The day is coming for Britain to pay the price for the temper tantrum it called a referendum

  • Britain’s parliament is expected to put Theresa May’s Brexit deal to the vote
  • Every possible route out of the Tuesday parliamentary bloodbath seems awful
PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2018, 9:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2018, 1:15pm

Thirty months ago, in the surreal and depressing wake of the June 23, 2016 Brexit referendum, I wrote here in the South China Morning Post about the “naive craziness that has exploded across the UK”, and “a million mad questions” the Brexit vote has aroused.

I then talked about the “vicious internecine leadership battle” that the ruling Conservative Party had fallen victim to, and put down markers on the implications of that terrible childish temper tantrum we called a referendum.

Now, 30 months later, over a weekend during which a majority of British parliamentarians seem to be set on tearing away as much of their own flesh as possible – and ahead of a Tuesday vote in which the hapless and dutiful Theresa May throws her tortuously forged Brexit deal under a Parliamentary bus – I revisit those markers to reconsider whether as much masochistic harm has been inflicted as I feared.

First marker: that the decision to hold a Brexit referendum was the hopeless symptom of a vicious, internecine leadership battle for the soul of the ruling Conservative Party that resolves nothing – neither the intractable rift in the Conservative Party, nor Britain’s always stressful relationship with Brussels.

Two years on, I rest my case. Since David Cameron fell quickly on his sword, the improbable May has limped dutifully forward, aware that as soon as the unloved and inevitably flawed separation deal is done, she will be cast aside as the true pretenders to power – Boris Johnson, Joseph Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove et al – resume their self-obsessed warfare, still seemingly unconcerned at the harm done to the millions of British people.

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Every possible route out of Tuesday’s parliamentary bloodbath seems awful. If the deal is trashed, then four awful options emerge: May returns to Brussels with the impossible task of seeking further concessions; she throws in the towel, tasking a new Tory leader to take a new “minimalist” plan back to Brussels; the government calls a fresh referendum, which must presumably include the options not just of accepting or rejecting the May deal, but of staying in Europe – opening a Pandora’s Box even larger than that opened by the original referendum; or calling a general election – which in the present mood would likely return a Corbyn Labour government.

It is anyone’s guess what such a new government would do with Brexit, but for sure the March 29 deadline for settling an exit arrangement is exactly that – a “dead” line.

From my vantage point, all four outcomes point to chaos and uncertainty, taking no one in the UK any nearer to a new plan on Britain’s future relationship with Europe, with a certainty that Brussels will reject whatever eventually emerges.

Second marker: that the Brexit conflict is a symptom of a nation fundamentally divided. London versus the rest of the country; Scotland and Northern Ireland against the English; the young against the old; the rural versus the urban; the privileged and supine metropolitan elite versus a marginalised middle class.

Today, these divides remain as absolute as ever. Two years of ferocious, incestuous debate seems to have left these divisions as deeply entrenched as ever.

One can sympathise with the upswelling public demand for “a peoples’ vote” – a fresh referendum not just for or against the May deal, but on whether the UK should abandon the Brexit project and instead remain in the EU – but must also ask what such a vote can possibly resolve when differences remain so implacably entrenched.

Third marker: that the trauma will be felt as awfully across Europe as it will across the UK. Today, I am not so sure about this. The EU’s negotiators have gone to great lengths to retain European unity in the face of Britain’s decision to break away, and at present, that unity seems to be holding firm.

At the same time, Britain’s Little Englander movements have found common ground with similar xenophobic and nationalist movements across Europe; in Italy, Austria, Germany, among the Spanish Catalan separatists, or the inchoate “yellow vest” movement currently challenging Macron in France. Who knows where this will lead, but it is unlikely to be good.

Fourth marker: that the 2008 global financial crash is playing a big role in this. Two years on, I still believe the Brexit catastrophe could not have occurred without the crash of 2008. The economic harm inflicted by the crash, in particular the loss of jobs and job security, has played a massive part in fanning the xenophobic flames in Europe, and contributed powerfully to the emergence of Trump in the US.

The Brexit mess has obsessed a nation when government time and attention is needed as an urgent priority to focus on economic recovery from the crash, fixing hospital care, housing, elderly care, and all of the other bread-and-butter challenges facing the UK economy.

Think of the valuable work those 512 senior civil servants – and four ministers – seconded to the Department for Exiting the EU at a taxpayer cost of £32 million (US$40 million) could be doing with their time.

Fifth marker: the Brexit initiative has spawned a legal nightmare for those tasked with managing the separation. Perhaps half of the UK’s laws are rooted in EU legislation, and are going to have to be redrafted. The reality of disentanglement will take a decade or more.

This is a good time to be a commercial lawyer, but a terrible time for businesses in search of legal certainties. Two years on, and with a chaotic exit in prospect, now is not the time to plan ambitious business initiatives in the UK. The prospects for jobs, economic growth, and for the British currency must surely be perilous.

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I noted back in the immediate wake of the Referendum that “British people voted as children, with a terrible temper tantrum, for which the price to be paid will be incalculable”.

Sadly, two years on, it is Britain’s politicians who are voting as children, and the incalculable price continues to rise.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view