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An un-United Kingdom confronts the Brexit Dragon 4.0

An un-United Kingdom confronts the Brexit Dragon 4.0
Protesters at a ‘Put it to the People’ march in London, Britain, 23 March 2019. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in the protest calling for a referendum on the final Brexit deal. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Facundo Arrizabalaga)

Britain is now facing the fact that whatever it does in future is simply going to make a further mess of things in its hapless quest for a bloodless divorce from the EU.


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!


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!


Here’s a state of things
To her life she clings!
Matrimonial devotion
Doesn’t seem to suit her notion –
Burial it brings!
Here’s a state of things!
Here’s a state of things!

from Here’s a How-de-do from The Mikado (WS Gilbert /A Sullivan)

Watch and hear the full song:

At their heart, those perpetually popular comic operas from Sir William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan are satires of 19th century British mores and customs, regardless of whether they are set among the Mikado’s Japanese, among the gondoliers of Venice, or with the pirates off the coast of Cornwall. In The Mikado, for example, by the time audiences get to listen to Here’s a How-De-Do, echoing the near impossible strictures of Victorian Britain, an all-encompassing problem has been created that seems certain to thwart both love and life – virtually guaranteeing death and unrequited affection.

But, fortunately, by the end of the second act of any of their light operas, those impossible knots have been cut, and the whole cast can join on stage, singing lustily, in a grand joyful chorus, there will always be an England, that the flowers will bloom in the spring, and that all’s right with the world.

But in real life, the unholy mess British politicians have made for themselves over Brexit is not so likely to end the way Gilbert and Sullivan light operas do, with everything nicely and tidily resolved in the last few minutes.

Over the past several years, a campaign has been waged by opponents of British membership in the European Union, the EU, that played on some ancient, nearly tribal, feelings about being sucked into the devious morass of a united Europe. This culminated in the Brexit referendum under Prime Minister David Cameron. It was littered with misleading slogans on the part of the Brexiteers about the British regaining control of their sovereignty, and ceasing to send so much hard-earned British money to all those evil gnomes in Brussels’ EU bureaucracy so they could waste it on their diabolical schemes to regulate everything in sight.

Contrary to expectations, the vote went 52% to leave the EU. The result was, at least in part, due to the vaguely formulated referendum question; the big lie that saving all those nasty tithes going to the weasels in the EU bureaucracy would mean more funds for the national health service; and that woeful, smug campaign to remain that had been waged half-heartedly by a divided Conservative Party whose government under David Cameron had initially, and blithely, pushed the referendum.

Lurking in the background, too, was a kind of old-style, small town, populist/nationalist/racism (often expressed by the uber opportunist politician Nigel Farage) that appealed to the feelings of an older generation frightened by the seemingly unstoppable, grinding processes of globalisation and internationalisation – and all those foreigners who come to desecrate their Britain. In the end, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Greater London all went strongly for “remain”, but the Brexiteers found their backing in the rest of England, including all those coastal towns filled with retirees who were part of the core of that nationalist feeling.

Theresa May took over as prime minister from the deeply humiliated Cameron, and she, in turn, promised to negotiate an exit deal from the EU, with the EU, by 29 March 2019.

No problem”, this promise of a plan seemed to say, given that it was years into the future. Those days, weeks, and months passed – but the deal eventually hammered out has been rejected multiple times by the British parliament, even as the deadline clock has continued to count down to zero.

That, in turn, seemed to leave standing the alternative of a “hard Brexit”, or a non-negotiated departure that simply ended British participation in the EU, without any sort of ordered, negotiated arrangements over a whole desktop full of contentious, prickly issues. These range from new and unplanned-for customs logistics, procedures and arrangements to the status of the Irish/Northern Ireland border that had by now largely vanished in normal commercial circumstances; the agreed status of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa, and the applicability of any EU trade agreements with other nations to the UK, all just for starters.

In the meantime, however, the anti-Brexit forces had not been sitting idly by, even if their own parliamentary reps in either major party had largely been unable to set forward a cogent, compelling, coherent alternative pathway out of the maze, beyond: “Just don’t do it.”

Outside of parliament, the anger of the British public, or at least a significant portion of it, has led to organising and agitating for an end to the Brexit fiasco, or at least a second referendum, now that the public has had the issue and its subplots debated ad nauseum – and the costs and benefits of the departure from the EU aired more fully.

An online petition has already registered some 5.23 million signatures, and growing (there are some concerns about the legitimacy of each and every signature but, regardless, even if a few thousand names must be tossed out, this is already an unprecedented number of signatories) demanding a second referendum. Meanwhile, a weekend march and rally in London may well have brought together as many as a million protesters, insisting on a new referendum or simply for the country to just forget the whole thing and return to the status quo ante of EU membership, before all this increasingly bizarre nonsense began.

As business analyst Chris Gilmour argued on Facebook the other day:

So here we are, almost three years down the track, in political gridlock and virtually everyone sick, fed up of hearing about Brexit. But sanity is creeping back in – the 5 million people who signed the anti-Brexit petition and the 1 million-plus marchers in London yesterday demonstrate unequivocally that there is PROBABLY now a majority in favour of remaining.”

The BBC, reporting on these events, said:

Hundreds of thousands of people have marched in central London calling for another EU referendum, as MPs search for a way out of the Brexit impasse. Organisers of the ‘Put It To The People’ campaign say more than a million people joined the march before rallying in front of Parliament. Protesters carrying EU flags and placards called for any Brexit deal be put to another public vote.

On Thursday, European leaders agreed to delay the UK’s departure from the EU. PM Theresa May is coming under pressure to quit after saying she might not put her Brexit deal to a third vote by MPs. Speakers at the rally included Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, former Tory turned independent MP Anna Soubry and former attorney general Dominic Grieve. Crowds were told the initial count showed more than a million people had turned up – putting it on a par with the biggest march of the century, the Stop the War march in 2003.”

For her part, given Theresa May’s parliamentary debacles, the British prime minister did manage to extract an extension from the EU in order for her to gain parliamentary approval of a separation agreement, even though that has already proved to have been unachievable in Westminster. While referendum 2.0 still seems unlikely, following the weight of the petition and march, the pressure to schedule a “do-over” has surely grown.

Defenders of the results of the first referendum as something sacrosanct and not amenable to change seems odd. Things change, circumstances change, popular opinion changes, facts change. Elections are, after all, largely the “do-overs” of an earlier choice by an electorate, and by now, most rational people seem prepared to admit the information in the hands of the people at the time of the referendum was hardly comprehensive or even fully factual.

Of course, scheduling a second version would seem to be the final death knell to Theresa May’s continued tenure in office, given her repeated denials of any chance of a second national vote. But, following what has already happened, those events would seem to be the cause of May’s imminent political demise anyway, as her would-be Tory successors are already flying in gyres around her barely breathing political corpse.

But the outcomes could be yet more far-reaching. The political humiliations might trigger a new parliamentary general election following a vote of no confidence. But the Labour Party is scarcely in a better, more unified shape over Brexit.

Historian Anne Applebaum, writing in her weekly commentary in The Washington Post, argued:

Her [May’s] secrecy and incompetence have created ill will in Europe, and real anger in the House of Commons, some of whose members have belatedly tried to take control of the Brexit process. They have begged her to try a series of votes, to try to find one version of an exit plan that could pass the entire chamber. John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, produced a decree from 1604 in an attempt to prevent yet another vote on her deal, after two had already failed. But she seems to take none of it in.

On Wednesday evening, she made a bizarre, crypto-populist appeal, over the heads of Britain’s elected representatives, to the nation: ‘You the public have had enough,’ she declared. ‘You are tired of the in-fighting. You are tired of the political games and the procedural rows’ — as if the political games and procedural rows were not all entirely her fault. ‘It is high time we made a decision,’ she said — as if she were not the one preventing Parliament from doing exactly that.

Others have contributed to this crisis. Cameron; the Labour opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has not lifted a finger to offer a constructive solution; an incompetent series of Tory ministers. But May is in charge, and she did not get this job by accident. I once saw a photograph of her at university, wearing a neat skirt and sensible shoes while everyone else had long hair and hippie dresses. She has been doing conservative politics ever since then, and she has wanted to be prime minister ever since then; she spent her whole life, motivated by loyalty to the Tory party, training for this job. Now she has it — and she has used it to steer her country into a humiliating crisis.

The slogan of the ‘Leave’ campaign, back in 2016, was ‘Take Back Control’. But Europe has now taken back control of May’s botched Brexit. And however it ends, it won’t be a success.”

And that just points to other casualties from this mess. Yes, the credibility and continuity of Theresa May as party leader and prime minister seem at a virtual end, but Britain’s reputation as a whole is not coming out much better. As a separate entity outside of the EU, Great Britain shrinks to a sort of economic “Middling Britain”, useful for some great shopping and often great theatre, but not to be seen as a serious global player any more. Even if the country is ultimately able to cobble together some kind of new economic relationship with the EU, the reputation of the country’s prowess as a negotiator internationally would seem to be fatally compromised. Whoever follows Theresa May, regardless of party, will need to wrestle with these tainted – even poisonous – legacies. And no Gilbert and Sullivan choral finale is going to fix everything.

There will be none of this kind of singing at the end of things:

With joyous shout
With joyous shout and ringing cheer
Inaugurate, inaugurate their brief career!
With joyous shout and ringing cheer
Inaugurate their brief career!
With joyous shout and ringing cheer
Inaugurate their brief career!
With song
And dance
With song and dance! 


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