By Rajan Philips –
Does the Brexit crisis in the United Kingdom mean that the parliamentary form of government is a failure? Does the Trump presidency in the US suggest that the presidential form of government is unworkable? What does the tale of these two polities, with a combined 1000 years of political and constitutional experience between them, have to offer to Sri Lanka which has been trying to marry the two forms of government for the last forty years? There might be plenty of opinions on these questions but no conclusive answers.
The deadlock in Washington began quite a while before Donald Trump entered politics and shockingly became president. The deadlock had begun when the Republican Party in the US Congress and the Senate chose to function as a parliamentary opposition party to the Obama Administration, instead of the traditional bipartisan role in the legislative branch of government. The reverse seems to be happening in the current Brexit stalemate in the UK. To resolve the Brexit impasse, the British parliament is trying to function like what the US Congress and the Senate have traditionally functioned – through bipartisan consensus instead of the government-opposition dichotomy in a parliamentary system. And that is proving to impossible with every passing vote on the endless permutation of options that the British MPs are voting on. There are specific contextual reasons for the apparent role reversals in the two polities.
There are no silver bullet lessons that Sri Lanka might draw from the deadlock experiences of the UK and the US to address its own presidential-parliamentary deadlocks. Sri Lanka’s entanglement in the UNHRC is not so much an illustration in the failure in the form of government, as it is an example of political failure on a matter that has been inconclusively kicked around for a full ten years, with no goal or end yet in sight. In the same way, Brexit and Trump do not represent constitutional failures but political failures. If there is a constitutional dimension to the current political failures, it is in the failure of elected political leaders to abide by the norms and processes of constitutional government. That has been the story of President Trump from day one.
That was so with President Sirisena in the October-November crisis last year and it is so with the continuing hangover. To wit, the President tried to send his own emissaries to the UNHRC sessions in Geneva, to counter the official foreign ministry delegation. In response, Parliament threatened to disallow financial allocations to the President’s expenditure. The President got rattled and retreated, and took to sulking over what he calls his 50% powers.
It is a different story in the UK. Neither Prime Minister Theresa May nor Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbin is guilty of constitutional infraction. Their sins are different. After opposing Brexit during the 2016 referendum, Theresa May chose to uncritically champion the ‘hard Brexit’ option in order to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister. Corbin, on the other hand, has not been able to fully grow out of his youthful opposition to Britain joining the EU in the first referendum in 1975 under the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Because of his ideological inflexibility, Jeremy Corbin has not been able to give sincere leadership to the dominant desire both within the Labour Party and in the country, for the UK to remain in the EU and affirm it through a second referendum.
Brexit and the EU
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland joined what was then the European Communities (EC) of six countries in 1973, under the auspices of a Conservative government headed by Prime Minister Edward Heath. Then it was the Labour Party that was the more Euro-skeptical of the two main British political parties. In 1975, the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson called a national referendum to test the popular will on Britain’s EC membership. Wiseley, Mr. Wilson stayed neutral in the referendum indicating that he would implement whatever verdict the people gave. For everyone else it was a free vote without party loyalties. 67.2% of the British people voted to stay in the EC. Only in two of the 48 English Counties a majority voted to leave the EC.
Forty years later, in 2015, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron promised the small but noisy group of Euro-phobes within his Party that he would call a referendum on whether Britain should leave or remain in what is now the European Union (EU) of 27 countries (plus the UK) after the May 2015 British elections. Cameron was playing for broke because he did not think he was going to win the general election. But he won the election and called the 23 June 2016 referendum on Brexit. 52% voted to leave what 67% had earlier voted to join. Assured of a victory for the ‘Remain’ side, many ‘Remain’ voters in London and other urban areas stayed away from the polls. It was a rural revolt against the globalist elites.
Unwisely and unlike his Labour predecessor, Cameron thrust himself as the lead campaigner against the ‘Leave’ forces. He may have thought that he would be able to get a convincing victory for the ‘Remain’ side and bury the doubters forever in the political dung heap, the same way the ‘No’ side had won the Scottish referendum on secession in September 2014. That was not to be. Cameron resigned on principle over a monumental political miscalculation. Theresa May succeeded Cameron in spite of principle to cash in on the political opportunity. She added her own political miscalculation to the mess by calling a snap election (with two-thirds majority support to prematurely dissolve parliament under the new Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the inspirer for 19A in Sri Lanka) in June 2017. May ended up losing her majority in parliament and was forced to rely on the ten members of the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland.
It may be that in a democracy, you cannot fool all the people all the time, but few politicians give up trying to do just that. Prime Minister has been trying to do just that and even offered to relinquish her position if her own government MPs would fully support the divorce agreement that she has struck with the EU – for Britain to leave the EU. Therein is the rub. As a minority government, she should have tried to work out a deal that would have been acceptable to sections of the Labour Party and forge a bipartisan majority in parliament. A question of momentous national importance warranted such a majority. But the Prime Minister was focused on protecting her own leadership of the Conservative Party and, therefore, worked out a deal that she thought would be acceptable to hard core Brexit MPs in the government. To May’s dismay, they and the Labour opposition rejected it, not once but twice.
On Friday, she tried her final finesse asking for parliament’s approval to have separate votes on the two parts of the divorce deal: the 600-page legally binding withdrawal agreement and the 27-page political declaration that outlines the steps for forging a new post-Brexit trade relationship with the EU. Jeremy Corbin and other Labour MPs were supportive of the terms of the withdrawal agreement but not the political declaration. By separating the two, May was hoping to get at least the agreement part passed even though Mr. Corbin was insistent that the two are inseparable. On Friday, parliament massively rejected the Prime Minister’s move to win a separate vote only on the withdrawal agreement part – by 344 to 286. The parliamentary stalemate continues, and no one is willing to envision the final outcome. In true parliamentary tradition, Jeremy Corbin is asking the Prime Minister to step down and call a general election. But there is no certainty that another election will not produce another hung parliament.
Underlying this parliamentary stalemate is the ambiguous nature of the State of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and its adjustments to new internal and external realities. Historically, England may have had an easier time in achieving the incorporation, if not annexation, of Wales (1535), Scotland (1707) to become Great Britain, and Ireland (1800) to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Then of course came the Empire. Even before the sun would set on the Empire, Ireland broke into two, in 1920: the main Republic and Northern Ireland that became part of the new and the slightly chipped off United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Now other constitutional chickens are coming home to roost.
The show stopper for Theresa May’s divorce deal with the EU is the status of the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that is a major feature of the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that ended eighty years of bloodletting between the Irish republicans and the Protestant unionists over Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is an EU member state, and the open border with Northern Ireland is non-negotiable to Ireland and the EU. And Theresa May’s divorce deal with the EU maintains the open border status despite all her attempts to describe it differently. This is untenable to hard core Brexit MPs and the ten Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland. To them, a permanently open border would leave Northern Ireland permanently in the EU even after Brexit. And if Northern Ireland can technically remain in the EU after Brexit, why not Scotland? Or Wales? Even Cornwall? These are questions that would not have arisen if the Tory leadership had not taken the referendum route to appease its diehard Euro-phobes.
For the EU, the Brexit crisis in the UK is turning out to be a blessing in disguise, because it has virtually put to rest any future attempt by an EU member country to leave the Union. That does not mean the end of Euro-skepticism or populist opposition at the national level to supranational decision making in the European Union. The upcoming (May 23 to 26) elections to the European Parliament will be a hotly contested battle between EU centrists and their populist detractors. For the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it is decision time on two fronts: not only to decide when, whether and how to leave the European Union, but also to decide whether or not to participate in the European elections in May.
The EU has categorically said that Britain must participate in the elections if there is no final Brexit decision before April 12. Nigel Farage, the godfather of Brexit and the founding leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has announced that he would contest in the European Parliamentary elections if there is no Brexit before that. The lone outlier is Prime Minister Theresa May. She is opposed to the UK taking part in the European elections, and she still thinks the British MPs are making a huge mistake in not supporting the deal that she has prepared for leaving the European Union.
*To be continued…..