Nick Cohen, a British author, journalist and political commentator, is a columnist for the Observer.
Brexit Britain has reached populism’s inevitable terminus. The government is collapsing as Conservative ministers vote against their own administration with impunity. The equally chaotic opposition cannot oppose. No one can say whether my country will crash out of the European Union provoking an economic and social crisis. Honest commentators don’t make predictions anymore, but stare at the wreckage with slack-jawed disbelief.
“We have no idea where we are going,” Sam Gyimah, from Theresa May’s ruling Conservative government, said last week (although I use the word “ruling” advisedly). “There is no strategy; there is no plan.”
The British crisis is deeper than the United States’ because at its heart lies a failure of truth-telling. We have no equivalent of the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives; no power center or coherent voice that can expose the populist politicians whose combination of cynicism and magical thinking led us to this pass.
The Brexit that the electorate narrowly voted for on June 23, 2016, could be achieved in two ways. Britain might choose a complete break with the European Union. It would necessitate rebuilding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that would threaten the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, one of the greatest political achievements of my lifetime. It would rip Britain out of the E.U.’s single market, the destination of 44 percent of our exports, and out of 46 years of agreements that allow the frictionless movement of goods, services and people. It would destroy Britain’s Customs Union with the E.U., along with free-trade agreements with 56 other countries. It could still be done, but by God, it would hurt.
Alternatively, we could stay in the Single Market and Customs Union, accept E.U. laws we had no say in making, and leave in name only. A course that would raise the pertinent question: Why bother?
Like populist movements across the West, the Leave campaign refused to make a tough call. Instead, it promised that wrenching change could be achieved without pain. Unlike the nationalists of the 20th century, who fetishized sacrifice, their successors are the authentic representatives of a baby-boomer generation that wants to have it all. Boris Johnson, an upper-class politician who could make President Trump seem a model of integrity, and his fellow supporters of Brexit promised that the task of securing a fresh trade deal with the E.U. would be “one of the easiest in human history.” As it has turned out, the tension of reconciling the populist propaganda of the referendum campaign with protecting the economy has caused a nervous breakdown in politics, and the real negotiations haven’t even begun yet. Meanwhile, British exceptionalists, like their American counterparts, insisted that other countries would bow before us. We were repeatedly assured that the E.U. needed us more than we needed them, a brag that grows more absurd by the day.
But it has been the referendum’s aftermath that has killed Britain. May had supported Britain staying in the E.U., but she never took apart the fantasies of the Leave campaign or made the hard choice explicit. The opposition Labour Party is under the control of Jeremy Corbyn and his far-left faction, which is closer to the communist than the social democratic tradition. Uniquely, among European center-left and post-Marxist leaders, Corbyn has been anti-E.U. all his career. In another instance of British exceptionalism, he believes against all evidence that Britain can go it alone and build socialism in one country. Naturally, he and his supporters have shown no inclination to argue the pro-European case either.
As a result, millions believe that Brexit is failing not because it was a doomed project but because an evil elite is subverting the people’s will.
The complicity of our political leaders has emboldened the worst type of nationalist. Right-wing ultras have twice stopped May’s tentative attempt to begin a deal with the E.U. by protecting the Irish peace settlement. They cannot stand compromise, however modest. Although individual journalists, activists and politicians have tried their best, most of the 17.4 million who voted for Brexit in 2016 have never seen the men who so casually offered them false promises held to account.
It is anyone’s guess what will happen next. There’s talk this week that perhaps May’s withdrawal agreement will pass Parliament on the third or fourth attempt, but parliamentary procedure might prevent her trying again. No one knows. Parliament said on Thursday it is now prepared to ask the E.U. to extend the deadline for Britain’s departure beyond March 29. The E.U. is under no obligation to agree. Even if it does, what would be the point? There is no consensus on what we should do next. Britain is deadlocked, and the catastrophic possibility of the country crashing out of the E.U. without a deal should not be underestimated.
I have no wish to diminish the seriousness of the criticisms against Trump or suggest that he is fit to govern a great country. But Trump will be gone by 2020 or, if the Democrats mess up, by 2024. Brexit gives every indication that it will paralyze Britain for a generation.