Pity the poor people of the United Kingdom, where the Brexit debate resembles an interminable Groundhog Day. Each day brings different nuances of debate, with fresh possibilities flagged up in Parliament and discussed in the media. The following dawn reveals the country to be where it began 24 hours before. Yet it would be wrong to say that nothing has changed. The Brexit process has sown a double distrust. Politicians doubt the wisdom of the electorate, and many of the voters doubt the goodwill of their leaders. It bodes ill for the future, especially at a time when populist parties are in the ascendancy across Europe.
Brexit resulted from an attempt to neutralize a populist party. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) had been growing in strength since the turn of the millennium. UKIP’s message was that membership of the European Union had sapped Britain of decision-making powers. The economy was said to be locked into a brutal continental economic system that in turn paid homage to globalization. The governing classes were criticized as elitists who profited from the EU and were indifferent to the needs of ordinary workers. UKIP began leeching votes from both Labour and the Conservatives.
In 2013, David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, promised a referendum on European Union membership in the hope that this would silence UKIP’s narrative of national disempowerment. A referendum is a blunt instrument. It offers a binary choice in complex situations. Britain’s parliamentary system has traditionally distrusted referenda, relying instead on the pragmatism of legislators keeping in tune with the nation. The Brexit referendum in June 2016 proved that the politicians had not been listening to the people. Nearly 52 percent voted to leave, enough to be decisive but not enough to be a slam-dunk. When the dust cleared, it was revealed that no preparations had been made for Brexit. Most politicians and public servants had thought it would never happen.
For many of them, the task of implementing the referendum decision is distasteful. Probably a majority of members of Parliament still think that it is in Britain’s best interests to stay. Yet in the 2017 general election, nearly all MPs were elected on party platforms that committed them to negotiate an exit from the European Union. Some lawmakers have pushed back against this, arguing that they are not delegates sent to implement decisions, but representatives of the people trusted to discern what is best for the nation in fast-changing circumstances. Recently, one MP declared that the referendum result no longer applied and that it was “time to bust the myth of the will of the people.”
Pro-Brexit Leavers fear that the tortuous negotiations in the House of Commons are salami tactics to frustrate the Brexit process. There is a hardcore of MPs, mostly Conservatives who want to leave the EU at any cost, even if this means leaving without a deal. More numerous, but amorphous, is the body of MPs who want Britain to remain. Some of these Remainers would support a deal that minimizes the effects of exit. Others are fighting to negate the referendum result entirely and to keep the United Kingdom in the EU. Some Remain MPs also campaign for a second referendum, in the belief that the electorate would now vote to stay. Within each of these parliamentary cohorts, there are gradations and floating coalitions.
If this sounds like a mess, it is. There are even elements of farce. On March 14, the cabinet minister in charge of Brexit, Stephen Barclay, eloquently commended to the House of Commons the government policy for an extended negotiating period. An hour later, he voted against it. In any normal administration, this breach of cabinet solidarity would be a sackable offense, but he claimed a right to a free vote, a sign of how party discipline has broken down. Prime Minister Theresa May has lost control of her party, her cabinet, and the House of Commons.
The House of Commons finds it easier to say what it does not want. It has twice rejected a deal brokered by Theresa May that would have led to exit on the March 29 deadline. This deal allows a transition period to the end of December 2020, but it kicks the can down the road for all the controversial questions, such as the future EU-UK trading relationship. A referendum may be a blunt instrument, but its virtue is that it forces a choice. Prime Minister May has been glacially slow in making the necessary decisions and uses her deal to obfuscate about a post-Brexit United Kingdom. The House of Commons does not buy this. In January it voted down the deal by a two-thirds majority, with many in her own party voting against her. She tried a slightly different version on March 13, and again lost by a large margin.
The public also dislikes this vague deal, with opinion polls showing that the British oppose it by two to one. A major sticking-point for parliamentarians is the “Irish backstop” that Theresa May agreed with the EU negotiators. At present, with both countries in the EU, there is an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Until a trade agreement is reached, the backstop guarantees that the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic will keep the border open by remaining in a customs union. MPs fear that this will lock the UK into treaty obligations from which there is no way out.
Normally, the opposition party would step joyfully into the breach, but the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is itself divided. Corbyn, a traditional socialist, distrusts the EU’s centralizing tendencies and its restrictions on state aid for industries. In theory, he supports Leave and could throw his party’s weight behind the search for a solution. But again, the division between people and their representatives rears its head: although many Labour constituencies in rust-bucket areas voted strongly to leave, their MPs may differ. Corbyn and his team see the Brexit chaos as a chance to undermine the government and bring about an election they hope to win. Corbyn’s old-fashioned socialist ideology and rows about Labour anti-Semitism have enabled the rudderless Conservatives to maintain a lead in the opinion polls. Only very recently have there been signs that the ongoing Brexit chaos is eating into Conservative support.
For any other prime minister, the paucity of leadership demonstrated by Theresa May would have been a death knell. One of the mysteries of Britain at present is why the Conservative Party, which defenestrated Margaret Thatcher, seems paralyzed when it comes to Theresa May. However, after a botched coup attempt on December 12, the party’s rules mean that she is now immune from a leadership challenge for a year.
The political decisions taken so far have been largely symbolic. The House of Commons has said, in an indicative vote, that it does not want the country to crash out of the EU without a deal. With the notional exit date now a matter of days away, this would mean requesting the EU to extend the deadline. Even this has problems. There are reports that the EU might tighten the rack on Britain at this point by imposing new conditions. This would only increase the public perception of Britain has having been led into self-inflicted humiliation.
One bright spot has been the economy. Just before the referendum, George Osborne, chancellor of the Exchequer, warned the nation that a vote to leave would bring an immediate and profound shock to the economy, plunging it into recession. Instead, it has ticked along with annual growth of around 1.5 percent. Brexit may have limited this growth, and there are signs now of investors taking a “wait and see” attitude, but jobs have continued to grow with unemployment at its lowest rate since the 1970s.
Meanwhile, Britain is divided between Leavers and Remainers. Remainers have pilloried Leavers as ignorant and failing to understand the issues. A sociological researcher has noted that since the referendum this rhetoric has sharpened, with Remainers using “cruel rhetoric about those from working-class communities who voted to leave… They have been derided as ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’—as ‘stupid,’ ‘spiteful,’ and racist.’” When it was announced that two car factories in Leave-voting towns were going to close, the response on Twitter from Remainers included Schadenfreude at the prospect of Leavers losing their jobs.
One contribution to the national debate that has been widely discussed comes in a recent book by the writer David Goodhart. He argues that the Brexit fault-line runs between “Somewheres” and “Anywheres.” “Anywhere” people are equipped by education and outlook to forge their career wherever it takes them. Liberal in outlook, they can be equally at home in London, Dubai, Singapore, or Los Angeles. “Somewhere” people are more rooted in their locality, less able to move, with stronger associations to their family, community, and nation.
Incidentally, this may explain why Brexit won support in some economically successful Asian communities, with their strong family values. Brexit is not solely a nativist phenomenon.
In rejecting the EU, voters were rejecting a transnational, cosmopolitan future. The vote tilted toward Somewhere rather than Anywhere. Implicit in this Brexit result is a desire for rootedness and social cohesiveness. Spiritual questions lurk here. What gives our nation its unity? What are our shared values? In the past, this would have been answered by reference to Britain’s Christian heritage, but there are few signs of a spiritual reevaluation. For instance, 3.8 million citizens of EU countries now live and work in the UK. Many of them have ascended the economic ladder. There has been little debate as to why they have succeeded while many locals cannot get ahead. The answer might lie in the stable and committed family lives of many of the migrant workers. By contrast, nearly half the babies in England and Wales are now born to single or cohabiting parents, the proportion being highest in the poorer communities. Political correctness would regard any comment on this as unhelpfully judgmental.
Britain is an increasingly secular country where church attendance rates have been plummeting. In theory, the yearning revealed by the Brexit result should open the road for the churches to reclaim communities where formal Christian observance has shrunk to negligible proportions. The Church of England has launched a drive to reinsert itself into urban estates. These are insular projects of municipal housing where life is often at its bleakest. Where organized Christianity survives in these areas it is more likely to be in black-led Pentecostal or Catholic churches. The social hurdles for the Church of England are difficult to overcome, despite its generous pastoral care in every community. Part of the problem for Anglicans is their continuing identification in the popular mind with the elite—demonstrated by a tendency for the bishops to favor the European Union during the referendum campaign and by Anglican bewilderment at any suggestion that the Church of England should give up its established status.
This is a strange and challenging moment for Britain. Many of its people have subconsciously demonstrated a desire for renewal but cannot shake off a mindset that distances them from the faith of their ancestors. Inept political leadership has revealed a vacuum in national life, and it is not clear what will fill the space. Despite populism growing across Europe, a revived UKIP is unlikely because leadership struggles and a lurch further right have removed much of its attractiveness to protest voters. Brexit—if it happens—is likely to be either BRINO (Brexit in name only) or a series of spatchcocked deals that stretch the agony out even further. The most likely outcome is further alienation of a struggling sector of the population already feeling overlooked and cast adrift.
Terry Tastard is a Catholic priest and writer in London.
Photo Credit: Protesters in favor and against Brexit on January 15, 2019. By LeoLondon, via Flickr.