Epic saga or black comedy, Brexit is a moving tale with an unchanging cast, and a central paradox: states are located in a world of continual interaction across their borders, but the international system rests on nations with borders and a sense of identity. An emphasis on the latter point can be dismissed as ‘populism,’ the new term for democracy, or can be supported, but the key point is that Britain and Europe more broadly are facing a significant collision between populism/democracy and transnational cooperation. This is not simply a matter of right-wing disaffection, but is a matter of more profound failure of transnational institutions such as the EU to deliver on their promises and to engage with public concerns. The Brexit referendum was not the first mark of this failure. Referenda in Continental Europe in the 2000s has already revealed this, as, separately, had the two referenda over whether Norway should join.
Thus, Brexit is best not seen on its own nor as simply a reaction of the Right. Indeed, in Britain, as on the Continent, much of the Left has consistently rejected the European Union as a plutocratic system. One can see that Leftist ambivalence about the European project every day in the confused responses of Britain’s Labour party to the current crisis, where Party Chair Jeremy Corbyn represents that leftist Euroskeptic tradition at odds with significant pro-European attitudes within the party rank and file.
In Britain, the vote for Brexit in June 2016 reflected the unpopularity of Prime Minister David Cameron, his failure to connect with a growing populist spirit both within the Conservative Party and in Brain more generally, his ineffective pursuit of a promised renegotiation of British terms of EU membership, and the heightening of issues of identity at a time of mass immigration.
The response to these challenges was poor on both sides of the Channel, reflecting weaknesses both in EU and British governance. No attempt was made by the EU to suggest that now was the time for real renegotiation. Indeed, amidst all the blame attributed to British politics and populism, it is worth noting that the EU made virtually no effort to win over Britain, taking a passive approach to the talks and showing real reluctance to engage with the British public. Perhaps European leaders thought that such a strategy was less risky than being accused of meddling in British domestic politics. In retrospect, it betrays a lack of confidence in their case and an even bigger lack of long-term vision.
In the case of Britain, the cause of the post-referendum chaos was three-fold. Remain opinion dominated the ‘chattering classes,’ which did everything possible to overturn the referendum result, the Labour opposition, itself deeply divided and also worried about the large Leave vote total in traditional Labour strongholds proved unwilling to focus on a viable plan; and a vocal group of Conservative MPs put pressure on the government to negotiate a tough deal with the EU.
Under the circumstances, the May government did well to produce a deal that the EU Commission and the bulk of the British Cabinet could accept in 2018. Weakened, however, by unpopular domestic politics, the collapse of third-party support in Britain, and unreformed constituency boundaries in the general election of 2017, the government could not win parliamentary backing for the deal in 2019, and it resigned. Again, it is not helpful to discuss this in terms of some supposed right-wing populist tide.
The resulting campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party led to support for those determined to offer a way out of the impasse provided by the mismatch between referendum result and parliamentary views. In the event, however, Boris Johnson, the victor, was then stymied by the House of Commons as it blocked his remedy of ‘going to the country,’ in other words holding a general election which might serve to move parliamentary arithmetic more toward public opinion. His apparent attempt to bypass Parliament by proroguing it, however, was pronounced illegal on Tuesday by the Supreme Court, a recently-created body that is deploying unprecedented judicial intervention in a somewhat problematic fashion. This leaves the government in a very difficult situation, as it is unclear how it can turn the equation of parliament weakness into line with the probable state of electoral politics.
For Britain’s allies, the situation is greatly troubling, as it is far from clear that the crisis admits of speedy solution. The heavily-divided Conservative Party confronts a Labour Party run by Marxists and a Liberal-Democrat Party that is stronger on Remain sentiment than practical policies. The crisis threatens to give the Scottish Nationalists the balance of power in Parliament, raising the possibility of another independence referendum. The supposed British gift for ‘muddling through,’ if not competence, looks increasingly implausible; although a close reading of earlier episodes might suggest that this gift has often been lacking before, for example in the crisis of 1974.
Some broader points also emerge from this crisis. First, constitutional innovation, as with Scottish devolution, the Fixed Parliaments Act, or the Supreme Court, however they may have been marketed as improvements, can be very disruptive in their impact. Each of those recent innovations have contributed to the current political gridlock. Secondly, the democratisation of politics, as in the direct election of party leaders, to which both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson now owe their positions, and the greater popular scrutiny of Parliament, has also proven to be quite disruptive.
Current polling and the inertia of incumbency might suggest Conservative continuity after the next General Election, whenever that may be. Wider cultural and political currents toward a less hierarchical and deferential society, with a high level of political engagement, or at least irritability, however, also suggest that there will be more political upheaval in the future. The deepening chasm between a restive electorate and a complacent political class suggests dangers greater than any connected to membership in the European Union. To propose to somehow insulate Parliament from the popular will, as those who currently resist an election apparently prefer, and/or to castigate any pressure on or criticism of Parliament as populist, however, reflects both the exigencies of short-term political manoeuvring and a potentially worrisome cultural rejection of democratisation. Neither are attractive, and both could turn this ongoing saga into an even larger tragedy.