Thu | Apr 25, 2019

David Jessop | Brexit: the long view

Published:Sunday | January 20, 2019 | 12:00 AM
British Prime Minister Theresa May

Despite the British electorate having voted to leave the European Union (EU) two and half years ago, there is still no consensus on how to proceed.

As had been wholly predictable for months, the week past showed very publicly that there is no majority in Britain's Parliament for the UK government's proposed solution. Instead, all that its divided political parties and their factions could agree on was what they did not want, offering instead irreconcilable options along a continuum that runs from remaining in the EU to crashing out with no deal at all.

To make matters worse, the time left to resolve the matter is diminishing. Unless the UK Parliament, the UK government and then the EU agrees to change Britain's date of departure, the UK is legally bound to leave on March 29.

Many in the Caribbean and elsewhere will have watched the high drama of the last week with amazement as first the transitional agreement with the EU was voted down by an overwhelming and historically unprecedented majority, and then one day later the same parliamentarians expressed confidence in the government that had brought the proposal to the UK legislature.

Despite this and it being self-evident that only flexibility and vision can guide the UK out of the stalemate it now finds itself in, British Prime Minister, Theresa May, seems unwilling or unable to recognise that stubbornness is not a substitute for leadership and flexibility. Just as indefensible is the opportunism of the opposition Labour leadership in trying to force a general election at a time of national crisis when it, too, is divided on Brexit and cannot say how it would be able to negotiate an alternative arrangement.

What happens next therefore remains hugely uncertain.

The two main political parties are irreconcilably split. Scotland, Northern Ireland, the big metropolitan areas, and much of the private sector want to remain, while disadvantaged parts of the country see leaving the EU as their only hope. At the same time, there are signs that those at the extremes of politics who conflate leaving with xenophobia and racism are actively trying to provoke confrontation.

Brexit and the huge parliamentary defeat that Prime Minister May suffered on January 15 made manifest the changes that have taken place in the political anatomy of the United Kingdom. It raised questions about the future of the once secure interrelationship between its four nations and indicated the absence of any consensus on the UK's future place in the world.

Above all, it demonstrated that Britain's social dynamics have changed, and the issue of remaining, leaving or becoming semi-detached from Europe is about historical perspective.

Listen carefully to the debate, set aside the detail, and what anyone with an ear for history will hear is an angry post-imperial, post-second world war reckoning among a people who for too long have imagined the world as they want to see it, rather than the way it is.

Brexit has at its heart a generational, regional, educational, philosophical and emotional divide that largely makes rationality irrelevant and marginalises the left-right politics and party system that the Westminster model requires. By deciding to embrace plebiscitary rather than representative democracy, not specifying the meaning of the outcome of a vote to leave, or insisting on a 60 per cent vote for its delivery, the UK government has divided Britain along lines that the existing system cannot easily reconcile.

It is therefore hard to see how any lasting cross-party apolitical consensus can be achieved. Neither is it obvious how any further referendum could now establish a once and for all agreement on any option.

Taking the long view, Brexit may well have outcomes the full implications of which neither the British people nor its friends overseas have considered.

First, UK politics and electoral decision-making are, as is the case globally, moving towards outcomes based not on factually demonstrable benefits but to emotionally led decisions that indicate desired outcomes rather than ones that can be delivered easily. Brexit conforms to this, making a sustainable outcome unlikely.

Second, the emergence of non-traditional divisions over Brexit suggest that Britain's political and electoral system is no longer fit for purpose requiring the wide-open eyes of a new younger generation of politicians capable of relating aspiration to outcomes.

Third, the UK electorate is undergoing demographic change in ways that will make the current debate irrelevant. Since the Brexit referendum nearly two million young people have passed the age of 18 and can be enfranchised. Opinion polls show that 87 per cent of them are in favour of remaining in the EU. This is happening as the older generation of leave voters, who also comprise a significant part of the Conservative Party's membership, are dying. The consequence is that by the time that Brexit is delivered the majority in the UK will likely want different solutions.

Fourth, Brexit is taking place as the world is undergoing rapid geopolitical change. The UK may well find it may need geographically proximate partners to help defend its economic and security interests against Russia, the US and China.

Fifth, despite the mistaken belief of many in the UK that Britain can dictate the terms of its decision to leave, the reality is that it is involved in a treaty and trade negotiation the outcome of which all 27 EU member states must agree.

And sixth, it is conceivable that the UK's union of four nations may not last. The views of the Democratic Unionist Party who back leave are not representative of the way Northern Ireland as a whole voted on Brexit, suggesting the eventual inevitability of a unified Ireland, while less ambiguously almost any form of Brexit will spur Scotland's desire for independence and to remain in the EU.

All of which suggests that the Caribbean would do well to look beyond its concerns about trade to consider what Brexit may mean for its long-term political, familial, institutional, security and historic ties with Britain.

- David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at david.jessop@caribbean-council.org