Given the season, it seems appropriate to cast the Brexit saga in a Dickensian light. ‘A Christmas Carol’ (published 1843) was perhaps Charles Dickens most celebrated novel, featuring a miserly central character, Ebenezer Scrooge, who was haunted by ghosts from the past. The Brexit process has certainly plenty of recriminations and miserliness to go around, as well as having the theme of past events being bound up in the present imbroglio.
British premier Theresa May, with her angular facial features, stern matron-like persona and suggestive surname, even resonates like a Dickens’ character. Her dithering and fumbling over Britain’s exit from the European Union is a mixture of comedy, treachery and tragedy.
May went to Brussels last week with cap-in-hand to beg for last-minute concessions from the EU leaders, only to be told – politely – to shut up and get on with it. There would be no renegotiation of the withdrawal plan which she agreed to only last month. May now has the unenviable task of trying to get her Brexit roadmap passed by British parliamentarians. She cancelled tabling a vote last week, fearing that it would be resoundingly rejected by lawmakers.
With the Christmas parliamentary recess looming, it looks like May will have to wait until mid-January before finally letting parliament have a say. If rejected, which looks likely, then Britain could face a no-deal crash out of the EU on the deadline for divorce set for March 29. But such is the alarm among the public, politicians and media about a “hard Brexit”, and the dire economic repercussions of that, there may be a dramatic U-turn in store, in which a second national referendum is called on whether Britain should leave the EU or not. In short, Brexit may not happen after all.
This week, however, Prime Minister May categorically ruled out calls for a second referendum, saying that it would cause “irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics”. She said it would “break the public faith” in British democracy. In the Brexit referendum held in June 2016, a total of 17.4 million people (52 per cent of the electorate) cast their votes for Britain to leave the European bloc. The remain vote was 16.1 million (48 per cent).
Thus if a second referendum were held and the vote was reversed, then the Brexit divorce mess might be averted, but the damage to Britain’s image of democracy will be shattered. It could even trigger civil unrest and sow deeper, more bitter divisions that have already fractured the so-called United Kingdom.
Britain is caught in a fiendish dilemma. There seems to be no good options available. If it crashes out of the EU that will cause uproar in half of the population. If it aborts Brexit and returns to the European fold with tail between legs, that will cause similar uproar in the other half of the population.
Back to our Dickens’ seasonal theme what is striking in this conundrum is how much the predicament is doomed by ghosts from the past which are paralyzing forward movement.
The first of these ghosts is the 2008 global financial crisis, the mishandling of which by the British governments and the EU executive was a major factor in why the Brexit vote manifested. Since the global crash, it has been the mass of working people who have been made to pay for the failure in finance capitalism. Relentless polices of economic austerity – instead of punitive reparations imposed on big banks – have alienated ordinary citizens in Britain and across the EU towards the “establishment”. This seems particularly acute in Britain because successive Conservative governments there have pursued such stringent austerity economic policies. So, when the Brexit referendum was held on June 23, 2016, the political establishments both in London and Brussels were primed for a giant public rebuke. That came in the form of a resounding Leave vote.
An anti-immigrant sentiment and desire for “control over our borders” was also a factor in the Brexit vote. But again that factor was a direct result of policy. The illegal wars that Britain and other European NATO members followed the United States in waging, from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and, covertly, in Syria, all fed into a phenomenal migration challenge across Europe.
In Britain, Labour and Conservative governments alike were all complicit in these criminal military escapades of regime change. But it was the Tory government of former Prime Minister David Cameron that bears much responsibility from taking a lead role in the NATO war to overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 which opened up mass migration routes to Europe. It was Cameron who assented to holding the Brexit referendum for his own selfish political reasons (more on that below). The vote for Brexit was at least partly a result of Cameron’s warmongering in Libya and other illegal British wars elsewhere.
On the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain which partly drove the vote to leave the EU, the present prime minister is also culpable. Before taking over as premier from Cameron in July 2016 (he quit over the Brexit result), Theresa May served as the Home Secretary (interior minister). During her six-year post as a hawkish interior minister, British government policy became sharply hostile towards illegal migrants. It was May who launched public campaigns warning undocumented migrants to “go home or face jail”.
Rather than being held to account for its criminal wars in Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa – and the cause of refugee flows – the British government opted instead to criminalize undocumented migrants. That inevitably fed into British public sentiment either fearing or loathing a perception of foreigners flooding into the country. That prejudice was vented at EU membership when the Brexit referendum was held. May and her Conservative governments had unleashed those sentiments with cynical dog-whistling racial politics.
Another ghost from the past was the rise of the anti-EU, anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP). UKIP has since fizzled into near-oblivion. But at one stage, the Eurosceptic party threatened to draw large votes from the main rightwing party, the Conservatives. In a desperate move to fend off the UKIP, former Conservative premier David Cameron made a manifesto promise in the 2015 national elections that, if he was reelected, his government would hold a referendum on EU membership. Cameron thus used the Brexit issue as a way to keep his party in power and to push back the electoral threat of UKIP. A year later, the Brexit vote then threw British politics into the turmoil that is ongoing.
Finally, our remaining ghost from the past goes back a little further in history. It is the legacy of British imperialist misdeeds in Ireland. Britain’s violation of Ireland’s sovereignty and its criminal partitioning (1921) of the neighboring island nation is the predominant spanner in the Brexit wheels. The London government cannot exit Europe easily – indeed it will be mission impossible – because of the historic problem concerning a British-imposed border in Ireland.
The majority of people on the island of Ireland, both in the southern state, the Republic of Ireland, and in the northern British jurisdiction of Northern Ireland, do not want the return of a hard border. Neither does the European Union want to create such a frontier, which would cause immense disruption to the entire Irish economy. But if there is no border, then part of the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland) will in effect remain integrated with the EU in terms of customs and trade. For the Brexiteers in Britain that is anathema. The insoluble problem of the Irish border is why the Brexit process will forever be strapped with interminable wrangling and why the current British political crisis will continue indefinitely.
The miserly past of British politicians has come back to haunt the present cohort into paralysis over Brexit.
Unlike for the repentant mean Scrooge character in Dickens’ novel, there seems to be no redemption in the offing for the incumbent British political class.