“History,” Stephen Dedalus says in James Joyce’s Ulysses, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” The people of Great Britain may be forgiven for feeling the same way about their country’s political-issue-turned-national-melodrama known as Brexit. On June 23, 2016, they voted by a margin of 51.89 to 48.11 percent in a national referendum to leave the European Union—although without any indication of when, how, or on what terms the departure could or should take place. The British government has spent the intervening three years unsuccessfully attempting to leave. The process has had a devastating impact on British public life. It has paralyzed the government, polarized the society, and pulverized the major political parties—and all with no end in sight.
The Prime Minister who staged the referendum on the assumption that voters would opt to remain in the EU, David Cameron, resigned immediately afterward and his fellow Conservative, Theresa May, succeeded him. She designated March 29, 2019, as the date by which Britain would depart from the EU and proceeded to negotiate terms of departure with Brussels. The British Parliament, in which her party enjoyed a working majority, rejected the agreement she reached three times. Having secured an extension of the deadline until October 31 of this year, she proposed to submit her plan for a fourth vote, but the Conservative Party told her that the time had come for her to step aside, and she duly resigned.
The Conservatives have now selected a new leader, who will replace Mrs. May as Prime Minister. Boris Johnson, a former journalist and mayor of London, is someone whom his friends would describe as “colorful” and “flexible” and his critics—of whom there are many, including within his own party—would call “mercurial” and “unprincipled.” He, along with the Parliament and the country, face four options for Brexit, none of them appealing.
One is not so much unappealing as unlikely: a renegotiation of the existing agreement to make it palatable to both the British Parliament and the EU. Johnson has said he will go to Brussels and secure a new, better deal. The EU has declared that it will not renegotiate. It is conceivable that the EU will have grown sufficiently weary of the issue, and Johnson will become so frightened of the alternatives, that the two sides will make some symbolic changes in the agreement that Mrs. May negotiated and declare themselves satisfied—Johnson that he has obtained alterations favorable to Britain and the EU that it has conceded nothing. In that case the British will leave on essentially the terms that Parliament has rejected three times—provided, that is, that the House of Commons accepts them.
Johnson, who led the 2016 campaign to leave and resigned as foreign secretary in protest against Mrs. May’s deal, does seem capable of the cynicism and hypocrisy necessary for such an outcome; but it is not clear that his fellow Conservatives, especially those who supported his candidacy for the office he has won precisely because he convinced them that he would never accept such a deal, would go along with it even in the event that the EU were to make it available.
Johnson has declared that if the EU doesn’t offer something better Britain will leave its ranks by October 31 with no deal at all. The EU may refuse to extend the deadline even if Johnson requests one. In that case, Great Britain would jump, or be pushed, out of the EU without a life raft. Such an event would sever, suddenly and without immediate replacements, all the ties—economic, financial, and political—with the other 27 countries in the EU that come with EU membership and that, in the British case, have accumulated over 46 years. The cost to the other 27 of such a development, and the inevitably far higher cost to Britain cannot be precisely known in advance but would not be negligible. By one British government forecast such a scenario would reduce the British GDP over the next 15 years by as much as 9.3 percent. Martin Wolf, the economics commentator for the Financial Times, has written that “No deal is either lunatic or a confidence trick. It is not a policy any sane or decent politician could even consider.”
Moreover, the only position concerning Brexit that has commanded a parliamentary majority over the last three years is opposition to a no-deal exit. Should Johnson attempt it the Parliament would almost surely vote against it. Since Great Britain has no written constitution, just what would follow in that case is unclear, which means that Brexit could metamorphose from a political into a constitutional crisis. In those circumstances a third option, new parliamentary elections, would become a distinct possibility, and the EU might in fact decline to extend the deadline without one.
Polls suggest that national elections this year could well produce a fragmented Parliament in which a multi-party governing coalition would have to be formed—something without precedent in British political history. New elections could also, however, yield a government headed by the Labour Party, with its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as Prime Minister, which could administer a political shock to the country even more powerful and disruptive than Brexit. Corbyn is committed to bringing his brand of socialism to Great Britain, which would mean a massive redistribution of wealth and government control of large parts of the British economy. At the very least, this would trigger large-scale capital flight from the British Isles.
The Corbyn foreign policy has a single, simple guiding principle: hostility to the United States, which he regards as the root of all the world’s troubles. Following this principle, he has expressed sympathy for or solidarity with virtually every government or group opposed to one or another American foreign policy, including Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, and the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah. He would be, one observer noted, the most anti-American British Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool, who held the office when his red-coated countrymen burned Washington, DC in 1814. Intelligence-sharing between the United States and Great Britain would certainly not survive a Corbyn Prime Ministership, which could even result in Britain, a founding member of the Atlantic alliance, becoming the first county to leave or be ejected from NATO.
Nor would Corbyn’s arrival at 10 Downing Street necessarily resolve Britain’s relationship with the EU. Throughout his political career he has expressed skepticism of, if not downright hostility to, the organization, regarding it as a capitalist cabal standing in the way of the socialist paradise he plans to create in Britain. His party is divided on the issue. A number of working-class Labour constituencies in the north of England voted to leave in 2016, but the majority of Labour voters wish to remain in the EU and want a repeat of the 2016 referendum—they call it a “people’s vote”—in the hope of reversing the verdict of three years ago. Recently Corbyn has, grudgingly, more or less endorsed the idea of another referendum and said—more or less—that if one is held Labour will support the “remain” position. Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson might opt for a second vote if he should come to see this as the least bad of his options.
The partisans of Brexit vehemently oppose such a development, and a second referendum might not be free from violence. Polls now show that the initial verdict would be reversed in a revote, but the polls have been wrong before: they showed the “remain” side prevailing in advance of the 2016 referendum. A reversal would surely embitter the Brexiteers, who would continue agitating to quit the EU. Even if a second vote confirmed the first, this would not necessarily settle the issue: the British public was promised by the “leave” camp three years ago that Brexit would bring immediate and major economic benefits to the country. Since it will do no such thing, the outcome for which they initially voted will disappoint and disillusion many of them. Nor would a second referendum that confirmed the result of the first decide the terms on which Britain will leave.
In sum, none of the four paths open to Boris Johnson and Great Britain promises a happy ending. Indeed, none promises any ending at all, for if Britain does leave the EU it will immediately face the certainly protracted and probably bitter task of negotiating a new economic relationship with the selfsame organization, to whose members it now sends fully 44 percent of its exports; and those new arrangements, whenever concluded, would almost surely not give British businesses the advantages they now enjoy.
Finally, whether the process of leaving drags on indefinitely or Britain does ultimately manage to leave, Brexit has the distinction of being that rare political issue that makes losers of all parties connected with it—with the exception, as the distinguished former diplomat and cabinet minister George Walden has noted, of Russian president Vladimir Putin, to the achievement of whose goal of weakening the Western democracies Brexit is already contributing. If it drags on it will continue to preoccupy and paralyze Britain, and to a lesser extent the EU. If the British do cut themselves off from Europe’s major international organization they will become poorer and will count for less beyond their borders. Their departure will deprive the EU of its strongest voice in favor of the political direction it ought to be taking—toward bureaucratic decentralization.
Even the United States, contrary to the sentiments expressed by President Trump, will lose from Brexit. Among all the countries in the world, Britain’s global outlook (leaving aside Jeremy Corbyn) is most similar to America’s. It is in the American interest, therefore, for Britain to have as much global influence as possible. If there is going to be an EU—and there is—the United States benefits from British membership in it.
The proponents of Brexit regularly note that the decision to leave was an impeccably democratic one. While referenda are alien to the British tradition, in which representative rather than direct democracy and the supremacy of Parliament have been the rule for centuries, the referendum did replicate, on a vastly larger scale, the original democracy of ancient Athens that decided public issues by the vote of all Athenian citizens. Looking back on that 2016 decision the British people may come to agree with a remark by the American comedian of the first half of the twentieth century, W.C. Fields. In one of his comedic routines he plays a man who arrives, thirsty, in a frontier town in the Old West and asks for directions to the nearest saloon, only to be informed that all the town’s saloons are closed. Upon asking why, he is told that it is election day and saloons always close on election day, to which he replies, “That’s carrying democracy too far.”