Until recently, some Canadians referred respectfully to the “Mother of Parliaments” in the United Kingdom and deferred to British practices of government as often superior to our own.
We are unlikely to hear such favourable references again in our time. With the Brexit debacle, we are more likely to see the U.K. as a beloved aunt or uncle whose once mature deportment has given way to embarrassingly self-destructive foolishness.
There is, however, a possible way out, ironically involving the very mechanism that sent Britain down the Brexit rabbit hole in the first place: another referendum. The referendum that committed Britain to exiting the European Union was a very blunt instrument of plebiscitary democracy in a country that had traditionally defined the Crown-in-Parliament in opposition to more populist forms of government. It might seem counterintuitive to advise more of the same medicine to a country suffering blunt force trauma from the first dose. Realistically, there is no alternative.
Parliament will be presented with one of three possible options following the conclusion of negotiations with the EU: some form of either a “soft” or a “hard” Brexit, or a crash-out no-deal Brexit. While varying in their degree of undesirability, all options are poor. But Parliament is incapable of breaking out of this Hobson’s choice. The parties that actually make Parliament function are structurally incapable of coping with the issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe. That was why former Prime Minister David Cameron made his reckless decision to call the Brexit referendum, a rash attempt to resolve a permanent schism in the Tory party between the Eurosceptics and the Europhiles. Cameron insouciantly assumed that the result would discredit Boris Johnson, potential challenger for PM at the head of the Eurosceptic faction. Instead the result blew Cameron out of his job and his country toward the cliff edge.
For a century, British party politics have been mainly aligned along a right-left Tory-Labour axis. Sometimes parties steal ideas from each other but their broad right-left ideological profiles have remained largely intact. As Eric Shaw reports from the U.K. elsewhere in this issue (see page 36), Europe has been the anomaly in this familiar pattern, cutting across both parties and both sides of the spectrum.
Although the Leave campaign was headed by right-wing Tories, Labour has always contained a heavily Eurosceptic left that views Europe as a capitalist roadblock to a socialist Britain. The present Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has decades of experience with this grouping. Corbyn did not join the Leave campaign, given its right-wing slant, but was notably tepid on the Remain front. Since the result, he has argued that Brexit having been definitively decided by the people, the best answer is to elect a Labour government. Given the fierce splits over Europe in both parties, it is difficult to discern how putting Labour on the government benches would somehow make Parliament more coherent on Brexit, whatever else it might accomplish.
Nor do the splits within each party on Europe necessarily fit into partisan ideological categories. There are Remainers and Leavers on both the left and right sides of the Tory party, even if the most vociferous Brexiteers come from the far right. Within Labour, the old Blairite group still not reconciled to Corbyn are mostly Remainers, but it is also the case that young people, especially London-based, are both strong supporters of the Corbyn left and equally strong Remainers, while Leave sentiment can be found in all corners of Labour. Yet partisan loyalties also forbid any enduring likeminded cross-party alliances on Europe.
When Cameron called the referendum, he unleashed the demons of populism. The overnight transformation of a once-deferential parliamentary monarchy into something peculiarly akin to a Jacobin-style people’s democracy is remarkable. When the Supreme Court ruled that the final Brexit deal would have to be submitted to Parliament for approval, the Daily Mail ran the bewigged judges’ pictures over a blaring headline: “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE.” One could almost imagine aristocrats being carted through jeering crowds to the guillotine. By any traditional reading, this is very un-British.
That the expression of the people’s will is definitive and not to be questioned quickly became the conventional wisdom, shared even by many of those wary of what Brexit might bring. Perhaps opening the populist Pandora’s box is irreversible.
The problem with the definitive referendum has become apparent as negotiations have dragged on and warnings of the severe consequences of any possible outcome have become known. Leave voters were told there would be a Brexit bonus, one that could fully fund the National Health Service. Instead there will be a multibillion-pound Brexit deficit. They were told there would be an end to free movement of people; EU negotiators have made it clear there will be no access to the single market without free movement of people. They were promised that Britons could “take back control”; they are now told that any access to Europe will come with continued imposition of European rules, but without the political representation they have as EU members. Boris Johnson made the claim that Britain could “have its cake and eat it.” It can’t, of course, as any fool should have known.
The price tag for any post-Brexit relationship in terms of lost business and corporate relocation to the continent is huge. Johnson’s riposte, “Fuck business,” is a bizarre mutation of Conservative philosophy, but one that Brexit supporters should seriously ponder.
There are yet worse demons. Not only did the result set old against young and London against the English countryside, but it also dramatically set England against its Celtic hinterlands. Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted Remain while the English heartland was dominantly Leave.
When Cameron agreed to the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland while campaigning against Scottish independence, he helped release the long dormant demons of English nationalism. He then cynically used these to gain a majority in the 2015 election against Labour: a notorious Tory ad depicted Labour leader Ed Miliband as a tiny figure in the pocket of the then Scottish Nationalist leader. Once roused, inward- and backward-looking Little English nationalism could not be stuffed back into the Great Britain box. Its voice was loud and clear in the Brexit vote.
The prospect of another Scottish referendum post-Brexit was threatening enough to the union. But the biggest challenge is posed by Northern Ireland. The Leave votes were cast in complete indifference to the consequences for the still fragile Ulster peace. The 1995 Framework Agreement depended in large measure on the virtual erasure of the border with the Irish Republic made possible by common membership in the EU. Any Brexit, hard or soft, imperils this open border. Theresa May has tried to square the circle with fantasy solutions that please neither the EU nor or the Irish government. And any possible compromise will be shot down by the intransigent Democratic Unionist Party that holds May’s minority government in a death grip.
The DUP may be the dying hand of the past. Certainly Loyalists have to ponder the indifference shown by the Brexiteers to their concerns. The right wing of the Tory party used to be in sentimental thrall to the Irish Protestants – wrecking, for example, Gladstone’s Home Rule in the late 19th century, and later blocking compromise with the Catholic community during the Troubles. No more. An economically straitened post-Brexit Northern Ireland could expect little help from a U.K. itself battered by Brexit, with no fairy godmothers of the Tory right. Even Loyalists might begin to see their economic and political future better served by joining a now secular Republic firmly situated in the EU.
In this dystopian future, the United Kingdom could shrink into a backwater Little England, shorn of Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as of a seat at the table of Europe.
This brings us back to the original referendum. Along with a negative will to leave, voters expressed a positive desire for a Brexit that would answer their needs. Such an outcome has been demonstrated to be nothing more than false advertising by the Leave campaign. Lacking both legitimacy and competence on this issue, Parliament cannot mend the problem. It can, however, call for a second referendum in which the same people who voted for Brexit will have a chance to examine the actual Brexit on offer and reconsider.
Quebec offers a pointer. In 1980 the Parti Québécois put a referendum on sovereignty-association to the voters. Quebecers could express their will for sovereignty, which was theirs alone to decide. Association with the rest of Canada could only be the result of negotiation and could not be credibly promised in advance by the PQ. Yet sovereignty was tied to an association that alone would make it work. The PQ provided a fair answer to this conundrum by promising, in the event of a Yes vote, a second referendum after the conclusion of negotiations with Canada. Quebecers could then accept or reject the actual form that sovereignty would take.
In 1995 another sovereignty referendum eliminated the option of a sober second look. The late Jacques Parizeau, as PQ Premier, enthused that once people voted for sovereignty they would be like “lobsters in the pot.” We now know that Parizeau had plans to declare unilateral independence following even a 50 per cent plus one Yes vote: the lobsters would be boiled, like it or not.
Those who voted Leave in anticipation of promised benefits that vanished almost as soon as the result was announced might ask themselves: who shows the most respect for the people, those who give them a second chance when the details are complete, or those who would treat them like lobsters for dinner?
Of course a paralytic Parliament may not call a second referendum, leaving the march of the lemmings undisturbed. And if it is called, there is no guarantee that even a bad Brexit might not win out over a return to Europe. If so, at least the lobsters will have chosen their fate knowingly. There would also be a chance to go back to the EU and say, “Please forget our bout of temporary insanity. Everything’s fine again.”
A second referendum will no doubt be an ugly, divisive affair. Whatever the outcome, the losing side will find it difficult to reconcile with the winners. But that was also the consequence of the first vote. It seems to be the only possible route out of the Brexit maze – a democratic antidote to democracy run amok.