Britain’s political system is not equipped to deal with the falloutby Peter Kellner / January 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
A small group of us, brought together by Carnegie Europe, were dining in a Brussels restaurant as news of Tuesday night’s Commons votes came through. As one EU hand put it, “it’s as if Theresa May were captain of the Titanic, asking the iceberg to move.”
At present, the Brexit saga appears to have no happy ending. Maybe the EU will give way on the withdrawal agreement; more likely it won’t. Maybe the Brexiteers in the Democratic Unionist Party and the Economic Research Group will throw in the towel and back the prime minister’s deal; more likely they won’t. When the issue is finally settled—next month? later this year?—maybe the losing side will shrug its collective shoulders and say, “fair enough, we were beaten fair and square”; more likely—and this is the really terrifying thing—more likely they won’t.
While we wait to see precisely how the EU says “non” to May’s demand to rewrite the withdrawal agreement, let us consider the long-term consequences of the events that are now unfolding. They look increasingly bleak.
It is often said, and rightly, that a defining characteristic of an effective democracy is the right of voters “to throw the rascals out.” One requirement for this to work is that the “rascals” accept defeat. If they don’t—if they allege foul play—then trouble looms.
This is the prospect that the UK faces later this year or next year. If we leave the EU without a further referendum, then millions of voters will feel cheated. The most obvious complainants will be the two million voters who were too young to take part in the 2016 referendum and who overwhelmingly want the UK to remain in the EU. They will not be alone in feeling perturbed. Millions of others will, with reason, say that the Brexit we got was nothing like the Brexit we were promised. The phantom £350m a week extra for the National Health Service is just the start.
Conversely, what if we do have a fresh referendum and decide to stay in the EU after all? Then Leavers will say that the 17.4m people who supported them in 2016—the largest ever mandate by a British electorate for any government or policy—has been ignored.
One does not need to endorse the complaint from either side to predict turbulence. The…