UPDATE: Read the follow-up to this post, Brexit Redux: Dark Comedy.
Over the years I’ve gone down rabbit holes for various current events: the Detroit bankruptcy, the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the Syrian Civil War. There’s always something going on, but most stories last little more than a season.
But three stories have provided entertainment for years: Donald Trump, Venezuela and Brexit. While the first two have dedicated tags here on Expat Chronicles, Brexit has been the most fun. Brexit is the gift that keeps on giving.
Donald Trump made his career in primetime network television as a reality TV star, so he’s a master at bringing the drama. But it stopped being fun when his policies had depressing consequences. Separating migrant children from their families, government shutdowns, codifying trillion-dollar deficits, the juvenile beefs with freshman legislators. I have to tune out sometimes. Call it Trump Fatigue.
While the intensity of Trump’s show deserves mention, the longevity of Venezuela should win an award. I started watching in 2007, and it was a long, slow decline that just never seemed to blow up. Everybody knew it would someday. And then it did. And, like the Trump show, it got depressing. A starving population dying of preventable diseases, security forces brutalizing protesters, refugees walking from Venezuela to Peru. Maduro has the military under control, and his neighbors impotent.
When I need cheering up, the latest with Brexit is always worth a laugh. It’s a true comedy of errors. Trump and Maduro are caricatures, but nothing like the Brexit protagonists. They’re like the villains in a Harry Potter movie. Or Mr. Bean.
The surprise result of the 2016 vote was the only unsettling part in the whole story. It’s been all comedy ever since. From my point of view, anyway. I’m not British or European, but I have a VAT-paying business in the UK. That business ships product seamlessly throughout the EU, and Brexit stood to upset that operation.
But I’ll take that inconvenience for all the laughs it’s been. Plus, Brexit hasn’t happened … three years later!
The stumbles, gaffes and missteps never stop. Teresa May negotiated a deal for an orderly Brexit which pleased nobody. It failed to gain approval in Parliament not once, not twice, but THREE times. I can see putting a bill up for a second vote, as happened with America’s bank bailout in 2008. But once it fails a second time, why try for three? Seriously, what are you doing?
So Teresa May is out and under Britain’s particular brand of democratic loony-ness (the British electoral college if you will), allows for the party in control of government to choose the next prime minister. Imagine if Trump resigned but, instead of a vice president assuming the presidency, the Republican Party holds a primary election. No Democrats or indies allowed to vote!
That’s how BoJo was installed as prime minister. He basically won a primary by promising all the old white dudes that he would be the fiercest Brexit warrior, crashing out of the EU at any cost. And that’s the kind of policy that wins primaries.
In the short time since taking control of government, Boris and the Conservatives have gotten their asses kicked up and down the street that leads to Parliament. We’re talking savage beatings. Dog’s abuse, in public. It’s funnier than watching Trump lead the Republicans in repealing Obamacare. A scorched-earth strategy to sideline Parliament so he could execute a hard Brexit blew up in his face.
Parliament wrested away control of legislative proceedings and passed a law prohibiting a hard Brexit. The Conservative Party expelled moderates who sided with the opposition including none other than 36-year-veteran and Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames. Boris’s brother, Jo, resigned from the Cabinet over the dispute. Stranger than fiction, and laughing all the way.
Why so stupid?
If you haven’t been following Brexit, you may wonder, what’s the problem? Why have three years passed since the referendum? Why don’t they seem any closer to leaving? Isn’t it time to shit or get off the pot?
In short, Parliament has thwarted any and all attempts to close the deal, with or without a deal. Now they plan to force BoJo to request another extension (the third this year) from the EU. Again, hilarious. Point and laugh at the hapless Brits!
You know what would be the icing on the cake? For the EU to say, “NO! This is going nowhere. Shit or get off the pot, you obnoxious cunts!”
The overarching dilemma that keeps breaking deals comes down to the Irish border and the single market. Most Britons want a seamless transition for trade. But most Brexiteers want a clean break. Those two are incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement that ended sectarian warfare in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. A hard border there, which the hardcore Brexiteers basically want, is unacceptable to the EU.
Not only is the EU not going to relent on the Irish border, but the whole idea of the union and the Eurozone is in a precarious position right now. England isn’t the only place seeing a surge of nationalism. There are Leave campaigns all over the continent, many of which are being helped by Russia. The Euro is among the world’s youngest currencies and has seen existential threats in the last decade.
If the EU withstands Brexit, it could come out stronger. So the EU’s motive is to avoid a domino effect. What’s one way to do that? Make Britain suffer. It can’t be slight and it can’t be quiet. The pain should be deep and public. From a game theory perspective, that is the rational play.
Why renegotiate the deal that took two years? Why sell out Ireland? Why even grant them an extension? A hard Brexit will hurt Europe too, but it’s not too high of a price to pay for gaining some anti-fragility (buzzword for all of you in the Taleb flock) and making an example of the UK.
Meanwhile, BoJo promises he’s going to cut a new deal, a better one than the one already negotiated over two years. If you believe that, I have some volcano insurance that’s perfect for you.
Don’t bet against Britain yet
Watching the comedy, it’s easy to conclude that Britain has lost its way. The muppets are continuing the long decline from their peak in the 19th century. But I see the opposite. I see the kindling of something very special, and it’s generally not a good idea to bet against either Britain or America. That has never proven to be a good bet.
Britain has seen accusations of undermining democracy coming from both left and right. The opposite is true. Britain can’t execute Brexit because its democracy is preventing it. The referendum was flawed in its design, and that has created a bottleneck in its democratic institutions.
The reason Britain’s system of government is pathetically flaying about is that reality presents three options to fulfill what was only a binary choice. The voters were offered Leave and Remain. But now the government must execute one of three options: Remain, Leave with a deal or Leave with no deal.
The referendum didn’t match reality (big surprise).
At the time of the referendum, the Leave option was billed as an economically advantageous option. Taking back control and keeping the money. In reality, leaving will involve paying for the privilege and not taking back much control, or taking back control in what will become an economic calamity. The Leave camp didn’t present anything remotely resembling those options before the vote in 2016.
In light of this, you may wonder, “Why don’t they just have another referendum?”
Another dimension to the comedy of errors. First of all, the die-hard Brexiteers don’t want a do-over. They won, and they would have to come up with all new arguments because the original bullshit hasn’t stood the test of time.
Second, even Remainers are hesitant to call another referendum because of the precedent it would set. Scotland held an independence referendum in 2014, in which their unionist camp defeated the nationalists 55 to 45. But, and this is where you can’t help but chuckle if it doesn’t affect you, the main argument for Scotland to stay within the United Kingdom was to keep access to the EU. Can’t make it up!
So if Britain allows a do-over for the Brexit referendum, why couldn’t Scotland have a do-over? And if Britain votes to Leave again, how would a second Scottish independence referendum turn out without the EU benefit of remaining in the UK?
Another pickle is how to phrase another referendum, if you were to have one, given there are now three choices. It can’t be just Leave or Remain, because Leave can obviously mean different things. If the choices are Leave with Deal, Leave without Deal and Remain, you could just as easily end up with something that isn’t popular enough to execute through Parliament.
I would suggest ranked voting, in which each person can give three total points to the three options. That would prevent a least desirable outcome from winning by splitting the opposition. A Brexiteer could vote 2 for hard, 1 for soft and 0 for stay, and a Remainer could do the opposite. The moderates who are effectively holding up a result will have to choose between hard Brexit and Remain, and the country would have a result.
So what is there to be optimistic about? You said not to bet against Britain, but they’re in quite a pickle here.
First of all, the paralysis of democratic institutions is encouraging. After all, a hard Brexit is just as unpopular as a soft one.
But more importantly, I see in Britain the conditions for a new political philosophy to emerge. A politics not confined to the United Kingdom, but new fault lines that could spread to the rest of the West.
First-world politics have undergone a fundamental shift in the last 10 years. I was not in the U.S. for most of it, so I was caught by surprise. But what was considered for “conservative” and “liberal” 20 years ago has changed. What people call conservative (American English definition) today is unrecognizable.
The battle lines have shifted due to globalization. Trade and immigration are changing society and people want to turn the clock back. Maybe change came too fast. People in the first world have voted to slow it all down, maybe reverse it a little.
And that’s fine. “Democracy is messy.” I always used to hear that in history and civics discussions, but I never internalized it until now.
The new policy battles are upending what were traditional marriages of convenience. BoJo just expelled 21 legislators from the Conservative Party for backing a law requiring him to ask for an extension if he can’t get a new deal with the EU. These are traditional business-friendly politicians who support small government and free trade. They don’t feel any of the animosity toward immigrants or dynamic change in the economy. And they’re not welcome in the Conservative Party. Where will they go?
We have a similar marriage of convenience in the United States in the Republican Party. The business-friendly crowd has historically stuck with the guns and church crowd. But in the United States, the two-party system is too entrenched to allow a political revolution to happen quickly. Neither faction can easily abandon the GOP and start something new.
In the UK they can, and they have. New parties are emerging because of Brexit. On the left, Britain’s Labour Party also faces a reckoning between the urbane and educated Remainers vs. the working-class. That battle is all the funnier given they’re led by consummate pussy, Jeremy Corbyn, who refuses to take a stand either way.
Brexit is a more polarizing issue in the UK than Trump is in the States. Love him or hate him, Trump hasn’t accomplished much in Congress. He’s passed tax cuts and an uncontroversial criminal justice reform. He’s not changing most people’s lives in any way that can’t be undone with the next Democrat in office (executive orders).
Brexit, on the other hand, will affect everybody as soon as it is implemented. Britain’s new political parties are threatening the legacy parties. It will take time, and maybe I’m too optimistic, but I see a business-friendly centrism emerging out of the Brexit comedy. It could inspire a global movement, which in the United States could become something that is business-friendly, centrist and pragmatic.
Something that people like me could identify with and get excited about, as opposed to settling for the candidate on whichever side whose good outweighs the bad. Something that’s all good.
Or maybe I’m wishful thinking.
There is one angle to Brexit that didn’t fit anywhere in this article: Ireland. If there is a hard Brexit and the northern Irish exporters incur heavy losses (which they will), they may vote to leave the UK and join Ireland. Such a referendum is a legally guaranteed right in the Good Friday Agreement. And the hardcore Brexiteers, mostly English of course, either don’t care or are hapless enough to stumble into that scenario on accident.
After the decades of Irish republicans fighting to expel the British from the island, after all the bloodshed, they may finally achieve a United Ireland … without firing a shot. Stranger than fiction.
For an interesting read on how the Irish border became the dealbreaker in any and all Brexit negotiations, one of the best reads since in all of the Brexit saga explains how Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny worked the political backrooms of the continent months ahead of BoJo and the Brexit Bumbleers. See How Ireland Outmaneuvered Britain on Brexit.