Brisbane, November 6, 2016 (Alochonaa): When the British people voted to leave the EU, the reaction from the establishment was disbelief mixed with utter disdain for the democratic process. Immediately, some MPs who had supported the “Remain” campaign announced that the referendum was non-binding, a petition went around asking for a repeat of the vote, and there was even talk of Scotland blocking the Brexit because, essentially, Scottish people only participated because they thought they would win, apparently.
Of course, the “Leave” campaign was not meant to win. The money from London and elsewhere in the EU, the heavy rhetoric and disingenuous alarmism from the government, not to mention the expanded electorate that included foreigners, were all meant to make for a vote that simply reaffirmed the path that Britain was already on – the path of the bankers, unelected bureaucrats and neoliberal economists. Yet win the “Leavers” did. Now, however, a British court has ruled that the path to Brexit must pass through British Parliament and millions of people are left to wonder whether this is a first step to Brexit or the beginnings of a ploy to block it for good. Unfortunately, on its own, the recent court decision is neither of those things and we will now have to watch the long and painful process of parliamentary negotiation take its course. Brexit is still on but the road just got longer, more complicated and less certain.
What Was Plan A?
Initially, once the referendum was successful and the British leadership became reconciled with their obligations to respect the decision of the British people and leave the EU, the plan was simple. The small group of politicians and bureaucrats clustered around Prime Minister Theresa May’s office would negotiate a new set of trade deals and regulations which would allow Britain to leave the EU and have something resembling a continental policy in place. The specific negotiations were always going to be difficult as the EU’s leadership and its constituent governments were not interested in giving Britain an easy time. With decades of work on collective EU regulations up for renegotiation, the process was never going to be quick or painless. Even the nominal 2017 deadline for a Brexit seemed overly ambitious to me given the volume of bureaucratic hurdles to clear. Then, enter the lawyers.
After a quick read over the fundamentals of the British legal system and traditions of government, some lawyers managed to convince a judge that only a full vote by the Parliament of Great Britain can trigger a Brexit. On its own there is nothing wrong with that. It is, in fact, common sense. Why should Theresa May, her favourite bureaucrats and the small group of politicians with prominent cabinet portfolios decide when and how Britain leaves the EU? Referendum or not, that is a power reserved for the Parliament as a whole.
The problem, however, is that those who have brought the lawsuit against the government have an ulterior motive. It surprised me not the least to learn that the primary mover of the court action to turn the Brexit vote over to Parliament was an immigrant investment banker. Could there be a greater stereotype to represent everything the “Leave” campaign hated about the entrenched, transnational, wealthy, London City-based establishment that calls the shots in British political life? Unsurprisingly, the litigants are openly against a Brexit but they, and their supporters, are couching their anti-Brexit aims in the language of democracy. Such is well-made rhetoric. The point of the lawsuit, so it is said, is that the people who voted to stay “get a voice” in the process. Now they – the “Remain” voters – will help determine the way Brexit is done, and this, apparently, will not lead to any disingenuous time wasting, undermining or derailing of the process. I won’t hold my breath on that one, particularly since time will diminish the resonance of the referendum and introduce unforeseen complications. To play for time might be the anti-Brexit team’s most innocuous move but it also might just be enough to win.
Why Play for Time?
Time changes everything. Governments hinge on unforeseen scandals in local bars or foreign capitals alike, the public can be transfixed by distant wars, a terrorist attack or latest economic trend, and the changing composition of competitive parliaments tends to dissolve old mandates and usher in new ones. Granted, it is a long time until the next British election given that the last was only in 2015, but distractions happen. Time ebbs away. On the surface of it, the latest roadblock for Brexit changes only the formalities of the process (which itself would give us pause to consider the reasoning behind bringing the lawsuit), and it is true that not much may change about the way negotiations are handled or the parliamentary vote proceeds. Modern prime ministers generally have strong control of their party, so it’s hard to imagine the Conservative Party not getting the legislation over the line when the time comes. Nonetheless, with a working majority in government small enough to be derailed by just a dozen or so dissenters, any Brexit legislation will be hard fought, hard bargained and heavily scrutinised. All that will take time, Brexit’s Purgatory, and every day gone makes that referendum less relevant, the opposition more insistent. Brexit isn’t dead but its struggling to rise.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.
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