is occurring in the United States, but features of the British system enable the shift to occur much more quickly.
The United States distributes power among local, regional and national levels, while the presidency is elected independent of Congress. In such a system the level of direct/local democracy is higher, but on the big issues change tends to come more slowly because a party breakdown doesn’t immediately or necessarily change the national government. (This design quirk is part of why any American administration always seems so tone deaf while Congress seems so feckless.) The biggest shock to the American system, the end of the Cold War, is only now – three decades later – working its way through the political framework. And it has taken that combined with things like digitization, the ongoing Baby Boomer mass retirement, and the rise of China to force a long-overdue political reshuffling.
In contrast in British national elections the various elected representatives meet in Parliament and select the national leader from among their own number. If the ruling party cracks, it can no longer command a majority in Parliament. A vote of no confidence can bring the government down in a day, force new elections in a month, and voila! New parties, new government, new policies.
Second, in the United Kingdom the next few weeks to months will be utter political paralysis. May has lost her majority so even if the European Union could stomach a Brexit deal more favorable to the UK, May can no longer get any deal approved. Only five weeks remain until Brexit occurs. With the reality of a hard Brexit belatedly sinking in, Parliament should be incredibly busy with a mass of enabling legislation that would help smooth the process within the United Kingdom in preparation for what happens after nearly a half-century of laws and regulation are invalidated in a day. No such luck. This is going to make the transition much more difficult than it needed to be and it was already going to be very difficult.
Third, if anyone wants to take advantage of the United Kingdom, now is the time. Upon leaving the EU the Brits will lose access to half of their trade portfolio and there is zero vision within the country’s political and cultural structures as to how to move forward.
Politically, the Brits cannot chart a route forward. May undoubtedly is not in it for the long haul, and Brexit challengers within the Conservative Party are, how shall I put this, not exactly carved out of honesty, thoughtfulness or creativity.
On the other side, Labor is led by a man who makes Donald Trump look honest, thoughtful and inclusive. The defectors who formed the Independent Group had some choice words for their former leader that included things like bigot and Stalinist. Considering how fast a single election in the United Kingdom can change policy paired with the epic possibilities for rapid change that Brexit provides, the election of Jeremy Corbyn would be a disaster that would take the United Kingdom a generation to recover from.
For Brits reading this, please take to heart that this criticism of Corbyn’s character and policy preferences comes from a citizen of the United States, a country with a well-documented and respected track record in recent decades of selecting the absolute worst candidate from among a wide range of suitable options. I know a damp squib who is chuffed at his own chunder when I see one.
The country most likely to seek advantage over the Brits is a country that has done it before: the United States. In World War II the Americans nailed the Brits to a borderline-usurious deal known as Lend-Lease in which the Brits received some shoddy, outdated ships in exchange for almost every bit of the British Empire in the Western Hemisphere. That deal subjugated the United Kingdom to American strategic preferences for the next two generations.
Post-Brexit Britain will be its most geopolitically desperate since those dark days when it stood alone against the Nazis, and the American administration is already in the process of rewiring all its foreign relations. Any deal negotiated in the post-Brexit chaos will be at least as disadvantageous as Lend-Lease and will – at a minimum – result in most of the British financial sector decamping to New York City.
Finally, a few words about what the Brits are leaving. The drama of Brexit has enabled the Europeans to shift attention from all those issues that were already past the point of no return in 2016: immigration, refugees, the Ukraine War, Russian aggression, the Syrian War, overloaded pensions, demographic collapse, sovereign debt, Greek insolvency, Italian banking, the failure of the German political center, the deliberate destruction of liberal democracy in Poland and Hungary, the end of productive relations with Turkey, etc.
Not only have none of these issues gone away, all have gotten worse. Many are fully capable of killing the European project independently. All of them combined simply make the end of the EU an issue of a betting pool for the date. With the Brexit “process” about completed, all European eyes will refocus back upon these unsolvable issues. For Europe, the year 2019 will suck as much as it will for the Brits. The EU was always going to end, so the Brits getting out before the collapse and getting a head start on whatever is next will a decade from now broadly be remembered as the right call.
But it didn’t have to be nearly this hard.