Britain on the edge

Whichever direction the country takes from here on Brexit, it will remain deeply divided
Over the past week, a 2015 tweet by former British Prime Minister David Cameron has been widely reshared online. “Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice — stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband,” he wrote on May 4, before the general election. Mr. Cameron won that election decisively, but the rest of his prediction has been looking darkly comic as Britain continues to stumble from one political crisis to another.
Many adamant parties
Last week, the respite that came after the British Cabinet formally backed a withdrawal agreement reached with European Union (EU) negotiators lasted less than 24 hours, for a series of resignations later and the prospect of a no-confidence vote now threaten to disrupt the deal. Five Ministers are lobbying Prime Minister Theresa May to change the terms of the deal. Ms. May is adamant that she won’t step down. She insists that her deal meets what the people voted for in the referendum and prevents the development of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Just as determined are the so-called hard Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson. They are eager to avoid any form of customs alignment with the EU that will dent Britain’s chances of forging trade deals, even if the limits are only temporary. They’ve been lining up an increasing number of Conservative MPs to call for a vote of no confidence in Ms. May, though it is still unclear if and when they will have the sufficient numbers to do so. What worsens the situation is that, thanks to the general election that the government risked last year, it is now dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to get anything through Parliament. The DUP is deeply unhappy with the state of affairs, arguing that the graduated customs arrangement being proposed will threaten Britain’s territorial integrity. The Labour Party, while insisting that it is committed to Brexit, wants the government to return to the negotiating table. It dubs the current deal a “huge and damaging failure” which fails to live up to shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer’s six tests to judge the deal. So determined have Brexiteers been to shout down anyone warning of potential disruption that they’ve remained firmly oblivious of basic realities. Senior economists and business leaders, and even Britain’s own Chancellor of the Exchequer who has warned of negative consequences, have been portrayed as anti-national establishment figures intent on “talking Britain down”. Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab rather chillingly admitted that he had been unaware of how reliant British trade was on the crossing between Dover and the French port of Calais. Mr. Johnson dismissed some of the warnings of chaos as “pure millennium bug stuff”, conveniently forgetting that issues had only been avoided in 2000 because of the tens of thousands of hours spent in preparation. Britain is as obsessed with its colonial history as ever — the language of Empire and one-upmanship has also been infused into the national debate. References to Britain being reduced to “colony status” or “vassalage” abound, while newspaper headlines rage indignantly against defeats or gloat over victories notched up against European negotiators. The trouble is that in the hubris, the public had been left with a distorted sense of reality. It’s not surprising that many think it’s fine to leave the EU when they are fed such castles in the air. The idea of an independent trading nation not structured by pesky foreign courts or regulations is pure fantasy in today’s world. An ugly debate around immigration has also taken hold (it’s noteworthy that in her defences of the deal, Ms. May has repeatedly pointed to the end of free movement as if to justify all other compromises). Whichever direction Britain takes from here, society will remain deeply divided. To even begin to move forward, Britain needs a good dose of reality and an honest conversation.
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