National Security & Defense

Britain’s Post-Brexit Turmoil

Theresa May (Andrew Yates/Reuters)
There is no opposition party ready to govern.

It must be the balmy summer weather that makes me wonder if most people except me are losing their minds, and if our leaders, the beneficiaries and personification of the great democratic systems for which previous generations proverbially fought and which most of the people to whom statues have been erected throughout the Western world created or defended, have become the proper subject of what Alexander Pope called a dunciad. I have determined to avoid comment this week on the presidential campaign, after harping on it almost without interruption for months. It is bracing, self-confirming, to do so, like Washington Dimsdale telling Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again that “a man has gotta choose between the bottle and the badge.”

Without reflecting on the political implications of it, I cite the spectacle of FBI director James Comey testifying before a congressional committee about his decision in the Clinton e-mail case as illustrative of the pandemic of nonsense that is abroad. Under close questioning, he certainly seemed conversant with the facts, and, after acknowledging that many assertions of Mrs. Clinton’s about her e-mails were false, still clung, not only to his advice that no indictment was called for, but also that there was no reason to believe an offense had been committed. I haven’t examined the evidence beyond what is easily available in the media, and from that I never thought a criminal prosecution was justified, unless the Congress has a claim that Mrs. Clinton lied under oath. But surely there was a misdemeanor, which could have been resolved with a plea and a modest (to the foamingly rich Clintons) fine. That would have been better for everyone, including the Democratic candidate, than this farce, which crested between Bill Clinton’s interview with the attorney general on her official airplane and the FBI director’s po-faced exculpation of the indefensible.

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To apply this theme to my contention here last week, that Britain has become so politically erratic that Americans should not meekly accept pompous British disparagements of the mawkish American political process, the governing Conservative party has elevated, almost by default, a relatively colorless woman as prime minister. She campaigned, but only tepidly, to Remain in the European Union, a proposition the voters rejected, which caused the vacancy at the head of the government to be created in the first place. There have been some preposterous twists and turns in the political history of the United States, but not since before the Civil War has there been such a summer-lightning bolt of national neurotic inconsistency as has recently struck the United Kingdom.

Last summer, Scotland, representing about 10 percent of the population of the country, voted 55 percent to 45 not to secede from the United Kingdom. Two weeks ago, Scotland voted heavily to Remain in the European Union, while the majority of the country voted 52 percent to 48 for secession from the European Union. The prime minister, David Cameron, had promised “full-on treaty change” with his customary hyperbole, and returned from negotiations in Brussels with a trivial pseudo-concession that the 27 other member-states would consider British applications to vary benefit payments to migrants from the EU. He had been maneuvered into promising a referendum, and assumed that most Britons wanted to remain in the EU, if the abrasions of adherence could be moderated. The prime minister took for granted that the traditional British aversion to disruption would prevail. It is the stablest important country in the world and has had no serious political disturbances for 330 years. Cameron miscalculated and did the honorable thing in retiring.

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The unofficial leader of the victorious campaign to Leave the EU, former London mayor Boris Johnson, presumed to be a strong though schismatic candidate to succeed as prime minister, was deserted at the last moment by his chief comrade, Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who threw his own hat (officially a wig) in the ring. Johnson withdrew from contention. The succession to the leadership of the Conservative party is decided in a vote among paid-up party members (about 150,000 people), between the two most popular candidates as selected by the party’s sitting members of Parliament (330 people at present). With Johnson not running, Gove came in fourth of five, then last of three; and then the runner-up, Andrea Leadsom, a strenuous Leaver, withdrew, leaving Theresa May, the longest-serving home secretary in history, a tepid Remainer, at the head of a decapitated majority regime early in its mandate, with an undisputed parliamentary majority in favor of Remaining in the European Union, and a clear majority of the party’s voters in favor of Leaving.

We will know on Wednesday whether Mrs. May has got a government that adequately represents the popular majority, or just a patch-up regime stretched by Scotch tape and rubber bands across the mouth of an electoral cannon. Presumably, she will give the principal Leavers, preferably including Boris Johnson, positions, let tempers cool over the summer recess, and make discreet overtures to Brussels to come up with something better than the pittance it insolently offered Cameron, who stupidly accepted the insult and tried to present it to the British public as a concession. The litmus test of the new leader will be whether she can get concessions from Brussels that she can present to Britain as justifying another consultation with the country, which is what usually happens when the EU loses a referendum in a member country; and if she does not get such concessions, whether she can stand on the Brexit victory and bring her parliamentary party with her in triggering clause 50 of the European Treaty and negotiate to take the country out of Europe. A two-year game of chicken would then ensue, in the run-up to the next British election, in which Brussels would give way, or Britain really would Leave, whatever the Scots Nationalists and the quavering defeatists in the City (London financial community) think of it.

#share#As occurs in Britain every few decades (the Falklands War in 1981 was the last such occasion), there has been a great and spontaneous expression of the British people’s sense of itself: Brussels owes its existence to the statesmanship of Lord Palmerston, and Belgium owes much of the gratitude for its survival as a country to the courage of British and Canadian soldiers in both world wars. The British people will not be cuffed about by anonymous, unaccountable, snail-eating Eurocrats in Brussels, any more than they were by epochal masters of much of Europe, such as Louis XIV, Napoleon, or the Satanic Hitler. I do not imply that there is any moral equivalence among those mentioned; there was nothing particularly wrong with Louis XIV or Napoleon (apart from their territorial appetites) or the leaders of the Euro-apparatus in Brussels. But they counted without the determination of the British. Brussels is now back to its default position of complacent and impersonal authoritarianism in the over-invoked name of socialist Europe. It is noisily and smirkingly boasting that the British lion, after a slight roar, is slinking away with its tail between its legs. It isn’t, and it is not clear what Mrs. May will do about it.

Britain has joined the growing ranks of countries that don’t really have an alternative to their government.

The drama within the British Conservative party, unfolding as the Labour party joins the old Liberal Democratic party in a state of complete disintegration, illustrates that there is no longer a political system in Britain in which there are two parties that could govern. If Mrs. May cannot conciliate the Leavers, especially the UK Independence Party and its populist leader, Nigel Farage (whom the Conservatives have treated as the 900-pound gorilla in the room they don’t notice), the British Conservative party could split, as it did over agricultural protectionism in the 1840s (Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli), and over industrial free trade in the early 20th century (Joseph Chamberlain and Arthur Balfour).

Whether Theresa May manages this great challenge successfully or not, Britain has joined the growing ranks of countries that don’t really have an alternative to their government. In Germany, chunks are flaking off the governing coalition, and there are now five opposition parties, ranging from unregenerate Communists to crypto-anarchists to semi-skinhead racists, and only one of the parties and half of another are acceptable material to join the Christian Democrats in government. It is a potentially dangerous condition in Europe’s most powerful country. as all Europe, except perhaps Vladimir Putin, is waiting on Germany for a little leadership, after a drought in that department from Washington for many years. France, beyond the Gaullists and centrist Republicans, and a dwindling core of the reasonable faction of the Socialists, is a teeming sea of French cynicism and eccentricity unfit to govern Corsica, much less a France whose renascence as a serious influence is also much needed and awaited. Italy is a more riotously absurd political carnival than ever. No one can govern and no one wants to be governed. About 10 percent of these three countries are Communists and another 10 to 15 percent are anarchists or nihilists, and the fringes of most of the other parties are shaggy and fragile. Russia has given up any real pretense of being a democracy; all that can be said is that Putin is not as unmitigatedly odious as Stalin. He isn’t much of an improvement on Khrushchev or Brezhnev either, but has only half as many people to tyrannize as the Soviet Union had.

#related#There is room for serious reservations about the candidates in the U.S. election, and any adult on this planet would have to be brain dead not to notice that they both have legions of detractors. But as Americans prepare for the quadrennial spectacle of presidential nominating conventions, they can rejoice in the fact that only the United States and Canada, of the prominent Western nations, enjoy a system in which there are two possible parties of government and both are led by rational people. We will not have long before we are reminded that this is no small blessing, not necessarily from miraculous government in North America, but from potentially serious instability in Europe.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.

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