The Brexit disaster could destroy the United Kingdom
If you're ever feeling glum about the wretched state of American politics, you can give thanks that at least we aren't the god-forsaken United Kingdom. Thanks to the dopey machinations of English nationalists, the U.K. may not survive the next decade in its current political incarnation. Nearly three years after a coalition of lying nitwits and careless grifters convinced a narrow majority of voters in the U.K. to plunge the country into seemingly endless political turmoil by leaving the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May's government is on the brink of a disastrous, unnegotiated departure from the EU, which in addition to inviting economic calamity, may ultimately push Scotland, Northern Ireland, and eventually even Wales to leave the U.K.
The country is now fewer than three weeks away from the March 29 deadline that has been hovering over British politics since May's government invoked Article 50 nearly two years ago. Since then, she has been trying to find a departure agreement with the EU that can satisfy a majority in Parliament. But her efforts have so far failed. That leaves the least-good "hard Brexit" — a departure from the EU without any negotiated agreement between London and Brussels on the terms — as perhaps the most likely outcome at this juncture. If no one blinks between now and the 29th, that is exactly what will happen.
When May's "soft Brexit" agreement was resoundingly rejected by Parliament in January, her government continued to work on an arrangement with the EU, and is set to hold another vote in the House of Commons today after May returned from last-minute talks with new assurances that could appease some of her critics. But all indications are that this gambit will fail, again. That may leave the U.K. with only three choices — a ruinous unnegotiated exit from the European Union, another three months of fruitless bargaining with the EU, or perhaps the only thing that can save not just British membership in the EU but the very integrity of the United Kingdom itself: a second referendum.
May's failure to steward a compromise through Parliament is puzzling. If Westminster parliamentary democracy is thought to have one very clear advantage over its American counterpart, it is decisive governance. The prime minister is a sitting member of Parliament and leads either the majority or the lead party in a coalition. Particularly with the kind of party discipline that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy can only dream of, a British government should rarely find itself incapable of implementing a prime minister's vision. Yet that is the unfortunate position the May government finds itself in.
First, the passage of time and the inability of the conservative minority government to build consensus around a negotiated departure has eroded the willingness of Labour Party elites to go along with Brexit at all. And without some Labour votes for a deal, May has nothing, because the Conservatives are also hopelessly split between those who want to chuck caution into the bin and trigger a sharp break versus those who support May's deal. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn's earlier decision to respect the will of the British public by backing the referendum result was abruptly reversed last month when it began to look like the issue was going to tear his own party apart. He now backs a second referendum. And with good reason: A hard Brexit could not only rattle the markets and plunge both the U.K. and the Eurozone into recession, but also lead to a disastrous breakup of the United Kingdom itself.
It has been five years since the Better Together campaign defeated Scottish secessionists by just over 10 points to remain in the U.K. Smarting from that defeat, leaders of the Scottish National Party (SNP) have been thirsting for a rematch with unionists ever since. That project has been complicated, to say the least, by the fact that support for Scottish independence does not appear to have climbed at all in the interim.
And that's where Brexit comes in. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has said she won't call for a new referendum until the curtain drops on the Brexit drama, gambling that if the U.K. does leave, especially on harsh terms, it might spike support for Scottish independence above 50 percent, since Scotland voted 62-38 for Remain in the 2016 referendum and clearly sees itself as part of Europe. That intuition is backed by recent polling suggesting that Scots prefer independence to either version of Brexit.
But the Brexit breakup of the U.K. might not stop there. In Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. and not the Republic of Ireland with which it shares an island, a similar dynamic is at play. A resounding majority in Northern Ireland voted Remain, and there is no way for the U.K. to fully leave the EU without re-imposing a "hard border" between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Irish border has emerged as perhaps the stickiest wicket in Brexit negotiations, and there's no clear way through. Either there must be some kind of a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, or there must be one between Northern Ireland and England. If not, the U.K. will not actually have extricated itself from the EU's freedom of movement rules. May's new deal with the EU apparently includes "legally binding" language that would prevent the U.K. from remaining beholden to EU rules and regulations indefinitely.
But the Irish border problem still threatens the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the decades-long "Troubles" between Irish nationalists and pro-U.K. unionists in Northern Ireland. May's earlier deal contained a provision that can lead to a "border poll," or referendum on unification with Ireland and departure from the U.K. While unification is not in and of itself a bad thing, the risk is that either a hard border or the pressures of a referendum could break the fragile peace that has held for two decades now.
It would be a great irony indeed if the selfish designs of English Brexiteers ended up fulfilling the dreams of both Irish and Scottish nationalists by cracking up the union altogether. And that's to say nothing of growing nationalist sentiment in Wales, which, although it voted Leave, has seen a decades-long project to revive the Welsh language bear fruit in the form of heightened nationalist feelings. While independence is currently a fringe position, imagine a Wales shorn of its fellow Gaelic entities in Northern Ireland and Scotland, facing English hegemony all on its own. It's not hard to see that scenario leading to a cascade of support for leaving the U.K. altogether and perhaps even a revival of separatism in Cornwall.
But what if the whole mess could be avoided entirely? That's the promise of the last-hour Labour Party gambit of calling for a second referendum. But there are several obstacles.
First and most importantly, Labour does not run the British government, and it's not clear that a parliamentary majority could be persuaded to back a fresh poll. The prime minister may yet buck the odds and persuade a parliamentary majority to support her deal with the EU, and if not she might either buy more time for negotiations, or simply let Article 50 work its dark magic on its own. But a new vote is now clearly the best option, and Corbyn is likely to put a referendum amendment in one of the upcoming votes on the matter. As the ship of state drifts inexorably toward the hard Brexit iceberg, either now or this summer, it is not outside the realm of possibility that enough MPs come to their senses and support a do-over.
Wouldn't holding a second referendum be anti-democratic, a slap in the face to the voters who endorsed the Leave campaign in 2016 and who have been waiting for years to see Brexit brought to fruition? Arguably no. While Leave cheerleaders told people the U.K. could easily negotiate terms with the EU, the reality has proven vastly more complicated. And that sense of being sold a bill of goods means that if the referendum were held today, Remain would win by 12 points, according to a recent poll.
That raises a kind of philosophical question: Is it proper to act on behalf of a long-gone momentary majority in a three-year-old referendum? Or should the U.K. take steps to ask today's existing voters (given the age splits in the 2016 poll, hundreds of thousands of Leave voters are probably already dead) for a clear majority one way or the other — either for May's deal with the EU, or for staying in the EU?
The late Benedict Anderson famously called nations "imagined communities" — millions of total strangers who somewhat mysteriously come to believe that they share a common fate. He wrote that, "the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion." In the end, Brexit threatens to rupture not just a nascent European communion, but to force everyone in the U.K. to revisit the question of exactly who they "imagine" themselves to be when they close their eyes.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the results of Wales' vote. It has been corrected. We regret the error.