20 April 2019 — New Eastern Outlook
So the Brexit saga has taken another twist, and become even more confusing and uncertain. All we can predict is that whatever the UK government says will happen is the one thing which won’t. May has failed to deliver Brexit. Instead she keeps coming back to parliament with an appalling deal. She’s now delaying Brexit and trying to get her deal passed again.
The government of David Cameron said the 2016 referendum would be advisory, not binding anyone to anything. Legally, that is still the case.
Yet the government has insisted ever since that it must pursue Brexit because it is bound by the will of the people. Both the courts and the Electoral Commission, which has the final say on such matters in the UK, have found that Vote Leave broke electoral law. If the result of the referendum HAD been binding, it would have been declared null and void for this reason. It is only because it wasn’t that the result has been allowed to stand.
The UK government insisted it would use Henry VII powers to force Brexit through without parliamentary or public scrutiny. The courts blocked that and so did parliament. Eventually MPs themselves took over the parliamentary timetable, which is usually set by the government, so they could debate what they wanted when they wanted with Theresa’s minority government unable to do anything about it.
Theresa said many times that the UK would be leaving the EU on March 29th, as she said in her Article 50 notice announcing the UK’s intention to withdraw. She also said that if that meant leaving without a deal on the future relationship with the EU, so be it
In the event, parliament rejected Theresa’s deal twice, but then also voted not to leave the EU without any sort of deal at any time, under any circumstances. On the basis of this, Brexit was delayed until either May 22nd, if the deal Theresa had agreed with the EU was finally passed by parliament, or April 12th if it wasn’t.
Ultimately parliament passed the “Cooper Amendment” which stated that Theresa must seek a deal from the EU which parliament can accept. She therefore asked the EU summit for another extension of Brexit until June 30th, but was forced to accept a longer extension, until October 31st, in the hope that she can still agree something, with somebody, which can get through parliament and also be acceptable to the EU.
The UK government also insists it will not revoke the Article 50 notice and keep the UK in the EU, even though it can send the notice again at any time. It also says it will not hold a second referendum on Brexit, despite the fact parliament can’t resolve the issue one way or the other and even some Cabinet ministers can see no other way forward. But no one knows how long it will maintain these positions, what will happen next, or who will be in charge by the time everything is sorted out, because we are supposedly in uncharted territory, with no clue as to what the likely outcomes will be.
It isn’t that uncharted. Most of what is going on now is familiar to those old enough to have been brought up in the Soviet Union. There isn’t a Soviet Union now for this very reason. But is it still possible to learn the lessons of that time, and use them in a positive way?
As things have been they can’t remain
It is obvious that Theresa May no longer wants to be Prime Minister. She offered to resign to get her deal through and is only staying on now because no one really wants to be responsible for the harm they will do to the UK and their own party by continuing with this madness.
Rather than being known as “Maybot”, this zombie of a Prime Minister might equally be known as “Leonid”. When Leonid Brezhnev was running the Soviet Union he was seen as personally representing Soviet Communism. Though few believed in his day that Communism would actually fall, there was much speculation about what would happen after his death or retirement – would the Soviet Communist Party be capable of adopting new ideas, even if they came from the same old crowd?
There was speculation that Soviet technology might be used to keep Brezhnev in power after his death, simply to preserve the system. Humorist Alan Coren wrote a piece which imagined a future Soviet Union run by a Brezhnev who was now only a brain in a vat of glucose, declaring war on Iceland because its shape reminded him of his wife.
Theresa is still in power because any new leader will split the Conservative Party so badly it may even cease to exist. The Conservatives are famous for bouncing back and sticking together more than the other UK parties. But when its own party newspaper is saying this could happen knowing that saying so will simply antagonise members on both sides of the Brexit argument, this is a genuine threat which no one seems able to address.
The Soviets ended up with Gorbachev, who was perceived in the West to be leading reforms but was actually the prisoner of events. If the Conservative Party goes the way of the Soviet Communist Party the UK will not change its political system, but it will change the assumptions of that system.
The terms “Conservative” and “Labour” could easily become irrelevant compared to “Leave” and “Remain”. At various points all UK politicians have had to adopt various ideas to be involved in politics at all – supporting the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, supporting the Welfare State or controlling immigration, depending on the exigencies of the time. Depending on who wins, either aggressive isolationism or blind inclusivity will be required at sword point, which could make all the current parties irrelevant.
Through the right window
The extension of the Brexit deadline, although it may be shortened again if a deal is passed, has emboldened some to think that the UK has plenty of time to either sort out a deal or set a new course. This ignores the fact that anything agreed must go through parliament, and MPs will actually be on holiday for much of that time, leaving a very small space in which any meaningful action can be taken.
When Brezhnev’s successor – Chernenko departed this life, Gorbechev was not the only possible successor. His leading rival was Grigory Romanov, a long serving Leningrad party boss who was seen as representing the old guard.
Romanov always claimed that Gorbachev got the job due to rule breaking and corruption. But there was another factor: could the Soviet Union bear to have another Romanov in The Kremlin?
Grigory was a peasant, not a descendant of the old Imperial Family. But insiders knew how insecure the Communist system really was, and could imagine the headlines – some already written – about a “Romanov Succession” in the Soviet Union. Had Grigory come along in Krushchev’s time, with the party seemingly unassailable and able to renew its leadership, he may not have had this problem. But in those circumstances his “window of opportunity” was gone, whatever his talents may have been.
Ever since the referendum, Brexit has been about which PR model captures the zeitgeist. Things you can say and do effectively one day don’t work the next, and the decisions made as a result of those PR actions only work if they are made at the right time.
The Leave campaign did very well with the slogan “Taking Back Control”. The same logic lies behind its position now, and as a logical proposition, the idea that the UK should regain all its allegedly lost sovereignty has the same force.
But people are less interested in it than in what they can see happening to their jobs and holidays and consumer goods. The time for this slogan has gone, and MPs are increasingly reluctant to be seen supporting it, even if it makes sense to them, because the public won’t listen to them if they do.
Nigel Farage has now launched his new Brexit Party to represent those he says have been betrayed by the failure to deliver Brexit. The referendum itself came about because the Conservatives had become scared of Farage’s every move. Time will tell whether his actions still have the same force – but the thousand or so who turned up to his big demonstration in London, and the million or so who attended the contrary demonstration, suggest that even Brexiteers are more interested in broader issues at present, and his time has gone.
Farage seemed to have a new lease of life. There was a sense of optimism from the couple of thousand or so of people who turned up for a kick off rally. This optimism comes from the memory of UKIP winning the last EU election, the fact that the main parties are so unpopular and that the Brexit Party seems like something genuinely authentic, new and interesting. There are also talks about how it’s got lots of funding recently.
All the while the Remainers are still sending negative messages, along the lines of “you were all conned, you can see this isn’t good for you”. They are still failing to capture the imaginations even of those who agree with them. But the question is what public pushback there would be in the event of decisions being made which fit Remainer or Leaver objectives – and at present, MPs who support Remain are more likely to get away with coming down on that side than Leavers are of pursuing Brexit, even if their own constituency parties don’t agree.
Flecker is long dead
As the recent parliamentary by-election in Newport West showed, few people want to talk about Brexit anymore. The candidates focused on other issues, and while UKIP increased its vote with celebrity crook Neil Hamilton as its candidate, the winning candidate was a Remainer in this majority Leave constituency.
The reason Farage is able to launch a new party is because he is still able to exploit public disquiet about the “political class”. But as Newport West, opinion polls and local elections have all demonstrated, it is no longer assumed that the “political class” is a bunch of Remainers frustrating the “Will of the People” to Leave.
Voters are becoming disenchanted with the main parties because they are either not Leave enough or not Remain enough, depending on their point of view. The deadlock in parliament, caused by both Brexiteers and Remainers hating Theresa May’s deal, reflects this. Voters of all stripes are now objecting to the political class simply because it is the political class, and the longer the impasse continues, the more they will blame the woes on the country on the political system itself, not the EU.
Can the UK’s political class of today survive Brexit, whatever its outcome? Any way it goes from here, it cannot help being blamed for so many things, by either side. Brexit will have to reinvent itself quickly or perish. The problem is that the UK has nowhere sensible to go, whichever direction it takes – and if Soviet experience is anything to go by, the post-Brexit UK will make the current impossible mess look like the “strong and stable” situation Theresa has long been mocked for promising, again and again, when she threw away her majority in 2017
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.