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Brexit: The messy aftermath of a bloody mess

There is real trouble in Britain these days and uneasy is the head that bears the leadership of a political party. J. BROOKS SPECTOR tries hard to keep up with a constantly changing political kaleidoscope in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

The British referendum to exit the EU continues to yield massive domestic and international fallout in the days following the announcement of the results on Friday morning. On Friday, it became clear that the popular vote came in substantially – but certainly not overwhelmingly – in favour (52-48%) of that departure from the economic union. Technically, the vote did nothing but register a national preference. Going forward, the really hard political business must begin to make this choice reality, or figure out a way to wriggle out of it without destroying the British political system.

With this vote, it became abundantly clear the nation was split dramatically by this referendum. Scotland, London, a few other major cities, and half of Northern Ireland voted to remain while the rest of Northern Ireland and most of England and Wales voted to cast off from the EU.

According to data already available, and anecdotally, the split was significantly along the age continuum. Younger people were substantially in favour of remaining within the EU (presumably thinking about the predicted costs the Brexit decision would impose upon them throughout their working lives). By contrast, older individuals had seriously gone the other way with their voting, probably channelling the Britain they must have remembered – or imagined – from their early years, or even from the country’s portrait on old TV shows and in movies like The Battle of Britain or the wartime version of Henry V.

Interestingly, according to those who track internet searches, Googled questions such as “What is the EU?” were running fast and furious from British search engine users. This seems a rather curious “cart after the horse has bolted” reaction, to say the least, now that the voting had already taken place.

Well, anyway, what’s done is done, right? Well, maybe. Or, not. In the on-going aftermath of the referendum vote, beginning on Friday morning, the political chips just kept falling. And falling. First was Prime Minister David Cameron’s stunning announcement that he would step down as prime minister by October, given his evident failure with the referendum he had promised back in 2013 and then couldn’t win. Since the Conservatives still hold a majority in the House of Commons and the current Parliament, statutorily, still has several years to run (unless a new prime minister were to call a snap election), whoever replaces Cameron will automatically become the new prime minister.

The problem for the Tories is that a significant number of their members supported the Brexit – in direct opposition to their party’s leader. And the two most-mentioned frontrunners to become prime minister, so far at least, had been vocal opponents of staying in the EU – Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Justice, and none other than Boris Johnson, now an MP, but formerly Mayor of London. (Johnson has had some serious history in his rivalry with David Cameron over the years and he clearly is relishing the chance to replace him.) Meanwhile, during his time in earlier portfolios, Gove had had a series of awkward collisions with parliamentary ethics standards, such as the way he had handled expenses claims for his residence, and his handling of freedom of information questions, besides the stinging criticism he had received from the nation’s teaching profession while he had been in charge of the education portfolio. Boris Johnson is, well, Boris Johnson, and he deserves an entire article soon, all to himself.

According to Conservative Party procedures, in determining who the next prime minister will be, the rules say MPs nominate their next leader and names getting at least two nominations must then be considered. The Tory parliamentary caucus as a whole then votes until the list is finally winnowed down to two candidates, whereupon all registered party members have their say-so on who becomes the next head of their party – and, crucially, who inherits the shambles that is the actual Brexit process.

Meanwhile, almost as if not to be left out in the spreading chaos, the Labour Party seems to be undergoing its own growing meltdown. Amid the uproar over the Brexit outcome, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn fired Hilary Benn from his role as shadow foreign minister. And remember, Benn bears a surname inextricably bound up in Labour Party tradition and history. Then, throughout Sunday afternoon, the hits kept coming. Shadow minister for health, Heidi Alexander, eventually together with nine other colleagues, tendered their resignations from Corbyn’s leadership corps, along with others not formally part of the ruling circle, even as the leader of the Unite trade union effectively called opponents of continued Corbyn leadership disloyal ingrates – or worse.

Even as Corbyn announced he had no plans to resign, some metaphorical long knives may still be coming for him too – in part for his visibly lacklustre party leadership generally, as well as his less than vigorous, public, impassioned support for remaining in the EU, even as most of the rest of his party had done so. Throughout the campaign, Corbyn couldn’t bring himself to appear together with Cameron, save at the memorial service for the slain Labour MP, Jo Cox.

If it should come to pass, Labour Party leadership selection processes are more public – and more raucous – than among their Tory opponents. Anyone who has paid their small membership fee gets to participate right from the outset under the new rules adopted the last time around. For that last party leadership election, more than half a million people had a say in the election. Of those, 54% were full-party members, 26% were trade union members and 20% were people who had become registered supporters through the payment of £3 (roughly R70) to get the right to cast a vote in that fun.

The Independent described the system when it was used for the first time in 2015, noting, “The party uses an alternative voting system – each voter had to place the four candidates in order of preference (once their names were placed in nomination by party leaders with support by at least 15% of Labour MPs). If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, the candidate that got the least first preferences getting eliminated and their supporters’ second preferences votes are redistributed until one candidate achieves an overall majority.” The whole thing was carried out via a computerised voting system that instantly displayed the results, as the process went along. This is the process that gave Corbyn his job as the party’s leader, after having spent years as a hard-left backbench member, with little record of parliamentary accomplishment.

Throughout the weekend, however, there have been more rings to this post-Brexit world than a Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey “three ring circus”. At a gathering of the major EU nations’ foreign ministers, led by the German, Dutch and French foreign ministers, those sombre-miened ministers announced that since the British had decided to carry out a referendum on their continued membership in the EU and that in the vote, Britons had given the grouping a thumbs-down, those British folks had best get on with it, no shilly-shallying around on it now. (Given the roiling of the financial markets as a result of the Brexit vote, one could hardly blame them for being more than a little concerned for the impact on international currency markets and the various European bourses, let alone for the effect on the more general economic stability of the globe.)

But this injunction was out of sync with what was going on in Britain. Almost as soon as the results were announced, a massive campaign for a do-over referendum had been launched and, by Sunday afternoon, over 3-million people had called (electronically) for a Brexit referendum 2.0. This total is an order of magnitude beyond the number needed to trigger parliamentary consideration of just such an action.

Moreover, in Scotland, where it seems it was rather hard to find a Brexit supporter, the leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of the Scottish Government, Nicola Sturgeon, has been hinting broadly that, given their full-bodied support for remaining in the EU, the Scots reserve the right to call a second referendum over their independence, or, at least, in the meantime, to prevent this hated Brexit from applying to Scotland. Speaking on Sunday to the BBC, Sturgeon had said, “Looking at it from a logical perspective, I find it hard to believe that there wouldn’t be that requirement – I suspect that the UK government will take a very different view on that and we’ll have to see where that discussion ends up.”

Of course, the voting in the referendum hasn’t actually done anything. Nada. Going forward, the now-walking dead, zombie British prime minister must actually, in direct opposition to his own strongly held views, ask Parliament to take some specific actions to prepare for negotiations with the EU trade bloc, and his government must trigger a formal Article 50 (of the EU charter) request to leave the grouping. Cameron would seem to be in no particular hurry to want to do this, presumably preferring to leave this messy business to his ministerial successor.

That would make sense, except that the pressure is on from the other European nations to get on with it so as to staunch the economic damage – and possibly other quarters domestically who are similarly mindful of the damage this policy drift can cause to the economy, the value of the pound, and the value of publicly traded stocks (and therefore investments and pension systems). Already one ratings agency, Moody’s, has rescored the British economy to give it a negative rating. Ouch.

In keeping with our reliance on some inimitable Gilbert and Sullivan music to understand properly the mess the British have now worked themselves into via this Brexit vote, the only place to turn to is that famous comic duet – with potentially deadly consequences from a marriage or the lack of one – between Yum Yum and Nanki Poo, Here’s a How-de-do depicts the impossible tangles of sorting out their planned nuptials that will cause their immediate demise, if the wedding takes place. (Did Gilbert and Sullivan know about Brexits?)

Or, as Yum Yum sings to her beau:

Here’s a how-de-do!
If I marry you,
When your time has come to perish,
Then the maiden whom you cherish
Must be slaughtered, too!
Here’s a how-de-do!
Here’s a how-de-do!

And then Nanki-Poo replies:

Here’s a pretty mess!
In a month, or less,
I must die without a wedding!
Let the bitter tears I’m shedding
Witness my distress,
Here’s a pretty mess!
Here’s a pretty mess!….

And they then sing together:

With a passion that’s intense
I worship and adore,
But the laws of common sense
We oughtn’t to ignore.
If what he says is true,
‘Tis death to marry you!
Here’s a pretty state of things!
Here’s a pretty how-de-do!
Here’s a pretty state of things!
A pretty state of things!

But if all these ructions weren’t enough complications on the British political landscape, who should suddenly appear in Scotland, like a grinning banshee – or perhaps the Mad Hatter arriving at the wrong tea party or maybe that embarrassing, inebriated uncle taking over the Christmas lunch from Hell – but Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee in the US. Trump wasn’t actually in Scotland to mix it up with the Britons over their Brexit mess (although he eventually couldn’t help himself on that score). Instead, he was there to open a newly built, Trump-ish golf course and hotel, the Turnberry, on the western Scottish coast.

But his visit just happened to coincide with the increasingly out-of-control aftermath of the Brexit vote. And in a sequence of increasingly tone-deaf moments, in front of a nonplussed press gaggle he dragged from hole to hole on his new golf course, Trump said he had come to Scotland for his golf course opening that he praised lavishly as the best thing on the planet. Then he berated President Barack Obama for warning that US-UK trade negotiations would become more difficult if Britain left the EU. Then the Donald pivoted and praised the British for their brave decision to support a Brexit. All the while, Trump seemed oblivious to the fact the Scottish had voted in favour of remaining within the EU. Along the way he also heaped praise on the pound’s tanking in the aftermath of that vote, arguing this drop would just make it cheaper for Americans to visit his golf courses. (One just has to wonder if he and Boris Johnson had time in the midst of all this for a phone chat to trade some choice insults about their opponents – or to plot how they would run things properly when they took over the two nations.)

Still, in spite of all the turmoil within the British political world, the EU’s responsibility for their part in this fiasco stands as well. Far too many people in Britain say they truly felt put upon by that imperious Eurocrat bureaucracy, a bunch that inserted themselves into everything, made picayune but binding and très annoying decisions about the size and shape of fruit for sale, and that gave far too many citizens a sense that control over their nation was inextricably ebbing away from home and on to those overpaid, overfed, pompous bureaucrats in their fancy offices in Brussels.

This feeling, of course, is not entirely limited to a slice of people in the UK. Many people in other member nations feel aggrieved over a wide range of the EU’s decisions (just as a discernible percentage of people in the US feel on the defensive about their sense of an overreach from the political and administrative centre that they can not affect).

But, with a feeling by some Britons that cannot take direct political action to change the EU’s leadership, politicians like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have been able to exploit this frustration to achieve their goal of a Brexit result – even if the promised financial or political benefits will prove to be chimeras or otherwise unobtainable. And there is at least some sense that some of the other nations within the grouping may similarly begin to move the same way. Is it too much to expect that there won’t eventually be similar movements in future to call for such votes as a “Grexit”, a “Departugal”, a “Czechout”, a “Finish”, and then, eventually, a “Germancipation” – with the only one left, eventually being “Remainia”? DM

Photo: Protestors gather outside the Houses of Parliament on the day British Prime Minister David Cameron announcing his resignation after losing the vote in the EU Referendum in London, Britain, 24 June 2016. EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

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