Too big to fail? Please. The 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom's membership in the European Union involved a constitutional question so large it was too big to succeed.
This is the only reason the national vote on Brexit was ever allowed to take place. Like Ted Heath and John Major before him, former British Prime Minister David Cameron found himself faced with the impossible task of placating the Tory Party's right wing. His exceedingly clever answer was to pretend to give them everything they have ever wanted. Ever since Enoch Powell and Michael Foot led the cross-brench opposition to the European Economic Community in the 1970s, it has been argued by opponents of the European experiment that if they only had the chance to vote on the subject again, British people would reject it. Here was a chance for Tory right-wingers like John Redwood and hardline Labour socialists Dennis Skinner to prove that they were right. Much to Cameron's surprise, they were.
It also turned out this didn't matter. In the Westminster system a referendum has all the constitutionally binding power of the annual CPAC presidential straw poll. The results can say anything they like — it doesn't matter if there is no parliamentary majority in place to enforce the will of the British people.
Not every opponent of European integration was fooled. The Mail on Sunday's Peter Hitchens, perhaps the wisest and certainly among the most amusing critics of the E.U., urged his readers not to vote in the referendums on the grounds that the result would be meaningless. If the British people really wished to leave, he said, they ought to have voted into power a political party whose manifesto committed the country to withdrawal by an act of Parliament. Because of the bizarre fault lines upon which support for the E.U. fall, ones that divide both of Britain's major political parties, this was never very likely to happen. But at least it made sense.
On Friday, Theresa May's Brexit deal failed for the third time, despite a ploy of her own nearly as clever as Cameron's decision to call the referendum in the first place. This was her offer to resign as prime minister if the bill passed. May was right to surmise that many hard-right Brexiteers loathe her with a fury that defies all logical explanation or ideological justification. Much of it is barely disguised misogyny. Unlike Cameron's cynical maneuver, however, May's bid for what wags should be calling "Therexit" strikes me as having been meant to succeed. The poor woman. I'm sure she is sick of this thankless job. Who wouldn't be?
My guess is that Friday's failure will lead to another extension of some kind that attempts to prolong the debate about the terms of exit for awhile longer. What if there are not enough votes for an extension, though? Or if the E.U., which has already granted a delay till April 12, refuses to play ball? (I for one hope for the latter, if only to imagine German Chancellor Angela Merkel triumphing once more in the autumnal twilight of her reign as the greatest Holy Roman Emperor since Frederick II.)
What would a no-deal Brexit actually look like? Who knows. It is to this unknown country that many Brexit hardliners wish to venture and never return. It is difficult to believe all the metropolitan liberal horror stories about food shortages and the end of air travel and mobs of St. George Cross-waving thugs roaming the streets burning cafés and gelaterias and stringing up anyone caught eating so much as a waffle. It is also difficult to believe that the whole thing will not be a logistical nightmare. Things that are meant to be impossible generally are.