Maybe Theresa May does have a sense of humor after all -- and perhaps it is rather darker than people think. On Monday morning, at the beginning of an unprecedented week in United Kingdom history, May was once again addressing the nation. She had chosen Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, right in the middle of the country, for the occasion. The city of 260,000 was once a prosperous steel and coal town -- and it is a Brexit stronghold.
May was standing in a low-slung warehouse beneath some large, insulated pipes and surrounded by stacks of cups, bowls and plates. And she was there to issue one last call to reason. It was one of the most important speeches in the history of the United Kingdom.
And Theresa May was giving it in in a china shop.
It no longer matters what she said in these 20 minutes. On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, British parliament, and the country's political leaders more broadly, delivered the ultimate proof that reason no longer plays much of a role in the country. "The mother of all parliaments," as the British lower house has been called, seemed content to dramatically humiliate its prime minister only to confirm its trust in her just 24 hours later. What she now intends to do with that trust remains to be seen.
Over two thirds of the lower house -- 432 lawmakers, including 118 from May's own party -- voted "no" to the Brexit agreement she had painstakingly negotiated with the European Union. Such a decisive defeat is unparalleled in modern British history; the MPs didn't just reject May's deal, they pulverized it. This, despite the fact that it was the only deal on the table. Two-and-a-half years after the Brexit referendum, the UK is back where it started.
Should things remain as they are, the country will leave the EU in fewer than 70 days without an agreement, without a transitional period, without a safety net. There is still time to prevent this disaster, which would also be catastrophic for the rest of Europe. But there is nothing currently indicating that this country, united only in its unwillingness to compromise, will pull itself together. Nobody knows what will happen next.
All that's clear is that Britain's European tragedy, which reached its high point in June 2016 with the Brexit referendum, is far from being over. The more time passes, the more the individual factions, camps and regions of the country drift apart.
A Laughing Stock
Brexit, Theresa May said, was to be "a moment of renewal and reconciliation for our whole country." She could hardly have been more wrong. The referendum -- a plebiscite that decided nothing -- has quietly eaten away at the country from inside. And its dogmatic, egomaniacal, petty politicians simply looked on while it happened. The United Kingdom, a country so proud of its exemplary democracy, has willfully transformed itself into a laughing stock.
The size of the political failure and the depth of the people's disgust with the political elite is difficult to understate. It remains to be seen how it will be governed going forward. And who will be in charge.
Theresa May, who has been humiliated more often and more deeply than any British prime minister before her, seems to believe she will still be able to somehow get Brexit across the finish line. By Monday, she must explain how she intends to do so. For the first time in more than two and a half years, she will need to attempt to establish bipartisan consensus. May, who paradoxically always seems stronger the weaker she is, doesn't give up. Even her fiercest rivals now admire her tenacity. But what use is staying power when the battle being fought is a losing one?
Furthermore, much of the mess can be blamed on May herself. After the referendum in June of 2016, which only narrowly went in favor of Brexit, she never tried to reconcile the almost equally large camps of EU-skeptics, EU-supporters and non-voters. There was no big speech, no big gesture. On the contrary, the 48 percent of voters who opted against Brexit, a group that included countless, globally-oriented young men and women, were ridiculed by May as "citizens of nowhere."
Among the many tragedies of Brexit is that just when the UK could have used a leader full of energy, vision and empathy, it received a dithering and uncommunicative bureaucrat. Instead of Churchill it got Chamberlain. May hunkered down with a small circle of confidants in 10 Downing Street and treated Brexit like a finicky brain-teaser. A problem of the mind. Not of the soul.
It was a fatal miscalculation, argues political scientist and former Labour lawmaker Tony Wright. Years before the referendum, Wright wrote about an identity crisis afflicting his countrymen and women. The British have "no clear idea about who they are, where they are, or what they are," he wrote in 2002, in an essay called "The End of Britain?"
"Britishness," according to Wright, was a construct created to unify the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish. In the 20th century, he argued, this worked very well, because "war, empire and monarchy provided much of the historical and symbolic glue." As the memory of those grand accomplishments faded and the monarchy entered into crisis, he argued, that glue weakened and, as a result, the United Kingdom entered the 21st century "in deep trouble."
During Tony Blair's government, the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish, but not the English, received their own regional parliaments. Following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, different regions recovered at different speeds, if they recovered at all. Although business was soon booming again in London's financial center, many old industrial areas in England continue suffering to this day. And the austerity subsequently imposed by the country's political leaders has massively exacerbated inequality.
All of this helped revive the English dream of national greatness, with Brussels and the "European superstate" as its scapegoat. It's no accident that the English and Welsh voted in favor of leaving, while the Londoners and Scots voted mostly against it.
"The country is at war with itself," Wright says today. "This culture war was not started by Brexit, but unleased it." Everyone, he argues, is part of it: the old and the young, the urban and the rural, the fearful and the brave, citizens of nowhere and citizens of somewhere. They are fighting over terms like "homeland" and "identity," the kinds of ideas that have strengthened right-wing parties elsewhere in Europe. In the UK, however, the entrenched party system doesn't allow for new political powers to emerge. Instead, Brexit played that role. Like an ulcer, it has become embedded in all parts of the country and in all political parties and now it is destroying them from the inside.
And like an ulcer, it demanded treatment in the form of striving for some form of nationwide consensus. Instead, though, Theresa May walled herself off and treated Brexit like some kind of secret commando mission. She trusted the Labour Party under the socialist Jeremy Corbyn as little as she did the 60 Brextremists in her own party.
A Pinball of Political Interests
To mollify the anti-EU faction, May adopted a hardline negotiating position early on. Her country, she decided, would exit the EU's common market and customs union, and leave the jurisdiction of the European Court. It would sign trade agreements around the world and only allow a small number of Europeans to work in the country, but still somehow be as tightly bound to the EU as possible.
British parliament wasn't supposed to play a role in her decision-making. By calling an early election, she expected to secure a large enough majority to govern unimpeded.
That, though, is not how things turned out. After the June 2017 election, in which May lost her majority, she became the head of a minority government, and, from that point onward, became the pinball of various political interests. To survive, she spent months avoiding further commitments, before presenting a compromise deal this summer that would have meant such a soft Brexit barely anyone would have noticed.
In doing so, May managed the rather neat trick of making enemies of both Brexiteers and Remainers. Indeed, the only people happy with it were her negotiating partners in Brussels. EU proponents wondered why they should agree to a plan that would involve countless EU commitments without any rights. Anti-EU politicians, meanwhile, saw the emergency backup plan for the Northern Irish-Irish border as a trap.
To prevent inspections at what was to become the EU's outer border, London and Brussels had agreed on a so-called backstop which held that if the two sides didn't sign a free-trade agreement by the end of the Brexit transitional period at the end of 2020, Northern Ireland would remain in the EU customs union and, in practice, within the common market. Brexiteers saw this as an attempt to divide the UK permanently.
May believed, until recently, that should would manage to get her deal through parliament. She believed that the closer the Brexit date came, and with it the prospect of a no-deal exit from the EU, the more members of parliament would go with the lesser evil -- her Brexit deal.
She was late -- too late -- in recognizing that she was heading towards an historic defeat. In early January, she first tried to initiate discussions with major British labor unions as her staff tried to find out from Labour's people whether there was some way to buy their support.
Shortly before the vote on Tuesday evening, May was still holding private meetings with fellow Tories, urging them to understand the historic dimensions of their decision. Rejecting her deal, she warned, could even result in the UK remaining in the EU if a second referendum was the ultimate outcome. What May failed to realize was that a significant number of the MPs, says a May confidant, are "beyond reason."
As such, it is completely unclear if the prime minister has a path out of the chaos that she herself has produced. After surviving the no-confidence vote, as was expected, May was just as defiant as ever. She didn't immediately announce a hasty trip to Brussels to make yet more demands for concessions that wouldn't be forthcoming. Instead, she said she would begin talks with all parties represented in parliament. She wants to find out if it might be possible to patch together a majority for some kind of alternative plan.
As things currently stand, that doesn't seem likely. Despite its long and exemplary tradition, it looks as though British democracy has lost the ability to compromise. There may be a theoretical majority for a soft Brexit, according to which the country would remain in the customs union and controls on the Ireland-Northern Ireland border would become unnecessary, and a proposal is circulating in Westminster to approve May's deal on the condition that a clear end date is set for the Northern Ireland backstop plan.
The approval of such a plan carries the advantages of putting the ball back in the EU's court to help find a lasting solution to the Ireland border problem and likely bringing about an end to the political stalemate in Britain. To get there, however, a majority of MPs must demonstrate a willingness to compromise. In a situation in which parliamentarians don't even seem willing to make concessions to fellow party members, however, that seems unlikely.
Political and Economic Suicide
Indeed, those who still believe in pitting argument against argument in the search for the best possible compromise are slowly being crushed by the extremists on both sides of the aisle. On the one side is a large group of MPs who believe that a no-deal Brexit is the only way forward; on the other is an even larger group opposed to any kind of Brexit at all. Like May, both sides believe that time is on their side.
If the no-deal crowd is able for another 70 days to prevent a parliamentary majority from forming that will support a deal acceptable to Brussels, they will have reached their goal. At that point, on March 29th, all ties between Britain and the EU would immediately be severed. From day one, the country could pursue trade with the EU and other countries on the basis of World Trade Organization rules. The Brits, in other words, would be free to do whatever they want, up to and including committing political and economic suicide.
Indeed, most experts believe that would be the end result of a no-deal Brexit. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has calculated that the economic slump that would result from a no-deal Brexit could cost the country up to 150 billion pounds over the next 15 years. The short-term effects could be even worse. The government has already identified several sites around the country that could be used for the storage of huge amounts of foodstuffs. In case of no-deal Brexit, citizens may be asked to change their eating habits to avoid shortages, particularly of fresh produce. Tens of thousands of soldiers are on standby to maintain public order.
Yet even as the people of Britain grow increasingly nervous, no-deal supporters in Westminster continue to stoically play down any and all concerns. Even before the 2016 Brexit referendum, they say, there were dire predictions that the world would end, yet Britain hasn't gone anywhere. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Brexiteer ringleader, told the Daily Telegraph late last year that it was "project hysteria." He went on: "Before the referendum, we were threatened with a plague of frogs. Now, they warn of the death of the first born."
On the other side of the political spectrum are those who hope Brexit can still be prevented. They want to wait until all of May's attempts at forging compromise have reached a dead end before then making a push for a second referendum at the last minute.
A Destructive Role
For that strategy to work, however, they need the support of the Labour Party, but the party's leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has thus far opted for a much more destructive role. Even though May survived the vote of no-confidence on Wednesday, the 69-year-old Corbyn still believes that he has a chance at replacing her as prime minister. He has thus far rejected May's attempts to approach him for additional talks and is apparently planning on holding repeated no-confidence votes for as long as it takes to topple May. Thus far, he has been largely unmoved by the fact that a majority of his party is in favor of a second referendum, even as the pressure to reflect grassroots interests has increased -- seemingly by the hour, at times.
A second referendum would be nothing less than a declaration of bankruptcy for the political system. But many in Westminster believe that such an ignominy is now inevitable if a no-deal Brexit is to be avoided.
Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, says that among the many bad options, a second referendum might be one of the best. Still, he allows, there is a danger that holding a second vote could exacerbate the already significant divisions in the country. "Do we want to experience another extended period of mudslinging, with videos advertising that the bastards in London screwed up? With a Tory party divided in the middle? With the comeback of UKIP under a different name? Suddenly, we would be back in 2012."
EU supporters and opponents provided a glimpse of how contentious things could get on Tuesday as May's deal was being shredded in parliament. Outside the House of Commons, the two groups stood face to face, and they didn't seem particularly willing to engage in dialogue, aside from hurling insults back and forth like "racist!" and "traitor!" The big names from the first referendum have likewise begun jockeying for a place in the spotlight -- including Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary. If Brexit were ultimately to be thwarted, he said, at the beginning of the week, "I think (people) will feel that there has been a great conspiracy by the deep state of the UK, the people who really run the country." And if they don't, he will certainly do his best to assure that they do.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 4/2019 (January 19th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.
"And what if the result would be 52:48 in favor of remain?" Menon asks. "We would be preparing for a third referendum."
There is, in fact, plenty to suggest that a new referendum could be just as close as the first. Just like the politicians in Westminster, most voters have also become quite comfortable in their echo chambers within which all new information is merely used to confirm what they already believe. Namely that remaining in or exiting from the EU, depending on their standpoint, would be hell.
The two camps are still roughly the same size, though Remainers appear to have a slight upper hand, likely because many younger Brits have become old enough to vote since the last referendum. But only very few from either camp actually listen to what their opponents have to say.
David Attenborough and the Queen
Brexit has plunged the United Kingdom into such a deep crisis of confidence that it is no longer clear if the country has trust in anyone at all. It is perhaps telling that the two people for whom the population still have a great deal of respect are both 92 years old and only tangentially involved in politics: Queen Elisabeth II and natural historian David Attenborough.
The country badly needs a "national consultation process," former Prime Minister John Major wrote recently in an op-ed for the Sunday Times, almost sounding as though he wanted to put Britain on the couch. "The intolerance, belligerence, vituperative language, threatening conduct that this debate has spawned; the families, friends, neighbors and communities that have been fractured -- sometimes beyond repair -- due to opposing political views, has not only been an unedifying spectacle, but also profoundly un-British," the 75-year-old wrote. "It is not who we are as a nation."
But what do the British want to be after Brexit? And will they still even want to be British? Or would they prefer to be English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish? Nobody seems to know. In 2016, a tiny majority answered a simple "in or out" question with "out." That was the easy part.
Since then, the prime minister, 650 MPs and 66 million citizens haven't made much progress. There is precious little time left to find a workable Brexit agreement. Unless, of course, May's government decides to stop the clock ahead of the deadline of 11 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time on March 29.
The EU would likely be willing to extend the deadline if the British could provide some idea, however vague, of how they might use that extra time. Manfred Weber, the lead center-right candidate in upcoming European elections, implored Britain recently to "please, please finally tell us what it is that you want to achieve." But to figure that out, the British will first have to come to their senses.
In one of the final scenes of the recent TV movie "The Uncivil War" about the Brexit referendum, two competing campaign heads sit in a pub like two exhausted boxers. The Remainer accuses the Leaver: "You're feeding a toxic culture where the very notion of evidence-based truth is dead, where one side never believes the other, no one listens anymore, we just yell."
"We had to yell to be heard," responds the Leaver.
For a moment, the two seem to be silently considering the damage that has been done. Then, the Remainer says he fears that the divisions the campaign created will last. "I worry it won't heal."