On Wednesday, the United Kingdom’s House of Commons took an important step toward pulling the country out of the European Union, passing a Brexit bill by an overwhelming margin: 494–122. Cowed by right-wing newspapers and fears that Brexit supporters in the rural shires and northern cities would punish them for defying the result of last year’s referendum, hundreds of pro-European M.P.s voted for the legislation, which opens the way for Theresa May, the Conservative Prime Minister, to trigger Article 50 of the European Union treaty.
Once May takes that step—and she has said that she wants to do it before the end of March—negotiations will begin with other E.U. members about the terms of Britain’s exit. Most experts expect these talks to last about two years. And then, to the delight of xenophobes and nationalists everywhere, Britain’s forty-four-year partnership with continental Europe will most likely come to an end. M.P.s will get an up-or-down vote on whether to approve the deal the government reaches with the E.U., but they won’t be able to amend it. In another parliamentary vote on Wednesday, a proposal to hold a second public referendum after the exit negotiations are completed was heavily defeated.
The Euroskeptics, pro-Brexit campaigners, and Trump appeasers are busy celebrating. David Davis, the Minister for Brexit, called the parliamentary vote “historic.” Nigel Farage, Trump’s pal who used to head the U.K. Independence Party, said, “I never thought I’d see the day where the House of Commons overwhelmingly voted for Britain to leave the European Union.”
Farage was being honest, at least. Back in 1993, when he helped to set up UKIP as an avowedly nationalistic and anti-European party, calling for the U.K.’s withdrawal from the E.U. was a fringe position in British politics. But during the past decade and a half, as the E.U. expanded to the east and large numbers of migrants from countries such as Poland and Latvia arrived in Britain, anti-immigrant and anti-E.U. sentiment flourished. With the right-wing tabloids busy running stories, many of them dubious, about immigrants with large families relying on welfare programs, many British voters paid little attention to careful studies showing that E.U. migrants, as a whole, pay considerably more in taxes than they receive in government benefits. Fake news triumphed.
It would be uplifting to report that since the referendum, in June, which the Leave side won by fifty-two per cent to forty-eight per cent, the pro-Europe forces had been making a vigorous effort to persuade the public that it made a disastrous mistake. That hasn’t happened. Under the leadership of the hapless Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party, the main opposition group in Parliament, has come around to toeing the pro-Brexit line. In advance of Wednesday’s vote, Corbyn ordered Labour M.P.s to support the Brexit bill, and most obeyed his edict—though fifty-two defied Corbyn and voted as their consciences dictated.
To be fair to the Labour Party, it is in a tough spot. Like U.S. Democratic congressmen and senators from districts and states that Donald Trump won, the Labour Party’s M.P.s can’t afford to ignore the views of their electors. Many represent working-class constituencies that voted for Brexit, and the rise of UKIP represents a serious threat to them. Corbyn’s edict reflected a fear that if the Labour Party were seen as trying to overturn the result of the referendum, it could get wiped out in the next election. But for all this cold political logic, it was a sorry sight to see Labour, a party with a long tradition of internationalism and standing up for minorities, lining up alongside the Farages of the world.
Political self-interest also played a big role on the Conservative side, where loyalty to May and the Party leadership overcame the qualms about Brexit that many centrist Tories still have. (Unlike in the U.S., the phrase “centrist conservative” is not yet an oxymoron in Britain.) Ken Clarke, one of the Party’s elder statesmen, who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under John Major, during the nineteen-nineties, was the sole Tory M.P. to vote against the Brexit bill.
Last week, in the lead-up to the vote on the bill, Clarke gave a speech containing some hard truths about his party and the Brexit folly. Referring to Enoch Powell, a Conservative politician who turned himself into a political pariah by delivering a virulently anti-immigration speech way back in 1968, Clarke said that Powell, who died in 1998, would “probably find it amazing to believe that his party had become Euroskeptic and rather mildly anti-immigrant in a very strange way in 2016.”
Ridiculing May’s recent claims that leaving the E.U. would enhance Britain’s standing in the world, and enable it to make its own trade deals with countries like America and Canada, Clarke went on to evoke “Alice in Wonderland.” “Apparently you follow the rabbit through a hole and you emerge in a wonderland where suddenly countries throughout the world are queuing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets,” he said. “Nice men like President Trump, President Erdoğan are just impatient to abandon their usual protectionism and give us access.” Clarke added, “No doubt somewhere there is a Hatter holding a tea party with a dormouse.”
The sarcasm was eminently justified. For all the talk immediately after the Brexit referendum about Britain seeking to leave the E.U. gracefully and with continued access to its huge market for British firms, it’s now clear that isn’t going to happen. Non-E.U. members who want close ties to the union must pay a price: accepting free movement of labor and making a contribution to the E.U.’s budget. (That is what Norway does, for example.) But May, in seeking to appease the xenophobes, has said that restricting immigration is her first priority. That means the so-called soft-Brexit option is off the table. If the other E.U. members play hardball during the upcoming negotiations, which they have every incentive to do in order to discourage other countries from leaving, U.K. exporters will get no preference at all: they will be on equal standing with Brazilian and Chinese firms. Britain will have to make its way alone.
For the City of London and British industries with close ties to Europe, such a “hard Brexit” represents a grave threat. Already, bankers in Frankfurt and Dublin are talking about poaching business and talent from their London-based competitors. Reflecting the blow to Britain’s competitiveness, the value of the pound sterling has fallen sharply since the referendum. In the short run, this has helped cushion the blow to the economy by making British exports cheaper, and G.D.P. growth has held up better than many analysts expected.
Over the long term, though, the United Kingdom faces the prospect of being a small open economy with a vulnerable currency and a persistent trade deficit. Britons with a long memory, of whom there don’t seem to be very many, will recall that during the nineteen-eighties it was exactly this uncomfortable set of circumstances that prompted Margaret Thatcher, who was hardly a lover of the Brussels bureaucracy, to support the single-market project, which eventually led to the E.U. we see today.
Surveying the challenges ahead, the respected non-partisan Institute for Fiscal Studies is now projecting that the U.K.’s G.D.P. will grow by just 1.6 per cent this year and 1.3 per cent next year. To meet its budget targets, the May government will have to continue with austerity policies that have already lasted nearly eight years. “Cuts to day-to-day public service spending are due to accelerate while the tax burden continues to rise,” Paul Johnson, the director of the I.F.S., said.
There is a grim parallel here with what is happening in the United States. In Britain, the biggest beneficiaries of public-spending programs are low-income voters, many of whom voted for Brexit. Likewise, in the U.S., Trump’s tax cuts and his proposed repeal of Obamacare will hurt the poor and benefit the rich. In both countries, the hard-pressed will be the ones who pay for the populist lurch. It is almost too depressing to watch.
Author: John Cassidy