By Kumar David –
Will a sloshed Britain stutter and stumble out of the European Union? Brexit: A modern British tragedy!
Unless the countries of European Union unanimously agree to defer Article 50, at 23:00 GMT on 29 March (midnight in Brussels) the UK will leave the EU with no negotiated exit. At the stroke of the clock British goods going to the EU will be subject to duty and will need to be checked for compliance with its regulations. Goods from the EU arriving in the UK could face checks though not straight away because the government does not have the infrastructure in place. Air-traffic, fishing and nuclear power could face disruption. “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen” and Britain will inflict upon itself the tragedy lamented by King Lear for which it has no one but itself to blame.
This is the excellent foppery of the world that
when we are sick in fortune — often the surfeit
of our own behaviour– we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves and thieves
by spherical predominance: …. an evasion
of a whoremaster to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star.
One must admire the dogged determination with which Theresa May persevered up to the 59-th minute to fashion a deal which Parliament would endorse. Her negotiating team will be bogged down till the deadline, I fear to no avail. Her effort suffered a huge defeat on 12 March in the House of Commons – 391 to 242 votes – a margin of 149. On 15 January her penultimate effort suffered an even bigger defeat by 432 votes to 202, the largest parliamentary defeat in history for a sitting UK government. These follow the 23 June 2016 referendum when 51.9% voted in favour of leaving the EU and 48.1% against.
Neither Leavers nor Remainers are happy; many Labour and some Conservatives MPs back a closer arrangement with the European Union which would see the UK remain in the EU’s single market as part of the European Economic Area. Brexit will incur a GDP loss of 2-2.5% and cut income by an annual of £400 for an average household due to cost increases. It will crop students from Europe and damage higher education and research. Then there is the “divorce Bill – the UK’s share of separation costs and settlement of dues; at best guess about Euro 50 billion. Polls show that the public is aware that Brexit will hurt the economy and that a No-Deal Brexit will leave the country in shambles, but Leavers are determined to “Get Britain Back” and be free of EU restrictions on sovereignty (laws, regulations, justice, EU courts, immigration and emigration from and to EU countries, and trade policy).
For arguments sake let me postulate a second referendum. Options are changing fast but at the time of writing (21 March) there are four distinct variants. The routes that can be offered at a second referendum follow. I do not conceal my preference for option (d) though (c) seems be the choice of a public ensnared by its own hubris into concealing from itself its stupidity at the previous referendum.
1. Accept Theresa May’s final deal as the best possible compromise with the EU.
2. A No-Deal Brexit; that is crash out and face the consequences as they arise.
3. Postpone the divorce and continue negotiations – EU unlikely to grant open ended extension.
4. Reverse the 2016 Referendum result; annual Article 50 and remain in the EU (EU sure to agree).
A good referendum is designed as a simple two-option choice: Approve XYZ or reject XYZ; cut and dry, clear and simple. Referenda with more than two options are a nightmare; controversy will linger forever. The Condorcet Method (named after a French mathematician) is a way out in these intractable cases. It seeks to identify the option that is most acceptable (least unacceptable). The two tables provide an illustration. (If the first column had read 50%+1 instead of 40%, that would be the end of the matter and option-A declared the winner).
The Commons rejected option-(a) May’s “best possible deal” on 12 March and on 13 March rejected, in perpetuity a No-Deal Brexit, option-(b). On 14 March it voted 412 to 202 to request the EU for a delay in Brexit, option-(c). The call for a second referendum option-(d), was defeated by 334 votes to 85 but with 213 mostly Labour MPs, abstaining. But Labour is vacillating and may eventually support a second referendum. Repeated Commons defeats prove Prime Minister May has lost control of her party, Cabinet and Brexit policy. More significantly, Referendum, Commons, PM, and Government are all at cross purposes. Corbyn and the Labour Party are also all in a muddle about how to deal with this confusion. Chaotic! Chaos unprecedented in English history since the Civil War of the 1640s.
The Commons, in effect, has voted to reject quitting the EU. This puts it in conflict with the 2016 Referendum. Constitutionally, Parliament is supreme in Britain; it can disregard result of any referendum. The defeat of No-Deal is proof of a conflict between the Commons and the Referendum, but it is bad for democracy if the Commons were to overrule a referendum without getting its decision endorsed at a second referendum or a general election. As an alternative Labour’s Hilary Benn vainly offered an amendment to allow MPs (not government) to take control of Brexit. “People are watching chaos and uncertainty and we have a responsibility to demonstrate that Parliament can and will do its job”.
Prime Minister May tried to make a vain third attempt to get her package through the Commons but was hit by Erskine Mayhem when Speaker John Bercow relying on precedents as far back as 1604 – and well-thumbed copies of Erskine May – refused to let the government submit the same motion for a third time. Mrs May has now written to Brussels asking for an extension of time till 30 June. At this time of writing the EU’s response is not clear. The Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats, Welsh Plaid Cymru’s and the Green Party have released a joint statement calling for another referendum. “The best, most democratic way forward is to put the decision back to the people in a new vote – with the option to Remain on the ballot paper” they said.
[House of Commons: Government – Tories 314, Democratic Union (N. Ireland) 10. Opposition -Labour 245, Scottish Nationalists 35, Lib-Dems 11, Sinn Féin (boycotters) 7, Plaid Cymru (Wales) 4, Greens 1 and Independents 10. Total 648 + Speaker + 1 vacancy. The House of Lords is not of much importance in these crucial matters].
Labour Party bewilderment
The Labour Party is not playing a leadership role; it is hardly centre stage. Jeremy Corbyn’s performances in the Commons are pathetic. Very late in the day he agreed to meet Tory MPs since he is adamantly opposed to a No-Deal exit and wanted to hear “their ideas and options”. Labour wants an agreement encompassing customs union, unhindered access to EU markets and legal protection of worker’s rights. In a newspaper article Corbyn said a close economic relationship was “the best Brexit compromise for both 17 million leave voters and 16 million remain voters”. While he “respected the result of the 2016 Referendum” he reiterated that Labour would back another referendum “to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or a disastrous No-Deal outcome”.
Although young people voted in overwhelming numbers to reject Brexit at the Referendum the dying generations have had their way. Labour, which basked in the sunshine of a youthful flourish after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, has been unable to the bridge the gap between its traditional working class base and the millennial new generation on this occasion.
First weeks of a No-Deal crash out
The government will declare a ‘Critical Incident’, akin to a State of Emergency in our country, except done responsibly not as an attack on human and democratic rights such as has invariably been our experience. An army of 9000 civil servants will move into position on Brexit-night and operate 24 hours a day seven days a week in command and control mode. A “Cobra” emergency committee will meet at Cabinet Office; the Ministry of Defence will mobilise and there will be 14 military planners working in Whitehall (Sethsiripaya). Unpredictable delays at airports and severe slowdown on the critical Dover-Calais ferry and Channel Tunnel routes will be unavoidable and lorry traffic will grind to a halt. The effect is likely to include unpredictable delays at airports. The Department of Health is stockpiling six weeks’ worth of medications. Other departments are recruiting staff for exit-emergencies and teams will operate 24×7. There is concern about fresh food and live animals if they cannot be exported in time.
Police forces have stopped leave for the first weeks after Brexit though the risk of disorder is low. One effect of leaving the EU without a deal is that the police will lose access to EU criminal justice tools and sensitive information. It has recruited staff to use the less effective Interpol systems. UK will need to patrol its fishing waters more extensively than it has for many years so the Royal Navy has reprieved ships that were to be taken out of service. It is not good days for Britain; to quote Lear for one last time: “The weight of this sad time (they) must obey”, but my hunch is that Brexit won’t happen; the Brits will find a way of muddling out of it.