Brexit: A Rationale, not a Defence

Britain’s existential Brexit crisis hit the streets in October, with an election now on the political calendar for December 12. For the U.K., it could be a defining moment of nationhood in peacetime. Wikipedia photo


As the United Kingdom braces for an election that will presumably be a de facto referendum on Brexit, former Canadian ambassador to the U.K. Jeremy Kinsman writes that, whatever odds London’s famous bookmakers are offering, hold your money on the outcome. 

Jeremy Kinsman

Brexit: A synonym for political chaos and confusion. To ardent advocates in a divided and embittered Britain, it represents a noble and historic national cause. Opponents fear it will reduce the United Kingdom’s stature, prosperity, and even size, tempting Scotland and Northern Ireland to defect from what they see as English nativism. Polls indicate most in Britain regret the way the 2016 referendum amounted to a careless leap in the dark, a simplistic binary choice then Prime Minister David Cameron presumably didn’t think he would lose and hardly tried to win. 

After three years and four months of confusion, conflict, delay and multiple failures to agree on how to exit the European Union, Parliament has decided on a general election December 12 that citizens hope can end the nightmare of stress, division and uncertainty.

Having earlier lost his working majority in the House of Commons and been repeatedly rebuffed by Parliament and the High Court, Prime Minister Boris Jonson sought Parliament’s tentative backing in principle for a new exit deal. But the principle was conditional on acceptance of opposition amendments seeking a non-member relationship to the EU closer than hardline Brexiteers who’ve hijacked the Conservative Party could bear. EU ex-partners, over their Brexit remorse and keen to re-focus on reforming the bloc to meet the expectations of its 450 million remaining citizens, agreed to a final extension of Article 50, the divorce mechanism of the Treaty on European Union, until January 31. 

So, Johnson, who has opened up a surprising lead in the polls, wants the election to win an outright parliamentary majority, enabling him to “Get Brexit Done” his way. But the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 stipulates a two-thirds majority to call a snap election. Distrusted in Parliament as a flip-flopping exhibitionist, Johnson’s blithe self-confidence merits discounting. He has over-played every hand he has held since party faithful chose him for PM based on his apparent winnability. 

But he won support to proceed December 12 from the third-party Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists both of which support “remain” and see themselves trending as refuges for voters repelled by both Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s truculent “old Labour” socialism and by the Conservatives’ right-wing nationalism. Having withheld agreement until a no-deal Brexit bill was off the table, Corbyn then joined in. Under-35s, looking to their future, overwhelmingly support “remain” parties. Over-55s, perhaps out of nostalgia, overwhelmingly support the Tories and “leave.” Hold your bets on the outcome. 

Is the Brexit saga part of a global populist trend? Or is it a political phenomenon specific to grievances felt in the British Isles? Brexit supporters do share some grievances felt by anti-establishment voters elsewhere, over immigration, and feeling left behind economically, especially in comparison to London elites. 

But the primary driver is specifically British, or more accurately, English, individualism, enveloped in an over-arching cloak of “identity” — the gut feeling the English just aren’t European by history or social inclination. 

The historic postwar European political project to end the continent’s murderous wars never resonated the same way in Britain, where culture provides a constant bath of nostalgic and often mythic dramatizations of the distinct British winner’s role in WW II. This may explain Cameron’s reticence in the referendum campaign to praise the historic merits of the EU project. By ignoring its epochal and existential achievement of pooling sovereignty for the common good, he gave Brexit opponents a free run to depict it as a threat. They called for reclaiming “control” — of “our own borders, currency, and laws.” 

The reality is that Britain had kept control, having opted out of communitarian and ambitious EU projects such as the Schengen common travel space, the euro and the European social contract. U.K. motivation for joining the European Community in the 1960s was almost exclusively mercantilist. Once in, the U.K. generally resisted further deepening of substantive EU cooperation beyond commerce, while promoting accelerated widening of EU membership, thereby diluting the union, and the weight in it of Germany and France. Yet, over time, British officials became a vital force inside the EU system. The EU sailed more strongly internationally because of U.K. membership, as did the U.K. because of the leverage the EU provided.

But Tony Blair, originally an EU advocate, chose to line the U.K. up with the U.S. by fronting the phony U.S. case for the catastrophic 2003 joint invasion of Iraq. He thereby aggressively opened an EU split between “old” Europe which mostly deplored this U.S./U.K. war of choice, and “new” Europe, ex-Soviet bloc entrants more inclined to look to the U.S. for security. After Blair’s reputation in Britain plummeted, Labour entrusted new leadership to the most “un-Blair” “old Labour” hands available — eventually Jeremy Corbyn’s — accelerating polarization of U.K. politics and the evisceration of the centre, the place where compromise thrives.

Boris Johnson, Britain’s third PM in as many years, takes his idea of country to the voters on December 12, having been defeated in the House on his Brexit timeline. Andrew Parsons Flickr photo

Despite Britain’s robust separation of powers, Johnson attempted to push through a harsh Brexit. He was stymied by parliament and the High Court. His hints at a populist Brexit election campaign for the people and against London’s elitist institutions seem inspired by the populist authoritarian playbook. Hope persists that an election, and if necessary (if Johnson fails to win a majority), a second referendum will restore the body politic’s ability to compromise, which the Brexit crisis eroded.

Whatever happens, relationships inside the country, and with ex-European partners (with which a more difficult negotiation on a new relationship lies ahead), will likely suffer. But the tortured saga at least provides a valuable cautionary tale to others in the EU itself where populist nationalism has also been fueled by identity issues. 

In the transitional post-Cold War 90s, former members of the Soviet bloc sought to fill the void left by communist evacuation by nationalist recourse to ethnic solidarity, old values and cultural traditions. At first, Western capitals and the early, humanistic post-communist leaders rationalized the look to the past as a nation-rebuilding phase that would pass. But opportunistic populist politicians exploited the emotive nationalist wave, gaining power via divisive majoritarian and often ethnic and sectarian messaging to “the people.” Under a banner of “democratic illiberalism,” Hungary’s Viktor Orban stoked opposition to immigrants, denouncing oversight by a secular and remote EU hierarchy he maintained kept the country down.  

Beyond the EU, populist strongmen like Erdogan, Duterte, Bolsonaro, and, of course, Putin, ditched ideology in favour of personal power, hobbling the checks and balances representative democracies vitally erect to prevent excessive executive control — a robust parliament, independent courts, and a vigilant press.

Obviously, the U.S. is undergoing a similar collision between an expansive, impulsive, populist and nationalist executive and Congress, in a divided society, amplified by a distorted social media environment that fosters disrespect for traditional centres of expertise, authority, and even scientific evidence. A decisive political battle is underway.

It’s fashionable in the populist political world, for protagonists like Trump, Steve Bannon, Dominic Cummings, or Matteo Salvini, to vaunt political competition as a form of war between antagonistic sides. It has been a recurring and destructive theme since populist plebs faced off against elitist tribunes in the earliest days of the Roman Republic. Canadians believed our political culture was immune to nativist populism. The surge of identity politics via the Bloc Québécois probably does have more to do with Canadian regional specificity. 

Our courts retain authority and credibility. Inclusivity still reigns as Canada’s over-arching civic theme, and anti-immigrant messages got little traction in our election. Federalism provides a check and balance against over-powered majority regimes in Ottawa. But if untreated, reanimated Western alienation could prove toxic, especially if provincial leaders are tempted to run against Ottawa in the style of European national leaders who habitually ran at home against Brussels, undermining public support for the EU itself. The election’s minority government outcome is an opportunity to strengthen our democratic institutions and processes, especially after a derisive and negative campaign.

One Canadian check and imbalance cries out for repair. The Liberal majority government elected in 2015 marginalized Parliament, over-empowering a ham-handed Prime Minister’s Office, including at the expense of ministerial authority. We need a cooperative parliamentary culture, especially to contribute usefully to a consortium of like-minded democracies (hopefully including Britain) to defend liberal internationalism against populist nationalism. It can’t be done just by signaling our virtuous democratic credentials. As for the U.K., Canada needs to show outsiders and ourselves that our democracy works.

Policy Magazine contributing writer Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador to Russia, the U.K. and the EU. He is affiliated with University of California, Berkeley, and is a distinguished fellow of the Canadian International Council.