Brexit: a total failure in political leadership

Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to be enough of a savant about British economics to make an informed call on whether Britain should leave the European Union or not. However, I felt compelled to point out a few things that bug me about the way the debate has been handled by all political factions involved.

Since the Leave option won the referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union, the Remain camp, including most of the British media, has been going on about a technicality that may prevent Brexit from actually happening. According to English constitutional lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, parliament has to repeal the legislation that keeps Britain in the EU. Were this consideration to eventually prevent Britain’s departure from the European Union, the irony of it would be absolutely supreme.

(Soon to be former) Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his intention to depart, as he should. However, the reason for his departure should not be that the Brexit vote won the referendum, or that Brexit’s win somehow illustrates that Cameron’s defence of Britain’ EU membership was insufficiently competent or passionate. Cameron should go because he has proven himself incapable or unwilling (or both) to exercise the leadership the position of Prime Minister demands. If Parliament refuses to repeal laws linking Britain to the EU, ultimately preventing Brexit, the referendum’s only effects will have been to expose Cameron’s inability to govern the country and to force his resignation.

On a broader scope, however, the entire Brexit saga shows that the leadership void in British politics doesn’t come close to stopping with Cameron. I found the campaign to be both boring and saddening, when it should have been anything but. It basically turned into a battle between those who, out of what they perceived to be necessity, wanted to stay in the European Union and those who wanted to leave it for the wrong reasons. Again, that is symptomatic of an endemic failure in leadership from British politicians. Whether Brexit ends up happening or not, they have failed their electorate.

The Remain camp, it seems to me, failed in part because it refused to acknowledge that this referendum was at least in part about identity, a term by which I’m not referring to the xenophobic and ignorant ramblings of UKIP, the toenail fungus of British party politics. However, by adopting a line of reasoning that amounted to, “I know Leave is right about this, but…” Remain effectively chose to campaign solely on a platform of would-be realism that felt like surrender.

Asking the proper questions

Enter UKIP leader Nigel Farage. He is rightly portrayed by non-UKIP supporters as a clown and a caricature, but he does have some sort of quirky charisma. Now, in the context of everyday British politics, this doesn’t really matter, as UKIP’s xenophobic rhetoric makes the party unlikely ever to leave the fringes. However, give Farage co-leadership of a highly visible campaign such as, say, the one for Britain to leave the EU, and even he can, clumsily scrambling for arguments, stumble into a valid question or two.

Do you feel European? Do you feel any sense of belonging to this entity apart from the fact that you’ve learned from your first day in school that it is a continent to which your country belongs?

We know the actress Emma Thompson feels European, but her expression of enthusiasm for Britain as part of the EU was so isolated that it merely felt strange. The Remain camp needed more people like her to explain not just why Britain had no choice but to remain in the EU, but also why they should be excited about it.

Besides, the aforementioned questions might seem silly, but they have the benefit of spawning more important ones, such as these: Does the EU lessen the weight of its members’ own democracies? In fact, can anyone actually deny that the EU is fundamentally anti-democratic? Why can no one refute the claim of Peter Hitchens, one of the rare English social conservatives with an ability for independent thought, that the EU is an extension of German rule by other means?

In the days following the Brexit vote, many Remain supporters lamented that Churchill’s dream of a “United States of Europe” was dead. It’s true that he did want that, but one has to wonder whether he would have wanted these “U.S.E.” to be structured as they are now.

And that’s what saddens beyond all else in this entire saga. Apocalypse predictors who spring up at sovereignty-referendum time are a supremely annoying crew (I’m a Quebecer; I’m all too familiar with them). Still, it may very well turn out that the Remain camp is right about the devastating economic impacts of leaving the EU. It may turn out that remaining within the EU is as close as it gets to an economic imperative for Britain. If that’s the case, however, then this is a truly depressing state of affairs. Because what no one within the Remain side has been able to convincingly deny is that the European Union is every bit the democracy-denying, sovereignty-siphoning, autonomy-crushing behemoth the Leave side portrays it to be. That reality alone creates a principled case for Britain to leave it. 

The problem with the left’s case to remain

The right’s case to remain is obvious and doesn’t require much of an examination. The left’s case for remaining (apart from the perceived economic imperative), however, is both more interesting and puzzling. Remain leftists pull off their best rhetorical gymnastics by readily conceding the Leave camp’s points about the EU’s undemocratic nature while arguing that this argument is overstated. (Which sounds like utter tripe if you ask me. Would Britain be forced to abide by many EU rules in order to trade with its members? Quite possibly. But, at least, as a fully sovereign country, it would have a choice whether to do so or not.)

They concede that they too would too, as the absurdly intelligent former Greek Minister of Finance Yánis Varoufákis put it, love to “give a bloody nose” to the Merkels and Djessenbloems of the world. This, however, as Varoufákis points out, should not be the criterion, they said. He’s right, and they’re right. However, on the flip side of it, it seems shortsighted to remain in the EU to avoid, as Varoufákis jokingly threatened, “ending up with Boris Johnson.” Now, he said it as a half-joke, but one gets the sense that for many Britons of the left, this consideration actually played a role in their decision. To my knowledge, elections would still exist after departing the European Union, and the British could send Johnson packing to the elephant graveyard of wacky opportunistic politicians where he belongs.

The left also seems to fear that leaving the EU would render Britain a place of xenophobic, racist, ultra-nationalistic madness. That this fear has become the core of the left’s case to remain is proof of the catastrophic failure of leftists figures who voted to leave (and had they not been there, Remain would have won) to mount their case credibly, and in public. One senses that they abstained from doing so because they so strongly feared being associated with Farage and Johnson. Here, sadly, once again, was the left being gutless.

The result was, as I said earlier, that the Leave side looked like anti-immigration dunces who are a step away from playing with their own feces. But if that’s all the Leave side was, it wouldn’t have won. The British left, spearheaded by the media that represent it, now seems content to label Leave’s win as the triumph of intolerant interests, but it wasn’t. It was, for the most part, Britons trying to reclaim their democracy.

Whether you agree or not with the idea spewed by the British left that David Cameron undermined British democracy more than Brussels, whether you agree that leaving the EU would make it easier to deny immigrants the right to enter Britain (somewhat questionable) and privatize the National Health Service (much more questionable), it’s hard to argue against the notion that the British alone should weigh in on these decisions.

Or so you would think…

The dirty secret of the Remain side that we publicly saw is that their case intrinsically carries some level of unbelief in democracy. To argue that Britain could not avoid tearing itself apart in xenophobic zeal after cutting the cord from the benevolent protection of EU regulation is to give British voters very little credit. Does the EU vote in Labour and the Tories? No. Is it the EU that keeps UKIP on the British political fringes? No. So why the apparent belief that the EU is required for moderation, sensibility and inclusiveness to prevail in British politics?

There is no valid reason to believe this, especially when one considers the rise of extremism in places like Greece, Denmark, and the Netherlands, all EU member nations, of course. Whatever patronizing stance one wants to take on Greece and its recent economic struggles, who can blame Brits for fearing that the outright crushing of democracy the EU conducted in Greece after Syriza rejected Angela Merkel’s austerity measures might someday happen to them? The only way to rationally downplay these concerns is to start with the belief that people cannot be trusted to make important decisions about their own future. Then again, it’s hard not to feel that way when the only two faces you see telling you that leaving the EU is a good idea are Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, both of whom would give Charles Darwin second thoughts about his discoveries.

As for the naïve idea of leveraging a “Leave” vote into more favourable conditions for Britain within the EU, as well as for the halfhearted attempt to suggest the best path forward is to reform the EU from the inside, both should be dismissed. As far as the European Union goes, you are either in it or not in it, in much the same way as you are either pregnant or not pregnant. And once you are in it, you can wish for all the changes you want, but your voice is one among many. Change is, in this context, much easier said than done.

Whomever wins, I’m pissed…

If Parliament refuses to invoke Article 50 to initiate departure procedures, the undemocratic nature of this gesture is not up for debate. You either care that the move is undemocratic, or you do not. Again, I’m not familiar enough with the economics of Britain to side with either option with any true conviction, but one thing is striking to me: the case to Remain was uninspiring at best, and the best case to leave wasn’t made by people who could articulate it properly. And now, the country’s future rests on Parliament’s decision of whether to respect the will of voters or not, which figures to expose MP’s lack of political will more clearly than anything that’s ever happened before. So to their entire political class, the British get to say, “thanks for nothing.” Shame.


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