The past few decades in which Europe has been prosperous and (largely) at peace, joined together by links of trade and political cooperation, have been a great achievement and a profound addition to the well-being of humanity–particularly given the unhappy history of the previous century. But the European Union used this progress as an excuse to push for an overly centralized, intrusive, and unaccountable regulatory bureaucracy, which is part of what prompted the British people to vote in a referendum in 2016 to get out.
So why haven’t they been able to do it?
They haven’t been able to do it because subsequent Parliaments have not been able to agree on a plan for actually implementing Brexit: a plan for how borders and trade will be treated once Britain exits the E.U.
You might say that these questions turned out to be more difficult than British voters understood. For instance, how to treat the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is a particularly thorny dilemma, given the history of conflict there. Yet the U.K. has only been part of the European Union for a few decades, before which it enjoyed centuries of independence, so these difficulties hardly seem insurmountable if anybody really wanted to solve them.
But there’s the catch.
A British friend recently gave me a copy of the Ladybird Guide to Brexit, part of a satirical series for adults written in the style of old-fashioned children’s books. One of the segments, describing a bureaucrat working for Parliament, says that “Brexit is the will of the people,” but “it is not the will of any people he actually knows, so he is not doing much toward it.” Which pretty much sums up the attitude of Britain’s political class.
Then again, England is the mother of parliaments, and British politicians do represent the people, so why aren’t they representing them on this issue?
The problem is that there are two ways for the people to express their political will, and the failure of Brexit is the result of a clash between these two ways. The people can express their will through a referendum, a one-time vote saying “yes” or “no” on the issue. The other way is for the people to vote for representatives in Parliament who will pass specific legislation. The problem is that the will of the people as expressed in the Brexit referendum has not quite matched up with the will of the people as expressed in their votes for Parliament.
Or, to put this in terms that will be familiar to Americans: Brexit won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College.
I hope it will not surprise you that the kind of people who think this was a bad thing in the most recent U.S. election are pretty much a mirror image of those who think it is a bad thing in the case of Brexit. Everybody loves populism—but only when it goes their way.
What we have watched over the past few months is the unfolding of this basic conflict.
Deciphering the arcane procedures of the British Parliament is a bit like trying to figure out the rules of cricket. I have made an effort at both of those things, and I can’t say I got very far in either case. But here is the basic outline as best I can understand it:
In 2016, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to hold a referendum on Brexit as a way of calling the bluff of opponents of the European Union. But his bet failed when Brexit was approved by a 52 percent to 48 percent vote. Cameron resigned and was replaced by Theresa May, who was charged with negotiating terms with the European Union and enacting Brexit in Parliament.
What followed was three years of foot-dragging as the E.U. and British “Remainers” attempted to smother Brexit under obstructions and delays. May eventually came back to Parliament with a deal that would keep Britain in the European customs union indefinitely, until Britain negotiated a trade deal with the E.U.—but with no deadline. It was too much for the Remainers and too little for the Brexiters, who saw it as a cop-out, a way of kicking the can down the road, forever. So in July of this year, after yet another failed vote in Parliament, May resigned and was replaced by Boris Johnson, a politician with a flamboyant personality—the kind of guy who would propose a bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland—and a man who was viewed as just crazy enough to push through Brexit.
(It is a minor miracle, by the way, that the Conservatives have retained control of Parliament through all of this. It is a testament to the total disarray of the Labour party, which in addition to being divided on Brexit, has been captured by its loony left which is up to its neck in anti-Semitism. There is a lesson there for the Democratic party.)
People are very loudly criticizing Boris Johnson right now, and I suppose his somewhat antic personality invites the criticism, but from what I can tell, he has done everything he would have to do if he were serious about following his mandate of pushing through Brexit.
He announced a plan for a “no-deal Brexit”—for leaving the E.U. unilaterally, without negotiated terms—by the end of October. Then he invoked parliamentary procedures to adjourn Parliament for the month leading up to that event so it couldn’t override him. A lower court judge ruled that this was a political decision within the purview of Parliament and the prime minister; a Scottish Court just overruled him and declared the suspension to be unlawful. There are plausible arguments on both sides, and the whole thing is headed to Britain’s Supreme Court.
In the meantime, Parliament passed a bill requiring the prime minister to ask for another extension from the E.U. that would push Britain’s exit to the end of January. (This is not the first extension. Britain was originally supposed to leave last March.) Johnson responded by calling for a new parliamentary election, and the current wrangling, as I understand it, is over whether the new election will be held before or after Johnson agrees to the extension.
If you view Boris Johnson through traditional political measures—if you ask whether he is acting prudently to remain in office, or to preserve his majority, or to pass a signature piece of legislation—his actions make no sense. But it all makes sense if you see him as a politician who has little to lose and who sees it as his job to push the Brexit conflict to its ultimate sticking point. And Johnson is taking this in the right direction: back to the people.
A new election is the only way to resolve the Brexit question. Specifically, Britain needs to take the two forms of assessing the will of the people, a referendum and a parliamentary election, and combine them. It needs a parliamentary election that is also a referendum on Brexit—an election in which Brexit is the central issue for every candidate.
For what it’s worth, as an outside observer, I am in favor of Brexit for two big reasons. The first is because the European Union is deeply unresponsive to the will of the people—passing regulations and controls favored by bureaucrats in Brussels, over which the people of Britain and the rest of Europe have little control. The second reason is the very difficulty of Brexit itself, what I think of as the Roach Motel effect. If getting out of the European Union is so difficult, if you can check in but you can’t check out, then Britons should be extra leery of remaining there.
But Britain will be able to exit the European Union only when, or if, it manages to align the will of the people as expressed through referendum with the will of the people as expressed through Parliament.