British politics from 1850 to 1920 was devoured by the Irish question. It split parties. Destroyed careers. Lost Britain support in America. Diverted political energy from reform and modernisation to political identity and culture wars.
Historians will record that British politics of 1950 to 2020 was increasingly consumed by the Europe question. It is reaching some kind of climax with the resignation of two senior Conservative ministers, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and David Davis, the Brexit minister.
Other ministers have resigned. Others are likely to follow. The prime minister, Theresa May, was jeered in the House of Commons when she made a statement on the resignations. She is losing authority by the day.
She faces a leader of the Labour opposition who is utterly lost on Europe, unable to take advantage of the governing party’s disarray. Both parties are divided. MPs despise and hold in open contempt their leaders. Anti-European MPs in the Conservative Party pour scorn on their prime minister. Pro-European parliamentarians in Labour do not hide their disdain for the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his nostalgia for his 1970s-era dislike of European integration and shared sovereignty.
May has the most worries this week. England is bursting with jingoistic pride at its World Cup success. It is mingled with cold fury that a woman has died a horrible death after being poisoned by Novichok, a Russian nerve agent produced only in a Russian military laboratory as a chemical weapon. An attempt was made to kill a Russian spy who defected to Britain and his daughter in March. They survived. Now a couple who seem to have just touched the Russian poison by accident collapsed. The woman lies dead.
In normal news times, this would have been front-page news with demands for tough action by the foreign secretary against the Kremlin under whose aegis the killer poison was fabricated.
But these are not normal times, and the foreign secretary has flounced out of the cabinet, panting to catch up with his fellow anti-European minister, David Davis.
Soon President Trump will visit Britain. Demonstrators plan to chase him up and down the country. Unlike last summer when Trump paid a state visit to Paris and President Macron squeezed him with a handshake that made the U.S. president wince, Trump will get just limp handshakes from the Queen and the prime minister as he threatens British exports with massive protectionist tariffs and then goes to Helsinki for a love-in with President Putin, whose Novichok poison has killed a British citizen in a harmless rural town.
It is in this context that the British political class must confront their Brexit dilemma. Normally when a British prime minister gets things wrong—like Neville Chamberlain did over appeasement, or Anthony Eden did over Suez, or Margaret Thatcher did at the end of a decade of political supremacy when she brought in a very unpopular new household tax or suddenly tried to change the U.K.’s Europe policy—the British political response is swift and clear. The prime minister goes. A new one is installed. The policy is changed. Sometimes a general election is held and a new mandate derives from the result. Thus there’s a new beginning.
But this doesn’t work with Brexit. The June 2016 plebiscite cannot be altered by changing a prime minister. May held a general election in June 2017 but she lost it. She has to rely for her majority on MPs from an extreme, homophobic, anti-Irish Protestant party in Northern Ireland that endorses creationism and opposed the right of women to control their bodies ever after this was endorsed recently in a referendum in the Republic of Ireland.
Choosing a new prime minister in place of May solves nothing. Holding a general election and possibly seeing Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street in alliance with Scottish and Welsh Nationalist and possibly Liberal Democrats again does not clear up Brexit. The Labour leader copies May in being opposed to the core principles of the European Union based on the so-called four freedoms of movement—of goods, of capital, of services, and of people.
Probably the only way the United Kingdom’s Brexit Gordian knot can be cut is by having a fresh referendum. But this might only confirm the June 2016 result—a narrow 52–48 decision to leave the European Union—which is now open to serious question following revelations of Russian money and social media influence on the vote, as well as worsening economic costs. A key Kremlin foreign policy goal is to see the unity and common policies such as exist in the European Union Balkanized into nation-states Moscow can pick off one by one.
Alternatively, the mass of new facts now available on the costs of Brexit—with major firms like Nissan, Airbus, or Jaguar Land Rover saying they will pull out of the United Kingdom if they cannot have today’s unfettered, just-in-time access to the EU market of half a billion middle-class consumers—might lead just enough voters to shift from Leave to Remain.
But that is theory. No one knows what will happen. There are 316 Conservative MPs. If 15 percent, 48 of them, want a vote on May, they can send in letters to the Conservative Party and a ballot of MPs will be held to either confirm her as party leader, hence prime minister, or move to select two MPs to go to a ballot of all 60,000 Tory Party members with an average age of 71. They would chose a passionate anti-European and reduce still further any chance of Tory election victory.
Thus Tory MPs may dislike May, but they are not turkeys voting for Thanksgiving by launching a bitter internal leadership contest that would make the party unelectable.
May says she will fight and win such a vote. It is true that of the 316 Tory MPs, only about 60 are identified as so passionate in their dislike of the European Union they would be prepared to destroy a prime minister and risk an implosion of the Tory Party with the risk of a very left-wing Jeremy Corbyn arriving in power.
But she has spent two years putting off spelling out to the country what she wants. She began with the absurd slogan “Brexit Means Brexit.” She filled her cabinet with life-long anti-Europeans like David Davis, 70 this year. She pandered to the right-wing press like the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, which has been producing anti-EU propaganda for two decades.
The European Union set up a large team of officials under a very experienced EU and French senior politician, Michel Barnier, who took the trouble to learn passable English in contrast to his monolingual opposite numbers in Tory ranks in London.
But there were no concrete proposals from London. Finally last Friday at the prime minister’s country residence of Chequers, she produced a paper which said the United Kingdom would accept some common trade rules with Europe but rejected core principles like non-discrimination against European citizens in hiring.
The U.K. service economy—banks, insurance, investment funds, professions like lawyers, architecture, design, or the creative industries and the university sector—amounts to 80 percent of the nation’s economy. Services run a healthy balance of trade surplus, that is, it makes money from selling to the European Union. More than 50 percent of the profit from selling a Rolls-Royce aero engine comes from its service contracts.
Under May’s proposals, the service sector was to be excluded from the access to the EU single market it enjoys today. Once again, May refused to come down clearly. There was a bit of soft Brexit and a lot of hard Brexit. The European Union politely said it would examine the details, but the briefings were clear. May’s Chequers language was aimed at internal party divides. It was not a coherent policy.
It was enough, however, to provoke the resignations. To be fair, David Davis has only spent four hours this year negotiating in Brussels. May now directs the negotiations herself via trusted civil servants, and Davis’s role was decorative.
Johnson had been outspoken in his contempt for any idea of compromise with Brussels. When the Belgian ambassador asked him about the reaction of business to losing EU trade, he said: “Fuck business.” For 300 years, the business of the Tory Party has been business, so hearing a Tory foreign secretary say business could drop dead was a shock. He referred to May’s Chequers proposals as like “polishing a turd.” Vivid language maybe, but not from a foreign secretary, and one openly contemptuous of his prime minister.
There has never been a crisis like this in postwar British politics. The Brexit plebiscite is eating into the heart of the political establishment. The majority of MPs, all public officials, most serious business leaders, most elected local government politicians, the elected representatives who run Scotland and Wales, the professionals, the university and creative sector, and most young people all oppose Brexit, but no one seems to know how to escape from the Brexit trap.
Brexit is Tea Party or Marine Le Pen National Front politics written into a system of government. Britain has become almost a joke country, unable to contribute anything to serious European or global politics.
Thus Brexit Britain. A nation that no longer knows how to live in the modern world. May faces a possible ouster. Even if she survives, badly wounded, she has no policy for solving the Brexit question. Nor does Labour. The economy is doing badly. Europeans in Britain are frightened for their future. Brits who retired to southern Spain like Americans from Michigan or Pennsylvania relocating to Florida now do not know what their status will be when they lose EU citizenship once Britain consummates Brexit. Firms that have invested in Britain are re-locating to stay in the economic comfort zone of the European Union.
Last year, I wrote a book arguing that while political Brexit—the United Kingdom leaving the EU treaties—was almost certain to happen, economic Brexit would not. Now I am no longer so sure. Arnold Toynbee asserted that “civilizations die by suicide, not murder.” Britain, in drinking the Brexit hemlock, may prove the Toynbee thesis correct.