I’ve just returned to Britain after many months away, and it’s as if I never left. When Rip Van Winkle woke up from his 20-year slumber, he encountered a world altered beyond recognition. The United Kingdom, however, is mired in the same debate that has raged for years over how and whether to sever its ties to the European Union. The fracas that dominated the airwaves, newspapers and public discussion a year, even two years, ago has not budged. The crisis is no nearer resolution than it was when a slim majority voted to leave the European Union in the referendum of June 2016. Spokespeople for the Brexit faction are still demanding that Parliament implement the people’s will, while their opponents warn that departure on any terms harms the country more than staying in. Both have a case, but nothing is moving.
The Passions and the Divisions
The discussion should be reasoned and thoughtful, but it isn’t. Instead, Parliament is staging a show, asserting its authority over the executive as it hasn’t done since Tony Blair turned the House of Commons into a rubber stamp for his Labour government’s policies. The House of Commons has become a circus with Speaker John Bercow playing ringmaster to unruly clowns, wild beasts and high-wire acts. Only the Liberal Democrats are united on the issue, standing firmly to Remain, but they have only 11 seats in Parliament. Within the two major parties, loyalties have evaporated. Brexiteers and Remainers sit on both Labour and Conservative benches. Moreover, extreme Brexiteers are voting with extreme Remainers to block the terms for withdrawal that Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the other 27 members of the European Union. They don’t want to keep Britain in a European customs union, especially when it will have no say on its rules. The Remainers who voted against May don’t like her deal for the opposite reason: Its rejection, they believe, will force either a general election or a second referendum to reverse the outcome of the first. Add to that the confusion over whether the physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should be restored and jeopardize peace in the north, and you have a free-for-all that no one predicted during the 2016 referendum campaign.
The bloodshed has spread from Parliament to the pubs and the peaceful homes that Englishmen ostensibly regard as their castles. My own family, which is fairly evenly divided, allowed passions to rise so high over Christmas that we banned the topic from the dinner table. The irrepressible Stanley Johnson, father of two Conservative members of parliament famed for their conflicting stances, told me his Christmas was more fraught. Son Jo had resigned as a government minister because he favors Europe, and older son Boris quit as foreign secretary to lead the Brexiteers against May. Each boy is adamant that his way is the only way. Stanley, as he was about to carve the turkey, asked his offspring, “Which is it to be, boys, breast or thigh?”
Britain has yet to settle on a breast or a thigh, but it is tearing the turkey to shreds. Members of Parliament and pundits compare leaving or remaining to historic British disasters: Dunkirk, Suez, the Hundred Years’ War and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Brexit politicians prophesy a calamitous loss of faith in democracy if the government does not keep the promise of the referendum. Remainers foretell economic and political catastrophe for an isolated Britain denied free movement of people and goods within the European Union. This debate is neither trivial nor frivolous, despite some of the rival camps’ more outrageous claims. The exchanges are as bitter as the Federalist versus anti-Federalist debates that produced the American Constitution. The outcome will determine the political and economic future of the United Kingdom for at least a generation.
A Referendum Lesson
Brexiteers treat the result of the 2016 referendum as sacred, an irreversible decision of the populace that cannot be changed. Yet the 2016 referendum reversed an earlier referendum, held in 1975, in which a majority favored remaining in what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC) that the United Kingdom had joined two years before. Referendums in Britain are rare occurrences, with only three nationwide polls having taken place: 1975 to enter the EEC, 2011 to reject proportional representation for parliamentary elections and 2016 to leave the European Union. Perhaps the country’s unfamiliarity with popular votes on issues coincides with a misunderstanding of what they mean.
My home state of California, which has allowed referendums since 1911, has more experience than Britain in these matters and may offer some lessons. Propositions on the ballot override laws enacted by politicians whom the voters elected but did not trust to resist the lure of lobbyists in the state capital, Sacramento. A proposition that wins a majority vote has the force of law. It can be repealed by judicial review or another referendum. The voice of the people is no more sacred or immutable than an act of the California Legislature. In Britain, a referendum is purely advisory. It lacks the force of law until Parliament acts on it. There is no legal reason it cannot, when its consequences become apparent, be revoked. In American states, referendum results are often reversed. One that comes to mind is California’s Proposition 14 of 1964. This measure, approved by a majority of the electorate, repealed the Rumford Fair Housing Act that the Legislature passed a year before to end racial discrimination in public housing and in rental properties with more than five apartments. The will of the people legally denied housing to black Californians.
The California Supreme Court, in a ruling upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, considered the voters’ decision and threw it out: It conflicted with both the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1866, which “prohibits all racial discrimination in the sale or rental of property.” The court was right, the voters were wrong.
In Britain, the sanctity of the 2016 referendum is no longer the issue for many citizens. Their main concern is whether they will be better off — their liberty and their economic well-being enhanced — in Europe with all its flaws or outside Europe with all the consequences that the debate has exposed to them. The days when a BBC announcer could intone, “Fog in the Channel, the Continent is cut off,” have passed.
There is a Christmas tradition in the United Kingdom of families taking children to theaters for live productions of children’s stories like Peter Pan or Wind in the Willows that the British call “pantomimes.” Production values are not usually the highest, but one recent production of Jack and the Beanstalk in Chippenham, Wiltshire, was apparently so bad that all 158 members of the sell-out audience complained. The Neeld Community and Arts Center could have ignored them. After all, they saw what they had paid to see. But the center heard them, and it refunded their money. There may be a lesson here.
Main image: Brexit protest opposite the Palace of Westminster, London. © ChiralJon.