Politics & Policy

Wasted Brexit

Pro-Brexit protesters at the “March to Leave” demonstration in London, England, March 29, 2019. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
For lack of will, the U.K. has squandered the opportunity to do a proper housecleaning.

Two years ago, I said Americans should envy Brexit. History rarely affords legitimate and stable democratic governments the opportunity to hack away at decades of accumulated cruft in the law. But Brexit seemed to provide the opportunity of a lifetime for policy entrepreneurs. Nearly one-sixth of the laws on the United Kingdom’s statute book come from Brussels. And so, theoretically at least, Brexit provided an opportunity to examine the regulatory books and decide which of these 12,000-plus regulations proved useful and would be copied back into the law by Parliament, and which could be altered and adjusted. An energetic administration could find scores or hundreds of protective regulations that may have been inserted at the behest of obscure or long-defunct interests in Continental countries, and create opportunities in the United Kingdom’s economy. It was a chance to do a proper housecleaning without the bloody mess and costs of revolution.

And it’s been wasted. Entirely. Utterly.

It has been stymied because the two-year Article 50 process for Brexit, like all delayed implementations, allows political losers to find extraordinary means of resisting the outcome. It has been stymied because the Brexit cause itself was a divided house. Brexiteers who wanted full parliamentary sovereignty and trade across the Commonwealth or Anglosphere disagreed with Brexiteers who wanted something more like Norway’s arrangements, which include access to European markets, absent the full obligations imposed by the political European project. It has been stymied because Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election, hoping to crush a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn and win a mandate over her fractious coalition, and she instead lost the Tory majority in Parliament. European negotiators successfully drove a wedge between her and the Northern Irish Unionists she needed to pass a withdrawal agreement.

But most important, the Brexit opportunity is being wasted because the class of politicians, civil servants, and diplomatic personnel who would need to prize this opportunity, to let it fill them with renewed purpose and vigor for serving the public in a time of extraordinary change, simply aren’t interested in the project at all and not-so-secretly hope it goes away. Brexit had won the referendum, but there was no Brexit party to implement it. A democratic people, in the face of a unified establishment, had thrust an agenda on a parliament that is theoretically sovereign. Parliament has spit the bit.

Theresa May herself campaigned for Remain. For reasons of party unity she tried to balance between Remainers and Leavers in her cabinet. The United Kingdom’s trade representatives in non-EU countries will often be asked to talk about Brexit. Instead of thrilling to the opportunity they have to make their own jobs important, and make their mark on the life of their country, they roll their eyes as they explain their government’s position. They talk about their own government the way a son or daughter talks about the senile ravings of an elderly relative who just embarrassed them.

Brexit was an insurgent political cause, but there is no sense of insurgency in the Tory party or the government, no energy or drive to do the great thing with which it has been tasked. Even some of Brexit’s champions in the party seem as if they prefer to be “for Brexit” rather than “responsible for Brexit.”

VIEW GALLERY: Brexit Demonstrations

And it is that last thought which I take to be a testament to the European Union’s worst feature. It doesn’t just impose its will on national parliaments, in a fundamental way it infantilizes them. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. But Brexit has come, with all its risks and opportunities. And there is no man coming. Just a gaggle of schoolyard cliques, hissing and rolling their eyes, sending each other nastygrams on WhatsApp. Seriously, that seems to be the chief preoccupation of the United Kingdom’s government: typing Tory gossip into a social-media app made for teens. The opportunities inherent in Brexit are being squandered. Faith in the United Kingdom’s form of government may be next.

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