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With Brexit possibly just weeks away, most British voters are in the dark. So are members of Parliament. So are the million people, including three of my daughters and three of my older grandchildren, who recently marched in London to protest against Brexit. And so are the six million who have signed a petition calling on the government to remain in the EU.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that during my travels this month from the United States (US) to Ireland to Southeast Asia and then Tokyo, everyone seemed so bemused about how Britain had plunged itself into such a damaging crisis.
Britain has always had a fractious relationship with the EU. We were a reluctant joiner, yet we have thrived as a member. We stayed out of the things we did not like, such as the Euro and the Schengen area of border-free travel. We championed the single market, as well as EU enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. We were usually a leading advocate for more liberal economic and trade policies, and we have a more flexible labour market than any other member state except the Netherlands.
Despite these successes, opposition to the EU grew and festered on the right of British politics. David Cameron, Britain’s previous Conservative prime minister, thought that he could manage the right-wing English nationalists in his party by offering a referendum on EU membership. It was a reckless roll of the dice.
Cameron lost by a small margin, partly because of voters’ worries about immigration – even though most long-term immigrants to the UK come from outside Europe. The referendum campaign was characterised by delusion and mendacity: delusion that it would be easy to disentangle ourselves from the EU without any damage, and mendacity about the alleged benefits that would cascade down on us once we left.
There are three main reasons for the current mess, all of which can be simply explained.
First, large parts of the Conservative Party have embraced English nationalism. As Conservative activists have become fewer and older, so, like the Republicans in the US, they have become more extreme. As a former chairman of the party, I watch with horror as vengeful zealots hunt down moderate Conservative MPs in the manner of the Republican Tea Party ideologues. If the Conservative Party loses its moderates, it will lose elections.
Second, referendums are a direct challenge to Britain’s traditional democratic system. They are a binary and divisive deviation from a constitution that rests on the belief that MPs owe their constituents their best judgment of the national interest. Their informed consciences are not owned lock, stock, and barrel by those who vote for them. Plebiscitary democracy is different from parliamentary democracy. Yet a narrow vote for “leave” almost three years ago trumps whatever Parliament thinks now, even though recent polls show that a growing majority of voters want to remain in the EU.
Third, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government set the UK’s date of departure from the EU before it had tried to develop a consensus for what our future relationship with Europe should be. Remember, whereas the UK sends almost half of its exports to the EU, less than 10 percent of the EU27’s exports go to the UK.
May then tried twice to ram her own flawed withdrawal agreement through Parliament, and was soundly defeated on both occasions. With only weeks to spare, Parliament is now trying to find a compromise deal that would satisfy a majority of MPs and the other 27 EU members, whose patience is not limitless.
If MPs do approve an alternative plan, the question will be whether May is prepared to accept such a deal and present it to the EU. If she is not, this would provoke a major constitutional crisis, and perhaps trigger a general election.
May has become weaker by the day, and her authority has drained away. On 27 March, in a final bid to win support for her withdrawal agreement, May promised to resign if Parliament approved it. But even this did not seem to persuade May’s right-wing Conservative critics to come to her aid, while Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, on which her government depends for its parliamentary majority, continues to oppose her deal. The national interest has taken a back seat to ideological obsession and the leadership ambitions of some of May’s cabinet colleagues.
Time is short. Britain needs principled and courageous leadership. There is an old English proverb that says, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” – or, of course, the woman. Let’s hope that is still true today.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.